NASCAR’s most precarious, unpredictable track was the setting for the most pivotal race of the season for Dale Earnhardt Jr. and teammate Jimmie Johnson.
TALLADEGA, Ala.–-As Dale Earnhardt Jr. went spinning madly on the backstretch, careening from the wall to the infield grass, these words painted on the wall appeared clearly on television via his in-car camera: "This is Talladega."
As if Earnhardt and the rest of the field of Sunday afternoon’s frenetic NASCAR Sprint Cup Series GEICO 500 needed a reminder where they were.
NASCAR’s most precarious, unpredictable track—Talladega Superspeedway—was the setting for the most pivotal race of the season for Earnhardt and Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson, the six-time premier series champion. They needed a victory to advance into the eight-driver “Eliminator” Round of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.
We’re definitely not going to get too tore up about; we didn’t run well.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
When Earnhardt was caught up in his wreck halfway through the first lap of a green-white-checkered finish, he was toast. When Brad Keselowski—also needing a win to advance—bulled his way to the front on the restart, Johnson was toast. Keselowski had labeled this three-race stretch of the Chase—Kansas, Charlotte and Talladega—the “death bracket” and it extinguished the hopes of three of four Hendrick cars, with Kasey Kahne also being kayoed; only teammate Jeff Gordon advanced among the eight survivors.
As if the order of finish really mattered, Johnson ended the day in 24th, Earnhardt 31st, though Johnson led the most laps (84) and Earnhardt second-most (31).
Earnhardt leaned on his No. 88 Chevrolet on pit road, his hat turned backwards, a downcast look on his face.
“The race is over,” Earnhardt said. “It’s time to go home.”
Continued Earnhardt, “There have probably been worse things (than this finish). I’m not retiring or anything, so we’ll try next year. We’ve had a good season (with three wins) and have a lot to be looking forward to. We’re definitely not going to get too tore up about; we didn’t run well.”
Earnhardt is the ‘Dega fan favorite, a reminder of which was provided when he took the lead on lap 75, darting inside Johnson and sending the crowd into a thunderous roar. He is a five-time winner here, where his late father is the all-time winner, but his last visit to Talladega’s victory lane was in October 2004.
Junior held the lead for 29 consecutive laps, led two more later but soon found himself dropping deeper into the field.
“We had a real good car today and we got shuffled out,” Earnhardt said.
It was a far cry from Earnhardt’s strategy here last spring that mystified many observers and prompted more than a few second-guessers when he chose to lag deep into the field, waited too late to make any substantial move, got caught out of sequence on pit stops and chugged home 26th.
“We worked real hard all day long trying to run up front,” he said. “I knew we needed to be up front all day long. We got shuffled to the back. I made a move trying to get up front and it didn’t work out. So, we lost a lot of track position and never got it back.”
He was essentially out of contention when the wreck happened. David Gilliland tapped Greg Biffle’s rear bumper after exiting turn 2, sending Biffle slightly akimbo. He hooked Earnhardt’s quarterpanel and the carnage was on.
“We were just sitting there running straight there, and it’s just hard racing,” Earnhardt said. “That is the way it goes at the end of these races. We weren’t in a good position there in the back.”
Earnhardt hustled back around to the pits for quick repairs, only to be penalized for speeding on pit road, something akin to being flagged 15 yards for a late hit right after having a game-winning field goal blocked.
Sighed team owner Rick Hendrick, “It’s just Talladega.”
Mark McCarter - NASCAR Wire Service