All the Dale Earnhardt Jr. final Talladega race needed was a storybook ending. The first parts of the story started almost like a fairy tale. In his final race as a full time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup driver at Talladega, the six-time Dega winner, arguably the favorite of Alabama fans, Earnhardt showed up Friday and scored the first pole of his Cup career at NASCAR’s biggest track.
Sunday marked only the second time in the tracks history that a Cup race was held on October 15th. The first time came 17 years prior when his legendary father scored his final NASCAR win in 2000. Even the Governor of Alabama got in on the special day declaring Sunday “Dale Earnhardt Jr. Day” in the state.
Earnhardt was competitive most of the race, overcoming a speeding penalty, and avoiding much of the carnage that took out many and leaving only 14 drivers running at the end. Earnhardt tried desperately to make a run towards the front on the final three lap dash but had nothing for eventual winner Brad Keselowski. Earnhardt settled for seventh.
“We took off there at the start of the race and saw the car had pretty good speed,” Earnhardt said. “We got a speeding penalty and a couple of things lost us a lot of track position. We were able to get up through there and get it back and get up into the top three again, top two, sitting there chasing Blaney and Chase there. That was fun running around the top with those guys because they’re the future of the sport. It was just fun to link up and have some fun with those guys.
“And then, you know, just got lucky on those wrecks. Just things start flying around, I don’t know, you just ‑‑ ain’t nothing I’m doing, I’m just not getting hit, you know, and not losing control of my car. Just really luck.
“But the last one knocked the right front end real bad and bent the splitter down about an inch and a half and knocked it on the racetrack, and when we got going there on that last restart, it just wouldn’t go in the corners especially, so everybody around us was just wasting their time pushing us, and they sort of figured that out after a lap or two and decided to leave us alone, and we just kind of hung on there to get a seventh.”
Despite the finish NASCAR’s most popular driver climbed from his car smiling, grateful to be able to walk away. After missing the last half of the 2016 season due to concussions, Earnhardt announced his retirement earlier this season, in large part wanting to leave the sport before suffering another concussion.
“I think that anyone who questions our desire to be here and compete this year and our desire to run hard and face can look at the risks that we took this afternoon, knowing that any of those crashes would have probably given me a bit of an injury that would have held me out of the rest of the season,” he said.
“We definitely ‑‑ it’s hypothetical, but I think it says a lot about being out there and competing, wanting to compete, showing that we want to compete, and working hard, racing hard. This was one that I was worried about, you know, in the back of my mind, I was a little concerned. But you can’t win the race if you race scared, and I’ve raced scared here before, and you don’t do well when that happens, so you have to block it out and just go out there and take the risks and hope that it’s just not your day to get in one of those accidents, and it wasn’t.
“I wish we could have seen what we could have done with a straight car at the end. We tried to push Brad into the lead, but the splitter was on the ground so bad, we got disconnected, and everyone literally went right around us, and it was downhill from there. But yeah, I was worried about this one, and you know, I’m glad we got through it.”
Earnhardt was pleased that at least he was able to finish, even if he wasn’t able to win.
“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,” he said. “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.”
One thing is for certain, Earnhardt will retire with 10 restrictor plate wins to his credit.
“Anytime anybody says you’re the best at anything, it’s an awesome feeling,” he said. “I can’t deny that it feels awesome to hear that. People consider you good at anything, it’s a great feeling. I knew that I wasn’t going to win 200 races and seven championships and do all those great things. I just wanted to come in here and be considered talented. But to be great at anything was beyond my imagination.
“I appreciate people’s compliments on my plate driving and the success we’ve had at all the plate races.”
And he has the memories of his final weekend as a fulltime driver at the track that he’s had so much success at.
“This has been a hell of a weekend for me, and I’m glad to be able to finish and finish well,” Earnhardt said. “That means a lot to me. I know a lot of folks came and traveled here to see us run, so I know they’re disappointed we didn’t win, but I’m glad they got to see us run the whole event, and hopefully they enjoyed it.”