Dale Earnhardt Jr. came within a half a lap of winning a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Talladega Superspeedway for the first time in nine years Sunday. The driver who has five wins here, including four in a row in 2001-2003 led the second most laps on the day, 38, and was in second place as the field took the white flag.
“I had a plan we were going to get a run down the back straightaway me and the No. 14 (Austin Dillon) and whoever else wanted to go,” Earnhardt said.
For most the race the lead was contested between Earnhardt, his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth. Earnhardt said that the speed he had in the No. 88 Chevy was a pleasant surprise compared to recent outings at NASCAR’s biggest track.
“For some reason we come to Talladega we haven't been able to get them to run or we'd tear them up and never find out how good they were,” Earnhardt said. “For some reason today the car was fast. I didn't really have to worry about who we were working with or around. I really didn't try to piss anybody off, but I just didn't worry about trying to help everybody and trying to be everybody's friend out there. You've got a run, you take it. Everybody sort of understands what the situation is. When you get a good run, they don't come every lap, you've got to take your opportunities.”
That unexpected speed allowed Earnhardt to make a run towards the front after the last round of pit stops.
“We got shuffled out there on that last run when we come out of the pits,” he said. “I thought we pitted a little bit early, gave up a lot of time. My crew chief Steve (Letarte) didn't really agree with that, but I just felt like if we could stay out on the racetrack we had a better shot at coming out in front of them guys. We ended up coming out behind a bunch of people and worked our way up toward the front there on the outside.”
“It's all kind of a blur as to how we ended up in second,” he added.
As it turned out second place is not where Earnhardt wanted to be in the final laps. But as the laps wound down and he saw that he was in the runner up spot, Earnhardt said he was content to wait.
“I wished I was out front, I really did,” he said.”But I knew that I had everything to lose and really one spot to gain by going early, and if I waited until the last lap I could possibly defend off a failed run and get a relatively decent finish”
“I guess pulling out early and that not working and finishing 25th was worse than trying to take the chance,” he added. “Waiting and being patient I thought would pay off. Every race we have here we all wreck on the last lap…But for some reason it was a lot calmer the last few laps. Everybody was pretty good about staying in line.”
“I would have been a little more antsy if I would have been back there in 5th or 10th, but they weren't jumping out,” he said. “Had they jumped out and moved with five to go, nine to go, whatever, that would have changed everyone's strategy, and we might have went sooner, been forced to go sooner than we did. But nobody moved, so I was like, hey, I'm just going to wait until the end. I don't have to try until the very end. I've got one guy to pass, and all I've got to do is make one run happen, and maybe it'll work.”
Unfortunately his plan came apart on the backstretch when Dillon, driving in relief of Tony Stewart, spun. He slammed into the outside wall and collected by Casey Mears. Dillon’s Chevy was sent skyward but came back down on all four wheels.
“I was trying to help the 88 (Earnhardt) right there at the end and they had a run,” Dillon said. “So I went low and when I was coming back up (Ricky Stenhouse Jr.) just hooked me and when he hooked us it was over there. But a wild ride. I just have to thank NASCAR for everything they have done for safety. That hit was fine. I got to drive the car back and it’s a lot of fun when you have good safety equipment and can go after it like that. It was fun though.”
The fun was over for Earnhardt too as NASCAR immediately threw the caution flag ending the race, handing the win to Jamie McMurray and leaving Earnhardt in second.
“We had our run formed in the middle of (turns) one and two and we were coming off of (turn) two with pretty good steam when they spun out behind me,” Earnhardt said. “My car quit going because we weren’t being pushed anymore. We didn’t lose to no slouch. Jamie’s (McMurray) a great restrictor plate racer and he has got really good engines with Hendrick power so real happy to run second and definitely an improvement on what we have been doing here in the past.”
Despite coming up one position short of the win Earnhardt could still smile.
“We are real pleased with how our car did today,” he said. “We ran up front, could pass, and had fun taking the lead and leading some laps. I definitely felt like we improved on how we have run in the past.”
He also has a ton of confidence; Sunday marked his 22nd runner-up finish in the NASCAR Sprint Cup series.
“We're close, man,” Earnhardt said. “I'll tell you, looking at our runs since Chicago, this is the best my cars have been all year. I've had some of the best cars the last five races that I've had all season, and they say they're not doing anything different, but they sure are running really good. I think we're right around the corner from winning one of these races, and we're just going to keep trying.”
The good news for Earnhardt; he was the highest finishing Chase driver. He moved up three spots in the standings and leaves Talladega sixth as the series heads to Martinsville Speedway.