Dale Earnhardt Jr. captures sixth career Sprint Cup victory at Talladega

TALLADEGA, Ala. – It’s a toss-up which is greater, Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s passion for Talladega Superspeedway or the Talladega fan base’s passion for Dale Earnhardt Jr.

On a glorious afternoon, Earnhardt offered a one-word order to his team over the radio, a message that could be shared with the thousands of his devotees in the stands: “Celebrate!” he proclaimed.

Earnhardt, his team and Junior Nation could celebrate his 0.159-second victory over Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series GEICO 500 Sunday afternoon, his sixth Sprint Cup win here. It all but assures Earnhardt a spot in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship for a fifth consecutive year.

Paul Menard was third, Ryan Blaney fourth and Martin Truex Jr. fifth. Points leader Kevin Harvick, racing with a mangled hood after an early accident, was eighth.

The victory came barely 24 hours after Earnhardt had acknowledged a responsibility to perform well here for his fan base, saying, “I feel like I’m supposed to get up there and lead.”

He did so, leading 67 of the 188 laps, then wove his way into Victory Circle, where he gushed nearly as dramatically as the geyser spewing from an engine that began overheating because of debris on the grille.

“It’s just real emotional,” Earnhardt said. “I haven’t won here in a long time (November 2004), my daddy’s birthday was a couple of days ago. It was real emotional. Everything is so good for me right now. I don’t know why I don’t feel like I deserve it. I just feel overcome with a lot of emotion.”

Unlike many Talladega races, the final two dozen laps were essentially run in a single-file parade, first with a 10-car string, then ultimately caught up by a line of another 20 cars.

“I don’t know what creates that in the drivers’ minds to say we’re all going to ride at the top,” Johnson said. “It doesn’t happen every time (but) it does happen every now and then and today was one of those days.”

At the white flag, Johnson tried to get a run with Blaney on his bumper, and defending race winner Denny Hamlin made a run.

“I knew he would wait and that’s what I would do,” Earnhardt said of Johnson. “I wouldn’t want to screw it up for both of us. He tried to back up but he couldn’t get a run.”

As a wreck happened in their rear-view mirror, with Carl Edwards being spun out, Earnhardt kept his lead, zooming past a nearly filled grandstands celebrating his triumph.

“Everybody at Talladega is happy,” Truex said of the fans. “So all is good.”

There was the typical “Big One” accident. On the backstretch on lap 47, Trevor Bayne was passed on the right side by Menard as Kurt Busch was closing on his left rear quarterpanel. It was, as Bayne put it, “double trouble.” He lost control of his No. 6 Ford and careened into the outside retaining wall, triggering a crash that affected 14 cars.

It effectively took out of contention Kasey Kahne, who started on the front row, Kyle Larson, Greg Biffle and, in his final ride subbing for Kyle Busch in the No. 18 Toyota, David Ragan.

It was otherwise relatively clean – only six cautions for 23 laps all day – until Austin Dillon’s car caught fire on lap 156. Jeff Gordon’s day went up in smoke, too. He was penalized for going too fast on pit road, the second time in five races such a penalty spoiled his day.

Following the penalty, his crew chief Alan Gustafson encouraged Gordon over the radio with 26 laps remaining, “Now put on a show right here.”

However, the show in the final laps belonged to his Hendrick teammates, Earnhardt and Johnson.

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Race – GEICO 500

               1. (4) Dale Earnhardt Jr., Chevrolet, 188, $306065.

               2. (5) Jimmie Johnson, Chevrolet, 188, $256121.

               3. (7) Paul Menard, Chevrolet, 188, $190060.

               4. (3) Ryan Blaney(i), Ford, 188, $148385.

               5. (36) Martin Truex Jr., Chevrolet, 188, $159600.

               6. (12) Sam Hornish Jr., Ford, 188, $156715.

               7. (18) Ryan Newman, Chevrolet, 188, $151670.

               8. (24) Kevin Harvick, Chevrolet, 188, $168570.

               9. (17) Denny Hamlin, Toyota, 188, $127645.

               10. (34) Josh Wise, Ford, 188, $111070.

               11. (27) Jamie McMurray, Chevrolet, 188, $138701.

               12. (19) Kurt Busch, Chevrolet, 188, $127435.

               13. (41) Cole Whitt, Ford, 188, $125618.

               14. (42) JJ Yeley(i), Toyota, 188, $121993.

               15. (28) Aric Almirola, Ford, 188, $142146.

               16. (37) Alex Bowman, Chevrolet, 188, $117918.

               17. (31) AJ Allmendinger, Chevrolet, 188, $128518.

               18. (43) Matt DiBenedetto #, Toyota, 188, $109157.

               19. (6) Tony Stewart, Chevrolet, 188, $128724.

               20. (39) David Gilliland, Ford, 188, $108710.

               21. (25) Danica Patrick, Chevrolet, 188, $107435.

               22. (15) Brad Keselowski, Ford, 188, $143851.

               23. (35) Justin Allgaier, Chevrolet, 188, $106110.

               24. (38) Chris Buescher(i), Ford, 188, $94185.

               25. (8) Matt Kenseth, Toyota, 188, $133721.

               26. (29) Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Ford, 188, $104085.

               27. (32) Bobby Labonte, Ford, 188, $95435.

               28. (11) Casey Mears, Chevrolet, 188, $102885.

               29. (40) Michael Annett, Chevrolet, 188, $91685.

               30. (10) Clint Bowyer, Toyota, 188, $128643.

               31. (1) Jeff Gordon, Chevrolet, 188, $145871.

               32. (22) Carl Edwards, Toyota, 188, $97685.

               33. (21) Joey Logano, Ford, 186, $138268.

               34. (2) Kasey Kahne, Chevrolet, 158, $109435.

               35. (14) Austin Dillon, Chevrolet, Engine, 157, $127721.

               36. (23) Michael Waltrip, Toyota, 151, $117874.

               37. (20) Greg Biffle, Ford, 147, $121469.

               38. (9) David Ragan, Toyota, 123, $129515.

               39. (30) Landon Cassill(i), Chevrolet, Accident, 91, $80465.

               40. (33) Brendan Gaughan(i), Chevrolet, Accident, 90, $76465.

               41. (26) Trevor Bayne, Ford, Accident, 46, $117040.

               42. (13) Kyle Larson, Chevrolet, Accident, 46, $96373.

               43. (16) Brian Scott(i), Chevrolet, Engine, 18, $64965.

Mark McCarter – NASCAR Wire Service

Image: Jerry Markland/Getty Images via NASCAR

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