Long: Today marks one last time for Dale Earnhardt Jr., fans at Talladega

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TALLADEGA, Alabama — They fell asleep embraced by the lingering aroma from their campfire. A day of relaxing and partying stretched into the night, and it was time for a few hours of respite before the new day, one some had awaited months to arrive.

Buoyed by his pole-winning effort Saturday, many in the Talladega Superspeedway campgrounds are filled with hope that Dale Earnhardt Jr. wins today in his final Cup race at a track as synonymous with the Earnhardt family as any on the NASCAR circuit.

Hope is a powerful thing. While it cannot make an engine turn more RPMs or the air glide over a car in the most efficient manner, it has led many to Talladega on a pilgrimage to see Earnhardt lead the field one more time.

It already has been a memorable couple of days for Earnhardt. On Friday, the track gave him the car his father raced in 1979 and 1980 (clinching the first of his seven titles in that car in ’80). A day later, Earnhardt won his first career Talladega pole.

Along with the buildup to today’s race (2 p.m. ET on NBC) has come the chance for reflection for Earnhardt.

“The end of the season is coming really fast,’’ Earnhardt said Saturday. “I didn’t really feel much emotion about that and the finality of it until maybe this weekend.

“These few weeks will go by so fast, and that’s it. There’s no reliving it. So, I think I’m starting to take it in just a little bit in letting myself feeling some emotion about it.’’

Earnhardt has had the chance to reflect because of the weekend’s gradual pace. This is typical Talladega. Most of the energy and nearly all the anxiety are packed into race day.

Earnhardt noted there was no fretting about pulling speed from the car because what teams have when they unload is about all they’re going to have at a restrictor-plate track, unlike other tracks where teams can make many more adjustments.

If you’re slow this weekend, there’s resignation. If you’re fast, there’s a comfort.

That’s allowed Earnhardt to ponder a career coming to a close and one last run at a track that has provided so many memorable moments.

It was at this track where his father went from 16th to first in the final five laps in 2000 to win what would be his final Cup race. Years later, Earnhardt watched a video of those final laps. When his father rocketed off Turn 2 and passed six cars on the way into Turn 3, beginning his charge to victory, a smile formed on Earnhardt’s face and widened with each car his father dispatched. “Man’’ was all Earnhardt could say, pride and wonderment spilling out in one syllable.

It also was here where Earnhardt won in the fall of 2001. That victory was important to him because of questions he faced about his win at Daytona in July, the first race there since his father’s death in the 2001 Daytona 500. Earnhardt stated Friday that Jimmy Spencer’s comments questioning the legitimacy of that victory still upset him and how his success after that event proved his win was legit.

That Talladega win also was the first of four in a row at this track.

“We got pretty cocky there at some points in the mid-2000s with our performance and ability,’’ Earnhardt said.

Then the performance went away and Earnhardt struggled, winning twice in the series between 2007-13.

This also is the track that has frustrated him. NASCAR ruled Jeff Gordon was leading, not Earnhardt, when the caution came out and the spring 2004 race did not restart, allowing Gordon to win. Fans littered the track with beer cans at NASCAR’s decision.

It also was here where Earnhardt was collected in a last-lap crash that, along with a crash about six weeks earlier, created concussion symptoms that forced him to miss two races in 2012.

But even with those events, most of the memories Earnhardt has of this track and its fans are good. When he takes the lead, the roar of the crowd can be heard over the cars.

Nothing sounded better to him Friday than the rumble from the engine of his father’s 1979 blue-and-yellow Monte Carlo the track gave him. He drove a couple of laps around the track in the No. 2 car.

Then, so proud of the car, he drove it to the Cup garage so his crew could see it before returning to pit road.

The gift was something his father had touched and him. It connected Earnhardt to his childhood days. After the car was retired, it sat on jackstands outside the shop of what was his father’s Busch team.

“I remember he right-sided the car at some point in the race, and you could go over and pick the bondo out of the whole side of the car… all busted the cracked up,’’ Earnhardt said. “So that car sat there for about three or four years in the backyard at Mamaw’s house.

“When Dad wasn’t at the race weekends, on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday he was at that shop. He drove there every morning and drove home every day. That’s where he went every day. So I’d go over there and climb in and around that car at some point every single time I went there. You couldn’t not go near it.’’

After it was restored, his father sent it to be displayed at the International Motorsports Hall of Fame next to Talladega Superspeedway. As a youngster, Earnhardt and other sons of racers would go to the Hall and admire the car.

Now Earnhardt will have it, a time warp to the past to when his father was starting his championship run in NASCAR. It also signifies how much time has passed and a reminder that the end of Earnhardt’s Cup career is only days way — 35 to be exact.

While he isn’t going away — he’ll race at least once next year in the Xfinity Series and likely more — today will be his final restrictor-plate race, the type of racing that has helped define both he and his father.

Today fans will have one final time to cheer Earnhardt at Talladega.

After winning the pole Saturday, he was shown a video of the crowd roaring once he crossed the finish line and his No. 88 shot to the top spot on the scoring tower.

He smiled.

“That’s pretty cool,’’ he said.

Imagine what it will be like if he wins today.

