By David Morgan, Associate Editor
TALLADEGA, Ala. – Echoing memories of his late grandfather, Jeffrey Earnhardt charged through the pack in his black No. 3 Chevrolet on the last lap at Talladega, falling one spot short of scoring a statement win in Saturday’s Ag-Pro 300.
The journeyman driver, who has driven for lesser funded teams for the duration of his career, finally got his shot this weekend to show off his talent in a Richard Childress Racing car with veteran crew chief Larry McReynolds at the helm.
Earnhardt got his weekend off to a stellar start, scoring the pole for Saturday’s race and setting the stage for what was to come on race day.
Though he wasn’t able to lead the first lap, Earnhardt found his way to the front on lap 5, keeping the No. 3 car at the top of the scoring pylon for 10 laps. While he eventually got shuffled out of line on a restart and was mired back in traffic for much of the day, Earnhardt kept his nose clean so that he would be around at the end of the race when it truly mattered.
As the cautions racked up and the race slogged past its originally intended duration, it looked as if Earnhardt would finish just inside the top-10.
Then came the last lap.
When the field reached the backstretch on the final lap, the seas parted and Earnhardt made his charge toward the front. Advancing to third behind race leader Noah Gragson and AJ Allmendinger, Earnhardt made a three-wide pass on Allmendinger in Turn 3 and 4 to slot into second place, where he would set his sights on Gragson and the win.
Following right in Gragson’s tire tracks through the tri-oval, Earnhardt would run out of time to try and get by him for the win, crossing the line 0.131 in arears of Gragson’s JR Motorsports Chevrolet.
Even though it wasn’t a win, Earnhardt was overjoyed with the finish, which was also a career best for him in the Xfinity Series.
“It’s still mission accomplished coming here,” Earnhardt said. “We wanted to set on the pole and win this thing and we fell short by one spot. Just very thankful for everyone that’s given me this opportunity.
“It’s pretty incredible to even think that I’m here. I’ve been telling everyone that showed up here, someone’s got to pinch me to wake me up. I didn’t even want to believe it at first. Then as it got closer and got more real and more real and more real and we came here and sat on the pole. I’m like someone wake me up, it just can’t be true.
“I’m just thankful for this opportunity. It’s been a dream of mine for years and I wouldn’t be here without all these people standing behind me. All the people at RCR that built this fast race car for us to come here to Talladega and do what we did. It’s a true testament to all of these guys.”
Afterwards, McReynolds noted that Earnhardt’s run to second reminded him of his late grandfather, seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt Sr., who McReynolds served as crew chief for in the late 1990’s at RCR.
“I had feelings on the last lap that there must have been an Earnhardt behind the wheel based on the things he was doing,” McReynolds said. “So, the apple didn’t roll too far from the dad’s tree or the granddad’s tree.
“I’m just happy for him. That was my whole goal coming down here. I was flattered and honored to be asked to do this, but this was about trying to do everything we could to give Jeffrey Earnhardt every opportunity to cash in on what was presented to him here.
“We came close, but I think he’s pretty happy. Pretty good weekend overall.”