Dale Jr. comes up just short in bid to win, keep title hopes alive
Dale Earnhardt Jr. did just about everything he needed to do to advance to the Eliminator Round of the Chase on Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway, but he ultimately came up short, finishing second to Joey Logano and ending the day 11th in the championship standings.
Earnhardt led a race-high 61 laps, fought back from adversity multiple times and was in a position to challenge Logano for the win, but never had the chance. Lining up second for the final two restarts of the day, Earnhardt was unable to make up any ground as caution flags flew quickly behind him and ultimately ended the race before a move could be made.
With the results initially uncertain while NASCAR reviewed tape of the finish, fans showered the track with boos after it was announced Logano was the winner. Earnhardt was not upset with NASCAR’s ultimate decision, however.
"Another 100 yards I would have been in the lead, but NASCAR makes the calls," Earnhardt said. "They are the governing body, and I have 100 percent faith in the choices that they make. I’m not going to be too upset about it. I did everything I could. I’m proud of myself. I’m proud of my team.
"We can sit here and pout about this day, but we didn’t do good enough in the first two races of this round," he said. "If we had done better in those first two races of this round, we would not be worried about losing by a splitter. We didn’t do a good job in those first two races. We’ve got to try to win another race before the year is out, have some fun."
One of the favorites going into the day and in need of a win to advance in the Chase, Earnhardt admitted he was anxious about Talladega.
"I’m glad this weekend’s over with," he said. "I felt like crap all weekend. Just been real nervous, feeling sick to my stomach. I just wanted to go out there, whatever happened, put forth a good account of myself, my team. I’m real proud of what we did today. So I can feel good about that."
While he was fast throughout the entire event, Earnhardt’s day was not without issues and nervous moments.
Each time NASCAR’s most popular driver brought the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet to pit road under green-flag conditions, he smoked the tires getting slowed down.
On Lap 120, he was hit with a pass-through penalty after his pit crew went over the wall too soon during the green-flag pit stop. Serving the penalty on Lap 123, Earnhardt fell out of the lead draft and fell in danger of going a lap down.
Despite the penalty, the third-generation driver remained calm inside the car and tried to rally his over-the-wall guys.
"Don’t panic. Don’t panic," he said over the radio. "Shake it off. You’ve been good all day."
When the caution flew on Lap 133 for Justin Allgaier’s blown motor, Earnhardt was the last car on the lead lap and the field was bearing down on the No. 88 Chevrolet.
Using his renowned plate-racing skills, Earnhardt quickly worked his way through the pack, making his way back to the lead in just 11 laps.
However, when he came to pit road for the final time of the day under green, Earnhardt slid the tires again getting on to pit road, forcing the team to change right-side tires when the majority of the field took just fuel only. This again put the No. 88 Chevrolet outside the top 10 and forced him to fight his way back through the field another time.
Needing to make his way to the front to challenge for the win late in the going, Earnhardt did all he could to make the right moves at the right time. With the field running single-file behind Logano with less than 10 laps to go, Earnhardt was one of the first drivers to break out of line to try and make something happen.
"I just told myself I was going to work as hard as I could every single lap," he said. "When they lined up around the top, I didn’t know how … I’ve never been in that situation to have to pass those guys when they’re lined up like that. It looks like if you pull the bottom (line), you just go to the back. I clawed and clawed and clawed and got back to the top three, finally into second. We did everything we had to do today and just came up a little short."
Earnhardt admitted his crew "is struggling a little bit," but he remains confident in the group’s abilities, and stands behind his guys.
"My guys had an issue on pit road coming off the wall too soon," he said. "I also came into that box real careful because I didn’t want to slide. I think they were anticipating me rolling in the box sooner. That was probably a little bit my fault, my responsibility.
"My crew guys, over-the-wall guys, are getting a little rough treatment here lately," he added. "The guys I got, if we stick together, we’re going to be great next year. I believe in them."
Now out of title contention, Earnhardt said his goal for the final four races of the season is pretty simple.
"Well, the best thing that could happen for us is the same thing that happened last year: Go win," he said. "We’re disappointed today. We were disappointed last year when we left Talladega. But we went to Martinsville and sort of surprised ourselves with our first win there. Dang, you know, when I look at that video of all of us jumping up and down on that trailer like idiots, that’s a team that’s not too bothered being knocked out of the Chase right there.
"If we can go to the racetrack and win, it certainly makes our situation much more bearable," he said. "If we could go to Homestead and run well, I’d love to win there. Never won there. I like that track. Running against the wall is a lot of fun. We’ll see."