Dale Earnhardt Jr. had just finished second in the biggest stock car race in the world, but he sounded as if he had just gotten bad news from his veterinarian.
Few smiles emerged from his car with him after the Daytona 500, and his appearance at the postrace news conference was about as joyful as a Swedish movie.
In a failed attempt to extract some exuberance, somebody praised his run.
“I feel pretty good. I'm happy for my team,” he dead-panned.
A couple of things evidently factored into Earnhardt's faint-pulse tone.
First, he had just finished second — and not first — in the big one. And second, he knew that doing well at Daytona means nothing when it comes to answering one of NASCAR's most important questions: Is this the season Dale Earnhardt Jr. breaks out of his on-track funk?
Earnhardt and everybody else who participates or follows NASCAR knows week two of the season is much more significant than week one when it comes to doping out just how things will shake out by week 36.
Week 2 means the trip west to Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., for the Auto Club 500 and the stashing away of restrictor plates for a couple months.
For race teams, it means they will get their first real indication of whether the offseason work has produced improvement or more of the same.
In Earnhardt's case, the indications are quite a bit more anticipated than for others. That's because he is Earnhardt and because he has fallen pretty flat since coming over to Hendrick Motorsports before the 2008 season.
Flat as in one victory in 73 attempts, five DNFs in 2009 and a 25th-place finish in points last year on a team whose other drivers finished 1-2-3 in the Chase.
In the two years since he announced — at a news conference broadcast live on television — he was leaving the team founded by his iconic father and then owned by his stepmother, he has become the target of scorn, derision and pity.