TALLADEGA, Alabama — After driving through multiple wrecks, skidding through the grass, and charging through the field, Dale Earnhardt Jr. was left with the satisfaction he walked out of Talladega Superspeedway unharmed in a race that saw three red flags and 24 of the 40 cars eliminated because of accidents.
Earnhardt, who has a history of concussions and missed half of last season because of concussion symptoms, admitted that beneath his excitement of being at this track, he had concerns entering Sunday’s race — his final restrictor-plate Cup race.
“This was one I was worried about, in the back of my mind I was a little concerned,’’ said Earnhardt, who finished seventh after starting on the pole. “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 take the risks and hope it’s not your day to get in one of those accidents and it wasn’t.’’
Earnhardt did take many risks during the race.
“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.
Earnhardt avoided several accidents on the way to scoring his second top-10 finish in the last 15 races. After exiting his car, he had blades of grass and dirt on the back of his uniform from one of his excursions to avoid an accident.
“Just got lucky on those wrecks,’’ Earnhardt said. “Ain’t nothing I’m doing. I’m just not getting hit … and not losing control of my car. Just really luck.’’
The last incident, though, damaged Earnhardt’s right front and knocked the splitter down, all but ending his hopes of winning before the final three laps.
“When we got going on that last restart, it just wouldn’t go in the corners especially,’’ Earnhardt said. “Everybody around us was just wasting their time pushing us and they sort figured it it out after a lap of two and decided to leave us alone.
“I thought the car had enough to win before we bent the splitter down.’’
Winner Brad Keselowski didn’t know about Earnhardt’s damage, so when he had Earnhardt behind him on the final restart, he felt he was in the best position.
“I thought when I had Dale Jr. lined up behind me, with the strength of his car and his ability, that we would just take off on the restart and clear them and it would be us racing for the win,’’ Keselowski told NBC Sports. “We came off of Turn 2 and didn’t really have a lot of momentum and the outside lane passed us and the next thing you knew we were running third with only two laps left to get to the lead.’’
Even though Earnhardt didn’t challenge for the win at the end, he will end his career as one of NASCAR’s most successful restrictor-plate drivers. His six wins at Talladega tie him with Jeff Gordon and ranks second only behind his father. Earnhardt finishes his Cup career with 10 restrictor-plate victories, including two Daytona 500 triumphs.
“Anytime anybody says you’re the best at anything it’s an awesome feeling,’’ Earnhardt said. “I can’t deny that it feels awesome to hear that, that people consider you good at anything. 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.
“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.’’