By Seth Eggert, NASCAR Writer
CONCORD, N.C. – Several weeks ago, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. had announced that 2017 would be his final Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season. With just one top five and Top 10 finish, Earnhardt was looking for some momentum as the series rolled into Charlotte Motor Speedway for the Coca-Cola 600.
Off the truck, Earnhardt’s No. 88 Nationwide Patriotic Chevrolet SS team were looking for speed as they were 22nd in the first practice. In qualifying, the Hendrick Motorsports team improved to 19th on the starting grid. Earnhardt’s team kept improving moving up to 14th and seventh the speed charts in the second and final practice sessions.
Stage 1 started off with a bang for Earnhardt as he quickly moved forward. Track position allowed him to avoid the carnage that took place as his nephew, Jeffrey Earnhardt lost a motor, launching a series of events that ended the day for Chase Elliott and Brad Keselowski.
By the time Stage 1 ended, he had climbed to 15th in the running order.
Stage 2 was quiet for Earnhardt, although he slid back to 18th.
Stage 3 showed improvement for Earnhardt and his Greg Ives-led team. He moved forward, avoiding another set of chaos set off by Ty Dillon’s blown engine.
Another caution with under 10 laps remaining in the stage allowed Earnhardt to move forward on pit road. A good pit stop by his pit crew positioned Earnhardt inside the Top 10. When the green and white flag waved, he was in the ninth position, gaining two extra championship points.
The fourth and final stage of the race was interesting for many. Earnhardt held station just inside the Top 10 until a caution with 70 laps to go. He pitted with the rest of the field, with many between three and five laps shy of making the distance.
The race restarted swiftly with some playing the fuel mileage game. Earnhardt’s team was one of the many that erred on the side of caution. He pitted with about 35 laps to go to ensure a powered finish.
Earnhardt rocketed through the field on fresh tires and a full tank. With under 10 laps to go, he broke into the Top 10 once again. Several in front of him were attempting to stretch their fuel, including race leader and teammate Jimmie Johnson.
Unfortunately for Johnson, his tank ran out with two laps to go. This allowed Austin Dillon to take the lead and the victory. Earnhardt crossed the line in 10th in what will be his final Coca-Cola 600.
This was the second Top 10 of the season for Earnhardt, and the 254th of his career. He also moved up in the points standings to 23rd, 289 points behind point leader Martin Truex, Jr., and 88 points behind the cutoff for the Playoffs.
Earnhardt thought a Top 10 was good for his final 600,
“Yeah, I supposed considering last week. A couple of guys beat us on fuel, but we got a top 10 there. The car got better last couple of runs. We made a lot of changes and some of them working pretty good. We would have liked to have run a little bit better than that for sure. We think we should be running in the top five every week as a team, so that is still not really good enough, but compared to last week it’s a huge improvement.”
Now Earnhardt will look to carry the momentum with his team into Dover International Speedway.