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Final Talladega start memorable for Earnhardt Jr., and his fans

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TALLADEGA, Ala. — Dale Earnhardt Jr. climbed out of his No. 88 for the last time at Talladega Superspeedway as the sun began to set on Alabama.

After an immediate inspection of the damaged right-front splitter that plagued his final laps and left him with seventh instead of first, Earnhardt debriefed with his team, shaking their hands in a circle.

There was plenty riding on this race for the undeniable crowd favorite. For many drivers, a seventh-place result at a place like always-unpredictable Talladega is considered a good day. It’s different for Earnhardt.

Ultimately, he wanted the win for the folks in the grandstands.

“It’s been better than the last couple of trips here, the last couple of trips we had a lot of trouble in wrecks and hadn’t been able to come home with a decent finish,” Earnhardt said. “I would have loved to have won the race for all the fans that come out here. I know a lot of folks came to see this race just for the fact that it was my last plate race and trust me, I wanted to win it for all those folks more than myself, but just couldn’t get it done.”

WATCH: Junior wheels through the ‘Big One’

Earnhardt was one of 14 cars that made it through the perils of Talladega on Sunday afternoon in a race that saw three red flags. Indeed it seemed that the No. 88 driver certainly seemed to have a guardian angel on his shoulder throughout the afternoon; he squeezed through a multi-car melee with minimal damage at Lap 171 that took out 16 cars then just barely avoided hitting a crashing Ryan Blaney and Trevor Bayne near the yellow line at Lap 178.

Four laps later, he escaped a wreck that collected his teammate Chase Elliott and rookie Daniel Suarez.

The No. 88 team “got lucky,” he said.

“I (was) carrying Stevie Waltrip’s scripture in the car,” Earnhardt said, referring to the Bible verse that Darrell Waltrip’s wife places in his car each week. “She probably had me a little luck there. So, it never hurts to have an angel on your shoulder.”

A portion of this week’s verse, coming from Lamentations 3:22-24, read, “By His mercies we have been kept from complete destruction,” which seems eerily fitting in regards to Earnhardt’s day of near misses. After the verse, Stevie wrote “Hope you feel loved and hugged.”

He was certainly loved — and has been loved — at Talladega on Sunday. The roar of the grandstands when he led the field to green as the polesitter at the start of the race or when he made a move for position is a testament to that.

He loves it here, too — that started even before he won six races at Talladega in the premier series, when he was a young child running around the garage as his father made a name at the Alabama track.

“I really do owe a lot to this track and the support that we have had here from the fans, owe a lot to them,” Earnhardt said. “You know, it just has been a very fun place. When I was a little kid going to ‑‑ we got to go to a handful of race tracks throughout the year, and this was always a fun trip. There was a pay‑to‑ride go‑kart track down where the hotels were where all the drivers and everybody stayed, and me ‑‑ I’d get a hundred bucks from Dad maybe, and then … a bunch of us would run over there and spend all our daddies’ money riding go‑karts … Me and the boys, we’d run around the garage looking at the cars that came in there, they were broke or wrecked or whatever, and they’d just bring them in there and park them and leave them.

“Just so many good memories as a kid coming here, and that was back before hot passes and pit passes, garage passes. Man, you could run anywhere you wanted to go, and we were all over the place having fun and goofing off … A lot of great memories here, and then obviously the career in Cup here, four in a row, all those things mean a lot to me.”

Even though his career in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series has come to a close at NASCAR’s largest track, the Earnhardt connection will remain; he’ll be back in a different form.

RELATED: All of Dale Earnhardt and Junior’s wins at Talladega

“I hope to always have a great connection here, and trust me when I say that whatever the track needs from me, anytime they want anything, I’ll be here to help promote and support this place no matter what the request is,” Earnhardt said. “They’ve done so much for me, and I want to remain very close.”

This last one is a bag of mixed emotions for him; his slight disappointment is evident, but he maintains a slight smile and cheerful spirits during interviews. He finished the race, earned a top 10 and gave his devoted fans something to watch up until the very end.

“I’m always disappointed when we don’t run well at tracks I know we should, but we did run well today, but I know that everybody was probably ‑‑ is a little bit of air out of the bag there at the end to finish seventh,” Earnhardt said. “I hate to leave slightly disappointed, but hopefully they enjoyed everything else they saw. I mean, we ran as hard as we could, did the best we could.”