At a track he once dominated at, Dale Earnhardt Jr. had hoped that the second visit to a restrictor plate track for the NASCAR Sprint Cup series would find him back in victory lane Sunday. This year’s Daytona 500 winner came to Talladega Superspeedway looking to improve on his second place finish here last fall and add another win to his record.
It wasn’t to be.
For a time it looked as though NASCAR’s most popular driver and five time winner at Talladega might add a sixth win. After starting the day 30th, Earnhardt had worked his way up to the top 10. He fell back but after the halfway point was inside the top five. He took the lead after a round of pit stops on lap 107 and was able to stay near the front leading three times for 26 laps.
On lap 154 though Earnhardt pitted under caution from the lead; none of the leaders followed. Earnhardt restarted 13th but instead of moving forward he headed towards the back of the field. It’s a strategy several drivers have used, waiting in the back while chaos reigns in the front of the field. That strategy seemed to be paying off, as Earnhardt was able to easily avoid two separate big crashes.
He would never see the front of the field again however. Although he did avoid a big crash started by his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson on lap 175, his decision to stay in the back came back to haunt him.
On the final restart Earnhardt jumped to the high side and tried to start a third line. He was making his way forward when another car driven by Josh Wise pulled out in front of him.
“Anytime anyone jumps in front of you on the outside line you are not going to shove them out there, especially a car like that,” Earnhardt said. “I wanted to help him but it just killed us. You have to have that track position at the end and we just didn’t have it.”
“I knew we were going to be sitting there in 15th at the end and get boxed in or wrecked,” he added. “We missed a lot of guys that crashed and didn’t tear up our car so we will go to Daytona with this car and try to manage a strategy where we are not giving up 25 positions in the last 30 laps of the race. You have to be up front the entire race if you can. “
Despite his strategy not paying off for him in the end, Earnhardt said he enjoyed his day.
“I had fun. I’m just a little disappointed that we didn’t have a better opportunity there,” Earnhardt said. “I would have loved to be able to stay out with the No. 16 (Greg Biffle) and the No. 4 (Kevin Harvick) and those guys”
But added that the decision to come in for fuel on lap 154 put him too far behind.
“I didn’t know how close we were on fuel,” he said. “Steve (Letarte) didn’t think we could make it so we came in and got fuel. But we come out too far behind. It’s hard to drive up through there. The track is three-wide forever. You know they’re going to crash and I can’t afford to wreck anymore here. So, you’ve just got to pick your battles. And I felt like we were better off not getting in a wreck and trying to stay back there. And if we had an opportunity to get a run, we took it; but that one we had just got blocked by the No. 98 (Josh Wise) and with two (laps) to go, you’re not going to get another run.”
At the end of the day Earnhardt was scored in 26th place. Despite being one of the most adept drivers when it comes to pack racing at Talladega, Earnhardt said Sunday was a different story.
“It’s different every time. Today it was really, really hard,” he said. “If you watched the racing and after every time we’d pit, whoever was in the top five usually stayed there throughout that whole run. You wouldn’t see guys driving up through there taking the lead.”
“It was very frustrating to be sitting there boxed in with really nowhere to go and even when you had clean air in front of you, you just couldn’t get runs and do things,” Earnhardt added. “But I thought we really had it played out really well there. We were up front and took the lead and we were two laps short or something on fuel and Steve (Letarte) wanted us to come down pit road and get some fuel. So, it’s just real hard to get back up through there after that. I just didn’t feel confident we could do it without getting in a crash.”
Earnhardt said that with one his one win at Daytona all but assuring him a spot in the Chase, the risk Sunday was not worth the possible reward.
“Not to me. We already got a win,” Earnhardt said. “I’ve been in too many late-race wrecks. I didn’t want to be no part of it. And there were three or four there we dodged pretty good. So, we’ve got a car in one piece. We’ll go to Daytona. You’ve just got to have the strategy right to where we’re up front at the end of these races and in the lead or around the top three or four there, inside the last fuel window, to have a shot at it.”