TALLADEGA, Ala. -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. earning big cheers at Talladega Superspeedway? No surprise. Such was the case Sunday.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. finding his way near the front at Talladega? No surprise, too, right? Such was not the case Sunday.
Earnhardt's 22nd-place finish is just the way it appears: A distasteful day for a driver who has six career wins at Talladega. The one time he got to the front was kind of a surprise as Earnhardt just couldn't find the handle and speed he needed to work his way through the draft.
"Somehow or another we got up there -- I don't really know [how]," Earnhardt said after the race. "I wasn't really feeling a lot of confidence in the car, but we were shaping to have a pretty good opportunity to get a good finish. It's just disappointing.
"I was having a hard time figuring out what we needed to do or what we were missing there for most of the race."
A confused Earnhardt after Talladega is not a good thing, considering he sits 25th in the standings -- 67 points out of the playoff cutoff. This was a race where he should not only have had a strong finish, he should have earned a slew of stage points.
Instead, Earnhardt finished with no stage points and just 15 points in the Cup event.
Earnhardt was foiled late by a loose wheel, either the result of glue buildup on the stud or possibly, according to his postrace Periscope, a lug nut gun malfunction.
Either way, Earnhardt spent an afternoon with not a lot of confidence in his Talladega car.
"They took a lot of the speed out of the cars as far as how they create runs and maintain runs and how you put together passes and do things on the track," Earnhardt said of NASCAR's rules. "Now everybody is stuck side to side. If you ain't in the first or second row, you're really just riding behind them guys with nowhere really to go.
"You can't do much about [it] because the cars don't create the runs that they used to."
Any time Earnhardt could get a little close to the front, he felt the other cars around him were stronger. This wasn't the Earnhardt that folks are used to seeing at Talladega -- or remember about his great days at Talladega.
"Our car wasn't very good in the pack -- in traffic, it wasn't very good at all," Earnhardt said.
As he talked to the media about his day, the only thing that seemed to make him smile was his ability to miss the big wrecks.
Beyond that, he figures his team will have to look in the mirror and try to figure out what to change. It's not like he can have the cars where he can see the air like he did 10 years ago.
"I'd change a few things if I was the king of this deal, but as long as the fans enjoyed the show, we'll keep going down the road with what we've got," Earnhardt said.
He's not the king. He might be the king of the Talladega crowd. But it wasn't like he was feeling all Talladega sappy. He'll return in October for one final race at the track as part of his final Cup season.
"No emotions," Earnhardt said. "Just frustrated with how the race went for us."