E.A. Sports Today

Junior makes a run

Earnhardt stays in the hunt all day, avoids most of the wrecks and has a shot at the end, but finishes seventh in final Talladega run

Dale Earnhardt Jr. (top) moves to push past Kasey Kahne. On the cover, Junior addresses the media after his Top 10 finish. (Photos by B.J. Franklin/GungHo Photos)

By Al Muskewitz
East Alabama Sports Today

TALLADEGA – Dale Earnhardt always wants to give the fans what they want. He gave them a thrill for 185 laps in the Alabama 500 Sunday, but was disappointed he couldn’t give them what they – and he – really wanted in the end.

In the final — and admittedly most risky — trip around Talladega Superspeedway in his iconic NASCAR Cup career, Junior thrilled and maybe teased the crowd with an electric bid for a seventh win here that kept everyone on the edge of their seats.

To see a gallery of photos from Sunday’s race, visit www.bjfranklin.smugmug.com

He survived two early pit penalties that forced him to the back and avoided – by inches – big wrecks that turned the final laps into a high-speed game of musical chairs, steadily reducing the field to where only 14 cars remained on the lead lap at the end.

He appeared to have gotten through the final wreck as well, but caught it on the right front end that knocked the splitter down and prevented him getting any help or making a final, fan-fulfilling charge.

He didn’t win his seventh Talladega race, but instead finished seventh — on the 17th anniversary of his famous father’s record 10th and final Talladega win. Brad Keselowski won the race, in his 300th career start; it was his fifth Talladega win and second here in the playoffs.

But this was a weekend that belonged to Earnhardt and all the fans and conspiracy theorists were keeping an eye on the 88. It didn’t hurt that he won the pole on Saturday, curiously his first-ever pole here.

“It’s been a hell of a weekend for me,” Junior said. “I’m glad to be able to finish and finish well; that means a lot to me. I know a lot of folks came and traveled here to see us run. 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.

“I’m always disappointed when we don’t run well at tracks I know we should; we did do well, but probably let a little air out of the bag there at the end to finish seventh. I know those folks were hoping we could put something together and I know there’s a lot of folks who came here particularly to see this race because it’s the last one here, but hopefully they enjoyed everything else they saw. I mean, we ran as hard as we could, do the best we could.”

Whether Earnhardt won or not, the biggest positive of the day was he left out of here with his health in tow. He’s retiring from the sport for health reasons, primarily the symptoms of concussions from numerous hard knocks he’s taken on the track over the years.

It certainly wasn’t lost on him what getting involved in a big dust-up at a track known for its harrowing Big Ones could have done, but he decided to take the risk. After all, the show must go on and this track has been very good to him and the legacy over the years.

“I think anyone who questions our desire to be here and compete this year and our desire to run hard and race can look at the risk we took this afternoon knowing any of those crashes would have probably given me bit of an injury that would have held me out the rest of the season,” he said. “That’s hypothetical, but it says a lot about being out there competing, wanting to compete, showing we want to compete, and working hard, racing hard.

“This was one I was worried about. In the back of my mind I was a little concerned. But you can’t win the race if you race scared. 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 it’s just not your day to get in one of those accidents – and it wasn’t.

“I wish we could’ve seen what we could’ve done with a straight car at the end. We tried to push Brad into the lead, but the splitter’s on the ground so bad we got disconnected and the 31 (Ryan Newman) and 11 (Denny Hamlin) went around us. It was downhill from there.”

On the final restart of the race, Earnhardt lined up behind Keselowski on the bottom groove. It was a three-lap shootout in which Junior had a perfect view of the 2-car’s rear bumper, which displayed the message “Cheers 2 Dale Jr.”

It was Keselowski’s homage for all that Earnhardt had done for him early in his career.

“At the start of the year (sponsor) Miller Lite told us we could take the car for two races and put whatever paint scheme we wanted to put on it,” Keselowski said. “They gave us here and Phoenix. We were trying to come up with the right idea (for Talladega) and it was kind of a ‘duh’ moment when we said Talladega and we should do something to honor Dale.

“It was kind of a perfect fit. It was nice to be able to show some love and respect to him for everything he’s done for me and for the sport. I think that’s something we can all be grateful for in a lot of ways, and I was happy to do that.”

But when it comes to racing for the checkered flag, respect and admiration only goes so far.

“I knew coming in here it was going to be tough because people saw me run the paint scheme and I think they expected us to let Dale win,” Keselowski said. “One of the great things about competition and I think about Dale is he respected the car and what it meant to run that kind of paint scheme but didn’t expect for us not to try to beat each other, and thats exactly what we tried to do.

“He pushed me to the limit and did a great job.”

No one expected anything less.

Brad Keselowski used this paint scheme and “Cheers 2 Dale Jr.” decals to show his appreciation for Dale Earnhardt Jr. (Photo by B.J. Franklin/GungHo Photos)

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