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Results, point standings after Xfinity race at Richmond

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Christopher Bell led a race-high 120 laps to win the ToyotaCare 250 at Richmond Raceway. It’s his second career Xfinity win.

Bell beat Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Noah Gragson, Elliott Sadler, Matt Tifft and Austin Cindric.

Elliott Sadler won the $100,000 Dash 4 Cash bonus.

Click here for the race results.

Points

Elliott Sadler continues to lead the point standings through eight races. He has a 29-point lead over Bell.

Completing the top five is Tyler Reddick (-31 points), Daniel Hemric (-38) and Justin Allgaier (-48).

Click here for the point standings.

Christopher Bell wins Xfinity race at Richmond

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Christopher Bell fended off teammate Noah Gragson to break through and win his first Xfinity race of the year Friday night at Richmond Raceway.

Bell led the final 79 laps around the .75-mile track to score his second career win. He had finished in the top five in four of the first seven races this season.

“That was pretty special there, buddy,” Bell told Fox Sports 1. “Had to work for it. My teammate was really good and I knew throughout both practices that both of our cars were going to be really strong. Joe Gibbs Racing has been producing really, really fast Camrys for last couple of weeks and it’s really shown.”

Gragson placed second in his first career Xfinity start. He bounced back from an uncontrolled tire penalty early in the race.

He hounded Bell for much of the last 15 laps, but could never pull even with him.

“I didn’t really know what to expect,” Gragson told FS1 of his first series start at the short track. “I found a little something in the track, a little speed there at the end of the second stage on old tires. I kept it in my memory bank until the end and I told me team, ‘I got something, when it’s time to go tell me when.’ About 18 to go, I told them, ‘Can’t wait any longer, I don’t have any more patience.”

Gragson, who drives full-time in the Camping World Truck Series, led 10 laps.

The top five was completed by Elliott Sadler, Matt Tifft and Austin Cindric.

With his third-place finish, Sadler won the $100,000 Dash 4 Cash bonus.

Bell, Sadler, Tifft and Cindric will be eligible for the third Dash 4 Cash bonus next week at Talladega.

STAGE 1 WINNER: Daniel Hemric

STAGE 2 WINNER: Elliott Sadler, first stage win of season

MORE: Race results, points

WHO HAD A GOOD RACE: Austin Cindric earned his first career top five after starting from the rear for an unapproved adjustment … Matt Tifft earned his fourth career top five … Ryan Truex placed seventh to give Kaulig Racing its fourth top 10 of the year. It earned five last year … Jeremy Clements placed eighth, earning his first top 10 since he won at Road America in August.

WHO HAD A BAD RACE: After winning Stage 1, Daniel Hemric lost his right front tire with three laps to go in Stage 2, but made it to the end. He finished 29th, four laps down … Justin Allgaier spun after ramming into the back of Spencer Gallagher with 86 laps to go. Chase Briscoe was also received damage in the incident. Allgaier finished 14th. Briscoe placed 26th.

QUOTE OF THE NIGHT: “My wife’s already spent it.” – Elliott Sadler to FS1 after winning the Dash 4 Cash bonus.

WHAT’S NEXT: Sparks Energy 300 at Talladega Superspeedway at 3 p.m. ET on April 28 on Fox.

Starting lineup for Cup race at Richmond

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Martin Truex Jr. and Chase Elliott will start on the front row for Saturday night’s Cup race at Richmond Raceway.

Truex won his third pole of the season.

The top five is completed by Joey Logano, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Larson.

Kyle Busch, who is trying to win a third consecutive race, qualified 32nd.

Click here for the starting lineup.

Martin Truex Jr. wins pole for Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond Raceway

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Martin Truex Jr. qualified first for Saturday’s Cup race at Richmond Raceway, winning his third pole of the season.

Truex claimed the pole with a speed of 123.859 mph around the .75-mile track. The Toyota Owners 400 will mark Truex’s 450th Cup start. Truex had DNFs in the last two races.

“It’s definitely been a crappy two weeks,” Truex told Fox Sports 1. “But that’s part of racing. This team, I’ve got so much faith and confidence in them and everything we’re doing. You can’t let those kinds of things get you down. It was nothing we did, just circumstances. Just proud of the effort today.”

The pole matches Truex’s total from last year.

Chase Elliott qualified second (123.621 mph). The top five is completed by Joey Logano, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Larson.

Ryan Blaney will start 12th, followed by Ryan Newman, David Ragan, Clint Bowyer and Jimmie Johnson.

Daniel Hemric will start 22nd in his first Cup start.

Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski both failed to advance out of the first round. Keselowski will start 28th and Busch will start 32nd.

“We didn’t make a mock run in practice and then we thought the spread would be about three tenths (of a second),” Busch told Fox Sports 1. “It wasn’t, it was faster than that. We only ran two laps trying to make sure we preserve out tires for later on deeper into the session. A bunch of those guys ran three laps and obviously we needed that third lap. It would have picked up. For some reason the tire here today, even in race trim, your fastest lap was the seventh lap. So just takes awhile for everything to come in. Just trying to short cut it a little bit and it didn’t work out for us.”

Click here for qualifying results.