In all honesty, a third-place finish was as high as Dale Earnhardt Jr. could have hoped in Sunday's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Martinsville.

Earnhardt had the best seat in the house for the decisive battle between race winner Kurt Busch and runner-up Jimmie Johnson, but he did not have enough left to mount a change at the end of the race. The key to Earnhardt's success was self-restraint.

"You had to just discipline yourself to not use the throttle," said Earnhardt, who regained the series lead by nine points over second-place Matt Kenseth. "I think we'll have a lot of fun looking at the throttle trace on some of the runs, because I was quarter-throttle at the max.

"I was real patient all day, saving the left rear and just waiting till the end to see where we'd be. Inside 38 laps to go, I thought everybody was going to go like hell, and we all did and ended up running third."

As the laps wound down, Earnhardt's car began to fade.

"I was losing my car pretty fast the last five laps, so I didn't have anything else to get there (to Busch and Johnson)," he said. "I got a couple of lapped guys give the outside instead of the inside. That's their right, but that cost me a little time and maybe some wear on my tires.

"I thought when we passed the 22 (Joey Logano, for third) we might be able to roll up there and get in the middle of the race for the win, but, no, those guys' cars, they were pretty good."