TALLADEGA — NASCAR legend holds that the late, great Dale Earnhardt could see the draft.
In his son’s final race at Talladega, it seemed the draft saw Dale Earnhardt Jr.
But just when it seemed that Earnhardt came through wreck after wreck in the game of red flag/green flag that was Sunday’s Alabama 500, turns out one wreck got him just enough.
A damaged splitter, turned down and dragging after the final restart, doomed Earnhardt to not win the final known Talladega race to feature a driver named Dale Earnhardt. NASCAR’s long-running most popular driver finished seventh, rather than get his seventh victory on the track where his family name resonates most.
With six, he’ll finish tied with Jeff Gordon for second place in all-time victories at Talladega.
Still, Earnhardt finished in a way that satisfied him.
“This has been a hell of a weekend for me,” said Earnhardt, due to retire after this season. “I’m glad to be able to finish and finish well. That means a lot to me.”
Earnhardt’s nostalgic final weekend behind the wheel at Talladega included a parting gift. The track gave him the blue-and-yellow No. 2 Wrangler car his dad drove in the final race of the elder Earnhardt’s 1980 championship season.
An era or two later, his son tweeted a picture of him kneeling by the car, the Talladega grandstand as backdrop. If one picture could say it all, it was that one.
His dad won seven championships and 10 Talladega races. He got his last of his 76 NASCAR victories on Talladega’s 2.66-mile trioval, roaring from 18th place in the final four laps.
That was Oct. 15, 2000. Dale Jr. was 26 and racing through his breakout season in NASCAR, winning Raybestos NASCAR rookie of the year.
On Oct. 15, 2017, Earnhardt fans came hoping for something similar. An early-race pit penalty pushed him to the back, maybe, just maybe another Earnhardt comeback story could develop.
Then game wreck, after wreck, after wreck … three red-flag, NASCAR-to-MASHCAR events from Lap 173 on. Three times that Earnhardt’s bright-green No. 88 Mountain Dew Chevy rolled through carnage, seemingly without racing-significant damage.
During one red-flag stop, Earnhardt told Fox’s broadcast team that Stevie Waltrip must have pulled him through a wreck. An in-car camera showed a white note stuck on the driver’s side door panel, next to a Mountain Dew sticker. The paper had the Bible verse Waltrip gave him for that race.
But no need to make up stories about legendary Earnhardt driving prowess saving him in those melees. This is Talladega, and Earnhardt is too honest to take such credit.
“We just got lucky on those wrecks,” he said. “Things started flying around, and you just, I don’t know. Ain’t nothing I’m doing. I’m just not getting hit and not losing control of my car.”
Luck is relative at Talladega. On a day when 14 of 43 cars finished the race running, the required reservoir ran a little short for Earnhardt.
The wreck leading to the final restart dealt the dooming damage. The air might have seen him, but the track snagged him.
“It knocked the right front end real bad and bent the splitter down, about an inch and a half,” he said. “Knocked it on the race track, and when we got going on the restart, it just wouldn’t go, in the corners, especially.
“Everybody around us was just wasting their time pushing us, and they sort of figure that out after lap 2 (of the restart) and decided to leave us alone, and we kind of hung on there to get a seventh.”
The postrace news conference gave Earnhardt a chance to reflect, even rejoice. He came away from a track known for big wrecks with no recurrence of concussion problems that laced his career, including costing him the final half of the 2016 season.
If anyone questioned how health worries affected his approach to racing, well, he did the family name proud. Risk skidded all around him.
“Any of those crashes probably would have given me a bit of an injury that would have held me out the rest of the season,” he said. “It’s hypothetical, but I think it says a lot about being out there and competing, wanting to complete, showing that we want to compete and working hard, racing hard.
“This was one that I was worried about, you know, that 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.”
Earnhardt recalled his dad’s Talladega racing weekends. The elder Earnhardt would give him $100 for him and friends to drop at a pay-to-ride track by the hotel. He would visit the International Motorsports Hall of Fame.
During races, the younger Earnhardt and his friends would check out wrecked cars in the garage.
“That was back before hot passes, pit passes and garage passes,” he said. “Man, you could run anywhere you wanted to go, and we was all over the place, having fun and goofing off.”
Earnhardt ran his first stock-car laps at Talladega in 1994, testing a V-8 car for the Xfinity Series.
He said he hopes to maintain a closeness to Talladega and pledged to participate in future promotions, “no matter what the request is.”
As for his final Talladega race, he left 188 laps of holes in the wind.
“I know a lot of folks came and traveled here to see us run,” he said. know they’re disappointed we didn’t win, but I’m glad they got to see us run the whole event. Hopefully, they enjoyed it.”