Late stop hurts Dale Jr.'s shot at 'Dega win
May 04, 2014, Holly Cain, NASCAR.com
Five-time Talladega winner led 26 laps but finishes 26th in Aaron's 499
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TALLADEGA, Ala. -- The cheers from the Talladega Superspeedway grandstands were audible even over the roar of the cars whenever 'Dega's favorite son Dale Earnhardt Jr. took the lead in Sunday's Aaron’s 499.
It was noticeably quieter in the final laps however, when Earnhardt -- a five-time Talladega winner -- was shuffled toward the rear of the field after leading three times for 26 laps on the afternoon and never got to challenge for the win.
The television announcers wondered if perhaps he was just biding his time and avoiding one of Talladega’s typical late race "Big Ones." Caution played into it, but Earnhardt said after the race that it was simpler than that.
His No. 88 National Guard Chevrolet got mired in traffic and he just ran out of time.
"You have to have that track position in the end and we just didn't have it," Earnhardt said. "I knew we were going to be sitting there in 15th at the end and get boxed in or wrecked.
"We missed a lot of guys that crashed and didn't tear up our car, so we will go to Daytona with this car and try to manage a strategy where we are not giving up 25 positions in the last 30 laps of the race."
After the race, Earnhardt posted a message to his fans on Twitter:
Stuck in the back with no where to go. Disappointed in myself for not figuring out what to do the last 30 laps.— Dale Earnhardt Jr. (@DaleJr) May 4, 2014
Only runner-up Greg Biffle (58 laps) spent more time out front Sunday, but Earnhardt's 26th-place finish was his worst at Talladega in four years. Considering the garage around him was filled with torn-up equipment, the Daytona 500 winner considers his intact race car a consolation prize.
"We already got a win," he said. "And I've been in too many late-race wrecks. I didn't want to be no part of it. And there were three or four there we dodged good."
A late race pit stop for gas initially moved Earnhardt from the lead pack to the back group and a big move forward never materialized -- his best shot at making his way forward was thwarted by driver Josh Wise.
"I didn't know how close we were on fuel," Earnhardt explained. "(Crew chief) Steve (Letarte) didn't think we could make it so we came in and got fuel, but we come out too far behind.
"It's hard to drive up through there. The track is three-wide forever. You know they're going to crash and I can't afford to wreck anymore here. So, you've just got to pick your battles.
"I felt like we were better off not getting in a wreck and trying to stay back there. And if we had an opportunity to get a run, we took it. But that one we had just got blocked by the No. 98 (Wise) and with two to go, you're not going to get another run."