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‘An Earnhardt behind the wheel’: Jeffrey registers runner-up in No. 3 at Talladega

TALLADEGA, Ala. — A mere 0.131 seconds is all that separated an Earnhardt from Victory Lane once again at Talladega Superspeedway.

On the final overtime restart of Saturday’s Xfinity Series race, Jeffrey Earnhardt fired off from eighth. He made his way up to fifth by the last lap. And then, as the top five completed their final trip around the 2.66-mile track, Earnhardt raced his way into second place come checkers.

“Well, I had feelings on that last lap that there must have been an Earnhardt behind the wheel based on the things he was doing,” FOX Sports analyst Larry McReynolds said. “The apple didn’t roll too far from the dad’s tree or the granddad’s tree.”

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Jeffrey was driving an all-black No. 3 car that matched the one his grandfather, seven-time Cup Series champion Dale Earnhardt, made iconic. Dale, a 2010 NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee, died in 2001. Richard Childress Racing provided him the ride, his first with the organization. Dale won a record 10 Cup Series races at Talladega.

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McReynolds, for the first time in NASCAR since 2000 and overall first time in the Xfinity Series, tapped in as crew chief. McReynolds worked with Dale from 1997-98, even winning the 1998 Daytona 500 as a team. It was his last of 23 victories.

“He was a pro, man,” Jeffrey said. “Just hearing that man’s voice on the box just makes you want to go out there and be hungry to win a race. Knowing the relationship that he had with my grandpa, and the work that they got to do together, just makes it all that much more special.”

The two even earned the pole position, Jeffrey’s first-ever in 136 career Xfinity Series starts. The runner-up result was also his best-ever. His only previous top five was third in 2019 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Jeffrey is in a part-time situation this year, having competed in just five of the nine races so far. Apart from this special gig with Richard Childress Racing, three came with Sam Hunt Racing, the other with Emerling-Gase Motorsports. He hasn’t worked a full 33-race season since 2014, but there were two 29-race efforts in 2020-21.

“It’s a bittersweet emotion,” Jeffrey said. “… I feel like I’ve proved myself in the past. Hopefully this will prove that much even more. But I’m just very, very thankful for this opportunity and I don’t know that I can ever say thank you enough to everyone that’s given it to me.”

A rather large crowd swarmed Jeffrey on pit road once he parked, unbothered by Noah Gragson performing his race-winning burnouts in the background. In that moment, second was sweet.

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McReynolds embraced Jeffrey. Team owner Richard Childress came by, clapped Jeffrey on the shoulder and expressed his own pride in the 32-year-old.

“I knew we were right there,” Childress told NASCAR.com. “You gotta be there to have a chance to win, you can’t win when you’re loading onto the truck, so I felt really good about his chance. But I’m proud of him. He did a great job. The whole team did a good job, just be putting it together last minute.”

Last week, really. Richard Childress Racing announced Jeffrey’s Talladega deal in the No. 3 on April 12. The McReynolds role was then revealed by McReynolds himself on April 17.

And it all became better than reality on the last lap.

“We crossed the white flag and we’re barely inside the top five, and our monitor blinked on us,” McReynolds said. “I lost what was going on down the back straightaway, but I can hear Mike Dillon, our spotter who did a phenomenal job just tell him to come on, keep going, keep coming. So, that told me something: We were headed in the right direction.”

When the field came back into view, No. 3 was P2.

“No doubt,” McReynolds said, “there was an Earnhardt in that car.”

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