RICHMOND, Va. – This wasn’t the bang Dale Earnhardt Jr. anticipated going out on as he began the final 28-race stretch of his Cup career.
Earnhardt was hugging the Turn 2 wall in the outside lane with 43 laps remaining at Richmond International Raceway, stretching out his pit cycle and staying out of traffic in hopes of catching a caution on an aggressive pit strategy.
And on the exit of the corner … BOOM!
Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson’s No. 48 Chevrolet had slammed into Earnhardt’s No. 88 at full speed – or somewhere roughly around 130 mph.
“(Spotter) TJ (Majors) was giving me pretty good warning about guys getting on my inside, but otherwise when you are running the top you don’t have to worry about it (because) everybody kind of takes care of you,” said Earnhardt, who announced last Tuesday that the 2017 season would be his last in Cup. “But Jimmie didn’t know we were there.
“It was an explosion, but the car held up pretty well. It knocked the sway bar arm off of it, so we ran the last bit of the race without a sway bar hooked up. It wasn’t a great day.”
Earnhardt still managed to finish 30th despite the heavy damage. Johnson actually salvaged an 11th but wasn’t pleased with the result.
“I’m trying to figure out if I just didn’t hear it being told to me or if it wasn’t told to me,” said the seven-time series champion, who later chatted with spotter Earl Barban after relaying his apologies to Earnhardt. “It’s still terrible, obviously.
“Man, I’m surprised our cars kept rolling after that because I just body-slammed him into the wall. And I could have easily not heard the clear or something else happened. I don’t know. But that’s the last thing you want to happen with a teammate.”
At least Earnhardt found some humor in the situation, sharing a text from his mother, Brenda after the race.
But the 14-time most popular driver is facing an uphill climb to make the playoffs in his final season on NASCAR’s premier circuit. After his fifth finish of 30th or worse, Earnhardt is 24th in the points standings.
It’s approaching a win-or-else situation, which might be why his team was “aggressive” with its pit speed monitor (which contributed to him speeding on Lap 67.
“This luck is awful,” he said. “I don’t know what else we need to do. Something seems to always bite us.
“Racing is more frustrating than joy. The joy is worth hanging around for, and lot of frustration, it mounts up, I don’t want to cruise and not give a damn, I want to win a couple of races this year. Whatever happens, happens. We’re not helping with these finishes. We’re just getting issues that are taking away reasonable finishes that we need to get. When the car isn’t great, we need to finish top 15.”
Though Johnson had won the past two races entering Richmond, none of the Hendrick Chevys were great Sunday. Kasey Kahne was 22nd, and Chase Elliott was 24th.
“It’s a competitive sport,” Earnhardt said. “You get written off one week, you’re back in the conversation the next.
“None of our cars were really that fast. We’ll probably come back here with a different idea, different direction on our setups and see if we can figure something out. We have the equipment and resources to run in top five. It’s shocks and springs and setups that just didn’t pay off today.”