Dale Earnhardt Jr. Ran As Hard As He Could In Final Race At Talladega Superspeedwayby Sarah Sedwick October 15, 2017
TALLADEGA, Ala. – After what he called a lucky day, Dale Earnhardt Jr. managed to avoid several accidents to finish seventh during his last race at Talladega Superspeedway, a track that has been synonymous with the Earnhardt family.
Sunday’s Alabama 500 marked the first time Earnhardt Jr., driver of Hendrick Motorsports No. 88 Mountain Dew Chevrolet, started on the pole in 35 starts at Talladega Superspeedway. During qualifying on Saturday, Earnhardt Jr. reached a top speed of 190.544, which held off Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Chase Elliott, driver of the No. 24 NAPA Chevrolet by .035 seconds.
Earnhardt Jr. has had a thriving record at Talladega Superspeedway throughout his career. In the early 2000s, he won five races, which included two in the 2002 season. Earnhardt Jr.’s total wins then rose to six in 2015, marking Talladega Superspeedway as holding the most wins of his career at a single track. He holds 12 Top-5 finishes and 17 Top-10 finishes at the track. Overall, he has led 967 total laps at Talladega Superspeedway.
“I just wanted to come in here and be considered talented, but to be great at anything was beyond my imagination,” said Earnhardt Jr. “I appreciate people’s compliments on my plate driving and the success we’ve had at all the plate races.”
Throughout Sunday’s race, Earnhardt Jr. led a total of seven laps. Earnhardt Jr. also received two penalties; one for pitting before pit road was open, right after a major wreck on lap 26, and the other for speeding while entering pit road on lap 52.
As if dealing with penalties weren’t enough, Earnhardt Jr. narrowly escaped four accidents, all in Turn 3.
The first wreck on lap 27, which was the first Earnhardt Jr. was penalized on, involved five cars. The second incident of the afternoon involved Earnhardt Jr., as well as three other drivers.
On lap 153, a caution came after Trevor Bayne, driver of the No. 6 Liberty National Ford hit the wall in Turn 3, while Earnhardt Jr. and Daniel Suarez, driver of the No. 19 Camping World Toyota made contact.
“I think it says a lot about being out there and competing, working hard and racing hard,” said Earnhardt Jr. “This was one that I was worried about, but you can’t win the race if you race scared, and I’ve raced scared here before. You don’t do well when that happens, so you have to block it out and just go out there and take the risks and hope that it’s just not your day to get in one of those accidents.”
In the final stage of the race, Earnhardt Jr. was involved in a wreck on lap 173, and it was the largest pile-up of the race. With under 20 laps to go, 16 cars were involved in the accident, including NASCAR Playoff drivers Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth, Jimmie Johnson, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Kevin Harvick. Earnhardt Jr. had some luck however, as he swerved into the grass to miss much of the chaos. His car sustained some damage, including a bent splitter, which would hinder him at the end of the race.
“One knocked the right front end real bad and bent the splitter down about an inch and a half and knocked it on the racetrack, and when we got going there on that last restart, it just wouldn’t go in the corners especially, so everybody around us was just wasting their time pushing us, and they sort of figured that out after a lap or two and decided to leave us alone, and we just kind of hung on there to get a seventh,” said Earnhardt Jr. “I thought the car had enough to win before we bent the splitter down, and it was a great car all weekend. This has been a hell of a weekend for me, and I’m glad to be able to finish and finish well. That means a lot to me.”
Earnhardt Jr. just barely got by an accident that brought out the caution on lap 179. The Fords of Trevor Bayne, Joey Logano and Ryan Blaney all made contact when entering Turn 3. As Blaney and Bayne spun down the track, Earnhardt Jr. came within inches of losing the frontend of his Chevrolet.
With only four laps to go, Earnhardt Jr. had another close call when his teammate, Chase Elliott and Joe Gibbs Racing’s Daniel Suarez crashed right in front of the North Carolinian in Turn 3.
At the end of the day, Earnhardt Jr. had the luck to survive, but he just didn’t have the speed to keep up with race winner, Brad Keselowski. Earnhardt Jr. concluded the race with a solid seventh-place finish.
“I wish we could have seen what we could have done with a straight car at the end,” said Earnhardt Jr. “We tried to push Brad into the lead, but the splitter was on the ground so bad, we got disconnected, and everyone literally went right around us, and it was downhill from there. I was worried about this one. I’m glad we got through it.”
While Talladega certainly packed the action, Earnhardt Jr. fans were biting their nails from the first wreck to the end of the race. Many supporters were seen standing and cheering when Earnhardt Jr. led his seven laps, but the most applauding came after he narrowly escaped wreck after wreck, surprised at the luck he continued to have. Earnhardt Jr. made clear at the beginning of his last race at Talladega that he wanted to win it more for his fan base who had stood behind him throughout his career, rather than for himself.
“I really do owe a lot to this track and the support that we have had here from the fans, owe a lot to them,” said Earnhardt Jr. “I know those folks were hoping we could put something together, and I know there’s a lot of folks came here, particularly to see this race because it’s the last one here. I hate to leave slightly disappointed, but hopefully they enjoyed everything else they saw. I mean, we ran as hard as we could, did the best we could.”
When it comes to racing for the last time at Talladega Superspeedway, Earnhardt Jr. reminisces on growing up following his father, Dale Earnhardt Sr. and running around with his friends at the speedway. He explains that the track will always hold a special place in his heart.
“There’s a lot of great memories here, and then obviously, the career in Cup here; four in a row,” said Earnhardt Jr. “All those things mean a lot to me. I hope to always have a great connection here, and trust me when I say that whatever the track needs from me, anytime they want anything, I’ll be here to help promote and support this place no matter what the request is. They’ve done so much for me, and I want to remain very close.”
The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series will race at Kansas Speedway on Sunday, October 22 at 3:00 p.m. ET. The Hollywood Casino 400 will air live on the NBC Sports Network (NBCSN) and the Motor Racing Network (MRN).
Photo Credit: Chris Graythen/Getty Images