California was microcosm of Junior's season
But to perhaps the most popular driver on the circuit, his mathematical elimination was just a technicality. In his mind, his title hopes had long since expired.
"It's been over for at least 80 laps," he said, figuratively.
On Sunday night, it was the same complaints, and the same type of finish.
"Our car was horrible," Junior said. "I'm glad it's over with."
Lately, he's been real happy to see the checkered flags drop -- though certainly not because of where he is when they fall. The sixth-year driver has been openly critical of his crew and the cars they've brought to the racetrack, and he's been just as open about his disdain for having to drive them.
On Sunday night, after receiving the news that he was officially out of the playoffs, he found some solace in the fact that the remainder of the season would be about one thing: trying to win. But he put that responsibility on his team, saying it needed to get him better cars. For his part, he was just ready for some relaxation.
"I'm ready to go home and hang out at my lake tomorrow," he said.
Don't think Junior's lost his competitive spirit, though. Surely it's no secret that the son of a seven-time champ has always been, and will probably always be, one of the most laid-back individuals on the circuit. But his desire to win a title is fierce. If there's any fault in his actions, it's how easily he allows that drive to become diluted when he's behind the wheel of an ornery car.
Sunday was a prime example.
Asked if there was any warning that his motor might blow, Junior gave a familiar response.
"No, not really, other than it ran like crap," he said. Then, after promising his fans that he'd try to get into Victory Lane this year and further promising a return to Victory Lane next season, Junior challenged his team.
"I don't want to run any worse than I'm already running," he said of his goals for the final 11 races of the season. "You've got to get in the car and get no worse and try to do good."
Junior said that the remainder of the season isn't just about research and development for next season, though. He did say he believes No. 8 team can come up with a victory. But he certainly didn't sound convincing -- and that's probably because he's not convinced that his team is ready to win.
The No. 8 team won't stop trying to come up with a winning car. And you can bet that if it does, Junior can steer it to the winner's circle. But don't expect to see Junior spewing superlatives. A blah year has put him in a blah mood.
"We're going to come to the last 11 and try to see if we can win a couple of them," he said. "It should be all right. We just had a bad night tonight, plus all year. We haven't had a good year all year. I'm surprised. I bet you all are surprised. That's the way it goes."
Rupen Fofaria is a freelance writer living in Chicago and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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