DAYTONA BEACH — Dale Earnhardt Jr. swerved below Danica Patrick, powered past Greg Biffle and pulled in behind leader Jimmie Johnson.
It was the closest he came to the front of the field.
Earnhardt used a last-lap charge Sunday to finish second in the Daytona 500 for the third time in the last four years, another runnerup performance that left NASCAR's most popular driver clamoring to get back to Victory Lane at one of auto racing's showcase events.
"It's like a drug, I assume," said Earnhardt, also second in 2010 and '12. "It's such a high. You just don't know when you'll ever get that opportunity again or if you'll ever get that opportunity again. I knew before I won in 2004, I was reserved to the idea I may be trying to win this race my entire career because I knew all too well how that was for my father."
Johnson held off Earnhardt to win the Daytona 500 for the second time.
For Earnhardt, it was another oh-so-close finish in "The Great American Race," an event forever linked to his family name via triumph and tragedy. His famous father Dale Sr. died from a last-lap crash in the 2001 Daytona 500, three years after finally winning the race in his 20th attempt.
This year Junior qualified 19th, his lowest spot in 14 years at the 500. But his confidence was high, possibly because he was glad to be rid of the clunky Car of Tomorrow and the tricky tandem racing that came with it at repaved Daytona.
So it was no huge surprise to see him near the front late.
His chance came in the final 2½ miles with help from Mark Martin. Their crews agreed to team up on a late restart with six laps to go out of 200.
"Obviously I knew Junior had a fast car and is one of the masters here, certainly would trust his judgment," Martin said. "If things would have got crazy enough, maybe we could have got the big trophy."
Martin was third, his sixth top-five finish in 29 tries in the 500 without a victory.
Earnhardt made the Chase for the Championship last year, but finished 12th after missing two of the final six races because of post-concussion symptoms.
Still, being in contention and spending a few weeks atop the standings provided a big boost for an ultra-popular driver trying to win his first Sprint Cup championship.
"We're a good team," he said. "Hopefully we can keep the pressure on them and stay up in the top five in the points and win some races. I want to really try to win some more races this year. That's our focus."