BROOKLYN, Mich. -- Count at least one paint-scraping segment that didn't share in the excitement that rocked the Michigan International Speedway grandstands Sunday.
The drivers left in Dale Earnhardt, Jr's dust -- or, more aptly, smoke.
After Tony Stewart finished second to NASCAR's favorite son in the Quicken Loans 400, the rough-edged owner/driver known as "Smoke" struggled to hear a television interviewer over the ear-splitting din.
Suffice to say he was not willing to wax about Earnhardt's first Sprint Cup victory in more than four years.
"It's not a national holiday, guys," Stewart said later in a postrace news conference. "This morning, [people] were celebrating the fourth anniversary of his last win. So I guess we're all in a state of mourning now because he's broken that string. I don't know what we're supposed to think."
"Running second to me wouldn't feel like a holiday either," Earnhardt said, smiling.
As Earnhardt earned a dose of legitimacy as a championship contender, the festival-like atmosphere overshadowed a strong run by the two drivers who could represent his stiffest competition.
Rounding out the top three were the resurgent defending Cup champion -- Stewart -- and the current points leader. Matt Kenseth finished third to hold onto a four-point lead over Earnhardt through 15 races.
Stewart hopes the race represents a turning point in his uneven year. Since winning two of the first five races this season, he's endured one frustration after another. Stewart entered last weekend coming off of a five-week stretch that included finishes of 24th, 17th, 25th, and 25th.
But he finished third at Pocono and did one better Sunday. Starting eighth in the field, Stewart steadily weaved through the 43-car field and led 18 laps midway through the race before fighting simply to stay within sight of Earnhardt the rest of the afternoon. Stewart called the No. 88 car the "class of the field."
"I was overdriving just to stay with him," he said.
Stewart, however, preferred to discuss his own performance on a day he firmed his Cup position. He is now eighth with 491 points -- 33 ahead of Brad Keselowski in 10th place. The top 10 drivers automatically advance to the 10-race playoff set to begin in September.
"I've got a bunch of tired crew guys, a tired crew chief, and I'm a tired driver," said Stewart, whose team had been on the road at Pocono and Michigan for 11 of 12 days testing car and tire set-ups. "But I'm really proud of the effort they've put forth the last week and a half. They just did an awesome job."
Kenseth, meanwhile, continued a spring that has not lost momentum since his season-opening Daytona 500 victory.
He overtook Roush Fenway Racing teammate Greg Biffle atop the Cup standings at Pocono and rarely deviated much Sunday from his starting position in the third row -- the latest quietly consistent effort in a year filled with them.
Though Kenseth only has one win, his eight top-five finishes are unsurpassed. He is second only to Earnhardt with 11 top-10 finishes.
Kenseth -- and Stewart -- drove fast enough Sunday to win many races. Just not this one.
Not as Earnhardt formally announced himself as a title challenger.
"This year, you could see it was a matter of time," Kenseth said of Earnhardt. "Really, they've been the guys all year."
Contact David Briggs at email@example.com, 419-724-6084 or on Twitter @DBriggsBlade.