TALLADEGA, Ala. – Dale Earnhardt Jr. lined up third for a restart on Lap 174 of Sunday’s GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway, after a massive 18-car wreck on the backstretch thinned the field.
The anticipation in the air was palpable, as Earnhardt rolled through the tri-oval toward the start / finish line, but what happened next had fans in the front grandstands ripping the radio headphones off their heads and throwing them to the ground.
As the field came up to speed, Earnhardt pulled out of line and moved to the top of the track, coming perilously close to the outside wall. As the pack sped away, Earnhardt’s No. 88 Chevrolet slowed and rolled gingerly to pit road.
“Oh, I had a wheel come off,” Earnhardt said after the race. “The guys said it was real similar to the issue we had at Atlanta, but it was pretty bad. We were about to wreck. And we were lucky to get to pit road and get it changed. The left rear tire come loose. We didn’t change it on the last stop but the glue build-up on the stud didn’t allow them to get the tire tight, and it just kind of worked its way loose.
“We only had one nut tight when we come down pit road. It was real close to coming off. I hated it, because we were right there in good position to get a great finish—if not win the race—and I had to bail out. That was a hard decision to make. But, knowing what I know now when we come down pit road and they saw the tire, I’m glad I did, because it wouldn’t have made it another lap or two.”
Earnhardt lost a lap because of the unscheduled stop but got it back as the highest-scored lapped car when NASCAR called the seventh caution on Lap 179. But over the final few circuits, which included a two-lap overtime, Earnhardt couldn’t make progress and finished 22nd.
“Yeah, it was very disappointing,” Earnhardt said. “But the wheel was coming off, and I felt something in the caution. I thought I had a flat tire. But, (Jamie) McMurray said the tires were fine. Something just wasn’t right. And, I’m glad I got out of there when I did because we only had one lug left on it and it was going to come off in the race.
“It wouldn’t have made it to the end, and that would have been pretty catastrophic. So it was a good choice to come down (to pit road). I was hoping we were going to be able to rebound and gain a couple of spots, but we just didn’t get in the right lane, and our car wasn’t very good in the pack.”
Having announced his retirement from Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series racing at the end of the year, Earnhardt will have one more shot at a seventh Talladega victory when the series returns during The Playoffs on Oct. 15.