In the closing laps of Sunday’s Auto Club 400, Dale Earnhardt Jr. was peaking at the right time.
Although the race appeared to be shaping up to be a two-man battle for the win between Stewart-Haas Racing’s Kurt Busch and Kevin Harvick, Earnhardt’s No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet had been able to work through traffic and was third when the caution flag waved for debris to set up the first green-white-checkered restart.
When the field came to pit road for the final time of the afternoon, Earnhardt’s Greg Ives-led team was able to get the driver off pit road second behind Busch. With Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Greg Biffle staying out, Earnhardt lined up fifth for the first GWC attempt.
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That is when it all went wrong.
Restarting behind Biffle, Earnhardt was forced to get off the gas on the restart when Biffle’s car fell back on older tires. After several drivers raced around him on the outside, Earnhardt was 10th when NASCAR threw the final caution flag of the day — also for debris.
Taking the green flag in 10th, Earnhardt recovered to gain four spots in two laps and end the day sixth.
Despite his late-race setback, the perennial fan-favorite had a blast throughout the 209-lap event.
"I thought right at the end we were the third best car, obviously sitting there running third behind the 41 (Busch) and the 4 (Harvick)," said Earnhardt. "They were the class of the field. We had a great day, lot of fun, fun racetrack, awesome crowd we had here."