Dale Earnhardt Jr. took the checkered flag 26th in Sunday afternoon’s Aaron’s 499 at Talladega Superspeedway. The finish moves Junior up one position in the NASCAR Sprint Cup standings to fourth after 10 races.
Earnhardt Jr. spent the early stages of the race battling through the field from his 31st-place starting position. A recurring theme on the day that showcased two- and three-wide racing throughout the pack, Junior found himself stuck with minimal room to advance his No. 88 National Guard Chevrolet forward.
Shortly after the race’s halfway point, crew chief Steve Letarte called for a fuel-only pit stop that gave Dale Jr. the top spot. Much to the delight of the raucous Talladega crowd, Earnhardt Jr. led the procession of cars around the massive 2.66-mile track on three separate occasions for a total of 26 laps.
With fuel mileage in question, Letarte chose to bring Earnhardt Jr. to pit road under a lap-151 caution for fuel only to guarantee the team’s ability to make the scheduled 188-lap distance and give themselves plenty of gas in the event of a green-white-checkered finish. After the pit stop, the No. 88 dropped outside the top 20.
Laps dwindled away and Junior once again found himself trapped in the low line with no room to pass as the racing intensified. In anticipation of the typical multi-car wrecks that have become synonymous with restrictor-plate racing, the No. 88 drifted back out of the pack to avoid any carnage. Earnhardt Jr.’s prediction was correct as teammate Jimmie Johnson, Joey Logano, among others crashed in turns three and four at lap 176.
The next restart offered Earnhardt Jr. another chance to mount a late-race charge to the front. Dale Jr. began making progress until Josh Wise’s No. 98 car moved high, halting the No. 88’s momentum and forcing him to reassess his position and wait for yet another accident that came when Carl Edwards’ No. 99 car spun in turn one collecting Ryan Newman and Cole Whitt.
Earnhardt Jr. was unable to make up any ground on the ensuing green-white-checkered restart as NASCAR called for the caution for debris after a crash in the tri-oval on the last lap. At the time of the caution, Earnhardt Jr. was 26th where he would be credited as finishing.
DALE JR. QUOTES
“Anytime anybody jumps in the outside line in front of you, you’re not going to shove them on out there, especially a car like that (Josh Wise). I wanted to help him, but it just killed us. You’ve got to have that track position at the end. We just didn’t have it. I knew that we were going to sit there and be boxed in running 15th and get wrecked. There were a lot of guys that crashed and I didn’t tear up my car. We’ll go to Daytona with this car and try to manage the strategy to where we’re not giving up 25 positions in the last 35 laps of the race. You’ve got to be up front the entire race if you can. Those guys at the end, the 15, 16 and 11, those guys managed it really good.”