Dale Earnhardt Jr. completes bittersweet Talladega weekend in seventh place
TALLADEGA, Ala. - During a memorable weekend at Talladega Superspeedway, the reality of his final season in the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet intruded insistently into Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s consciousness.
On Friday, the speedway gave Junior one of the most significant parting gifts he has received this year in a parade of recognition as he visits tracks for the last time as a full-time driver.
On Saturday, Earnhardt won the pole for the Alabama 500, his first at the 2.66-mile superspeedway.
And on Sunday, Earnhardt took the green flag from the third position with three laps left, as fans in the packed grandstands stood, screamed and hoped against hope that Earnhardt could pull off a victory in his last run at NASCAR's biggest oval.
But it was Brad Keselowski who took the checkered flag in a Ford painted in a scheme that recalled the car he once drove in the NASCAR XFINITY Series for Earnhardt, who gave Keselowski the break that launched his career. Earnhardt faded to seventh over the final three laps. Earnhardt was disappointed at the result-less for himself and more for the fans who came to witness his final run.
"I'm always disappointed when we don't run well at tracks I know we should, but we did run well today, but I know that everybody was probably... is a little bit of air out of the bag there at the end to finish seventh," said Earnhardt, whose six victories at Talladega are the most among active drivers.
"I know those folks were hoping we could put something together, and I know there's a lot of folks came here, particularly to see this race because it's the last one here. I hate to leave slightly disappointed, but hopefully they enjoyed everything else they saw. I mean, we ran as hard as we could, did the best we could."
And though Talladega perhaps offered Earnhardt his best chance at victory before the end of the season, NASCAR's most popular driver isn't preparing concession speeches for the remaining Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series tracks.
"Well, I think we go to the race track with a positive attitude," Earnhardt said. "We know we've won at some of these tracks coming up, and you just go in there with a good attitude and see how the weekend works out for you.
"I don't think that we've lost hope on winning a race by any means with the rest of the year. We can't. I wouldn't want a driver who felt that way, wouldn't want a team who felt that way, either. So we'll go in there with a solid attitude and see how it works out for us."
LATE WRECK RUINS CHASE ELLIOTT'S WINNING CHANCES
For 182 laps, Chase Elliott avoided the wrecks that wiped out eight of the 12 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoff contenders, but after a restart on the next-to-last restart of a rough-and-tumble race, his luck ran out.
Elliott was dicing for position on Lap 183 as the field-by then reduced to 19 cars-approached Turn 3. He tried to split the cars of Kyle Larson to the inside and Daniel Suarez to the outside, but Suarez edged down the track, and contact between Suarez's Toyota and Elliott's Chevrolet started a six-car wreck that left Elliott's No. 24 damaged beyond repair.
"I had a really big run, Dale (Earnhardt Jr.) was giving me a great shove, and Daniel had left enough room in the middle," said Elliott, who finished 16th in a race of heavy attrition and enters next Sunday's elimination event at Kansas Speedway sixth in the standings.
"Larson left me enough room from the bottom. There was a hole and I filled it. I don't guess Daniel either saw me in time, or that it was I just had a high rate of speed coming, and he didn't know or tried to block it. I'm not sure. We will move on."
WILD ACCIDENT ENDS RICKY STENHOUSE JR.'S RESTRICTOR-PLATE RUN
After a competitive beginning, Ricky Stenhouse Jr.'s bid to win a third straight restrictor-plate race ended in a 16-car wreck triggered by Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series leader Martin Truex Jr. on Lap 172.
Contact from Truex's Toyota sent David Ragan's Ford for a wild ride across the track near the entrance to Turn 3, and Stenhouse's Ford suffered racing-ending collateral damage in the melee. The wreck dropped Stenhouse to a 26th-place finish and left him 11th in the series standings, 22 points behind Jimmie Johnson in eighth.
Next Sunday at Kansas Speedway, the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoff field will be cut to eight drivers.
"We were running up the bottom, and all of a sudden the 38 (Ragan) came down," said Stenhouse, who had finished fourth in the first stage of the Alabama 500. "I saw some stuff going on at the top and kind of right in front of me, but the 38 ended up parked right in front of us. I felt like we had a really good run coming up the bottom with the 48 (Jimmie Johnson), trying to get some of our track position back that we had lost at the end of the second stage.
"Our Sunny D Ford was fast again. It felt like we had a car that was capable of getting up there and contending for the win, led some laps, and it was a bummer we didn't get into Victory Lane. But we'll go on to Kansas next week and have some fun."
--- NASCAR Wire Service ---