TALLADEGA, Ala. — Sunday’s Alabama 500 at Talladega Superspeedway may not have had the ending that Dale Earnhardt Jr. was hoping for, but the relief on his face from making it to the checkered flag was evident after he climbed from his car.
Surviving a war of attrition that left only 14 cars running at the end of the marathon race, Earnhardt scored a seventh-place finish in his final Talladega appearance, contending for the win on the final restart before fading among the lead contenders.
“Man, we got lucky,” admitted Earnhardt after the race. “That was just luck … being in the right place at the right time and not getting swept up in any of those wrecks. We had one there that knocked the splitter down really bad on the right-front and that was why we couldn’t do anything at the end. The car was just dragging the ground and wouldn’t go, wouldn’t take off,.”
“We were a little wounded out there at the end, but so were a lot of others. Still got a decent finish and came out of here in one piece, so I’m really happy about that.”
Earnhardt started from the pole in the No. 88 Mountain Dew Chevrolet, but lost the lead to Joey Logano before the opening lap was complete.
It was a preview of how the rest of the day would unfold for Earnhardt: in sight of the big prize, but not quite able to attain it.
Though he led seven laps early after Logano and the remainder of the Ford contingent made their first pit stops, Earnhardt was stuck in the middle of the pack for much of the day, after having to drop to the tail of the field for coming to pit road just as the day’s first yellow flag came out on lap 26 and then incurring a speeding penalty that set him back again on lap 52.
But all the while, he remained lurking in the pack and showed speed when working with his Hendrick Motorsports teammates.
Then the calamity began.
Earnhardt somehow managed to avoid race-ending damage in all three of the major accidents that punctuated the final 18 laps of the race, sneaking through the ‘Big One’ on lap 172 despite spinning through the grass and kicking up a cloud of dirt at the base of the turn three banking.
He then narrowly missed a spinning Trevor Bayne on the backstretch when the second late-race crash of the day struck with 11 laps to go, and also got through after his teammate Chase Elliott crashed while racing for the top spot with Daniel Suarez and Kyle Larson at the six to go mark.
But Earnhardt’s right front corner was shoved down after contact with the back end of Elliott’s car in the final melee, causing the splitter to bounce off the race track and his car to scrub off crucial speed in the final laps.
It was that fact that led to any drafting help he might have had evaporating on the last restart, despite Earnhardt’s best efforts to shove then-leader and eventual race winner Brad Keselowski out ahead of the pack when the green flag flew.
“When we got going there on that last restart, (the car) 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,” Earnhardt explained. “We just kind of hung on there to get a seventh.”
Continued on the next page…