A front-row start at Talladega should have led to one of the best finishes of the season or even a win for Dale Earnhardt, Jr., who has won at the storied track six times in his career, right?
Well, not so fast.
Starting the day on the outside of the front row alongside eventual winner Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., Earnhardt was never able to power his way into the lead as he battled handling issues with his No. 88 Chevrolet throughout the day, noting on his team radio that something wasn’t quite right with the car.
Falling out of the top-20 at one point, Earnhardt was able to miss the big 18-car crash with 19 laps left, driving through the melee to come out unscathed in third place and looking to be in prime position to challenge for his seventh win on the 2.66-mile superspeedway.
However, shortly after the restart following the red flag for the crash at lap 174, Earnhardt’s car washed way up the track with something amiss and when he made his way down pit road, the team discovered that he had a wheel loose, which had caused him to nearly find the outside wall.
“Oh, I had a wheel come off,” said Earnhardt. “The guys said it was real similar to the issue we had at Atlanta. But, it was pretty bad. We were about to wreck. And we were lucky to get to pit road and get it changed. The left rear tire come loose. We didn’t change it on the last stop but the glue build-up on the stud didn’t allow them to get the tire tight and it just kind of worked its way loose. We only had one nut tight when we come down pit road.”
“It was real close to coming off. I hated it because we were right there in good position to get a great finish; if not win the race and I had to bail out. That was a hard decision to make. But, knowing what I know now when we come down pit road and they saw the tire, I’m glad I did because it wouldn’t have made it another lap or two.”
Though Earnhardt would get the lucky dog when Landon Cassill stopped on track at lap 180, he found himself boxed in behind the three-wide racing in front of him and was unable to use any of his Talladega magic of old to make something happen in the closing laps, finishing 22nd when the checkered flag flew.
Even with the frustration of a finish outside the top-20 at one of his best tracks, Earnhardt noted that he’s not that big of a fan of the current restrictor plate package.
“I’m not a big fan of some of the things the cars do and how they react to one another. We just kind of get stuck side-by-side too easy, so it’s harder to make passes and create passes. When they changed the engine a couple of years ago, it changed the way the draft worked and I haven’t really liked it as well. But obviously we had a great year in 2015. We ran really good. But, when they changed the motor after that, it took a lot of the speed out of the cars as far as how they create runs and maintain runs and how you can put together passes and do things on the track. Now, everybody is just stuck side-by-side. If you ain’t in the first or second row, you really are just kind of riding behind them guys with nowhere really, to go. You can’t do much about it because the cars don’t create the runs like they used to. I’d change a few things if I was the king of this deal. But, as long as the fans enjoyed the show, we’ll keep going down the road with what we’ve got.”