Earnhardt Jr.'s Sprint Cup title aspirations end at Talladega

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.

Earnhardt Jr.'s Sprint Cup title aspirations end at Talladega
Dale Earnhardt Jr., Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Dale Earnhardt Jr., Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Dale Earnhardt Jr., Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Dale Earnhardt Jr., Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Jimmie Johnson, Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Jimmie Johnson, Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Jimmie Johnson, Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Jimmie Johnson, Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Jimmie Johnson, Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Dale Earnhardt Jr., Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Jimmie Johnson, Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet

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

shares
comments
Did Keselowski and the No. 2 team really win the Talladega race at Charlotte?
Previous article

Did Keselowski and the No. 2 team really win the Talladega race at Charlotte?

Next article

Danica Patrick leads at Talladega, but winds up in 19th

Danica Patrick leads at Talladega, but winds up in 19th
Load comments
How Larson took the long way round to NASCAR Cup glory Prime

How Larson took the long way round to NASCAR Cup glory

From villain to hero, Kyle Larson had to reach his lifelong goal the hard way and go through a very public shaming after a ban for using a racial slur, but his talents shone long before his name grabbed the headlines...

NASCAR Cup
Nov 10, 2021
How NASCAR is gearing up for its "biggest change" in 2022 Prime

How NASCAR is gearing up for its "biggest change" in 2022

It’s not just Formula 1 that’s set for upheaval in 2022, as the NASCAR Cup series adopts its Next Gen cars that will cast any in-built advantages aside and require teams to adopt a totally new way of operating. Far more than just a change of machinery, the new cars amount to a shift in NASCAR's core philosophy

NASCAR Cup
Oct 12, 2021
Why Bubba Wallace’s Talladega win is such a big moment for NASCAR Prime

Why Bubba Wallace’s Talladega win is such a big moment for NASCAR

Bubba Wallace claimed his maiden NASCAR Cup Series at Talladega on Monday to become the first Black victor in the category since Wendell Scott in 1963. Both Wallace and Scott had faced obstacles and racism in their paths to their breakthrough wins, and NASCAR is trying to put it right with its range of diversity programmes

NASCAR Cup
Oct 5, 2021
Why NASCAR's most resilient driver has landed on his feet at 23XI Prime

Why NASCAR's most resilient driver has landed on his feet at 23XI

In a career that has had many ups and downs, Kurt Busch has been written off many times before. But facing career uncertainty after the sale of Chip Ganassi's NASCAR team, the 2004 Cup champion has found a new berth at Denny Hamlin and Michael Jordan's 23XI organization - which underlines his enduring value

NASCAR Cup
Aug 31, 2021
From the archive: Dale Earnhardt’s final Autosport interview Prime

From the archive: Dale Earnhardt’s final Autosport interview

The death of Dale Earnhardt in the 2001 Daytona 500 shocked NASCAR to the core. At the Daytona 24 Hours, two weeks before his fatal accident, ‘The Intimidator’ shared his expectations of challenging for an eighth Cup title with JONATHAN INGRAM, in an article first published in the 15 February 2001 issue of Autosport magazine. Little did we know then what tragedy would unfold…

NASCAR Cup
Feb 18, 2021
The lasting NASCAR legacy after Dale Earnhardt’s death Prime

The lasting NASCAR legacy after Dale Earnhardt’s death

On February 18, 2001, seven-time NASCAR Cup champion Dale Earnhardt – the fearless ‘Intimidator’ – was in his element at Daytona International Speedway. While his own DEI team’s cars ran 1-2 towards the finish line, his famed #3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet Monte Carlo was playing rear gunner to block any late runs from the chasing pack. As the cars tore through Turns 3 and 4 on that fateful final lap, Earnhardt maintained the strongarm tactics that encapsulated his persona… but his actions in those moments sadly proved to be his last.

NASCAR Cup
Feb 18, 2021
Inspired by Pitbull, the “revolution” sweeping through NASCAR Prime

Inspired by Pitbull, the “revolution” sweeping through NASCAR

The NASCAR Cup Series is changing. Whether it be the gradual morphing out the seasoned drivers of yesterday as the next generation step up, a radical calendar shake-up featuring more road courses than ever before and the prospect of an all-new car on the horizon, stock car racing’s highest level is nearing the end of a huge facelift.

NASCAR Cup
Feb 16, 2021
The NASCAR storylines to watch out for in 2021 Prime

The NASCAR storylines to watch out for in 2021

This weekend's Daytona 500 kickstarts a NASCAR Cup season that promises plenty of intrigue courtesy of new owners and a refreshed calendar. Here's what you need to know ahead of the new season…

NASCAR Cup
Feb 13, 2021