By Seth Eggert, NASCAR Correspondent
The first NASCAR Xfinity Series top-10 finish for Jeffrey Earnhardt was a decade in the making. Earnhardt had a chance at a better finish in the Rinnai due to a late-race caution, but the worn racing surface of Atlanta Motor Speedway prevented him from capitalizing.
Earnhardt’s No. 18 Extreme Concepts / iK9 Toyota Supra had been running inside the top-five when John Hunter Nemechek spun off turn two with seven laps to go. He exited pit road second on and restarted on the outside on the ensuing restart. The notoriously old racing surface left Earnhardt struggling for grip as his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Christopher Bell cruised to victory.
As his Supra struggled for grip, Earnhardt slipped behind Cole Custer and his other JGR teammate Brandon Jones. He stabilized in fifth, battling defending Xfinity Series Champion Tyler Reddick during the final three laps. When the duo took the checkered, Reddick took fifth, leaving Earnhardt in sixth.
“Pray to get the inside,” Earnhardt admitted about his thoughts on the restart. “That outside was tough. I blew the tires off it early in the race. I knew it was going to be hard to get a restart out there. It seemed like everyone kind of struggled up there. Just couldn’t get the power to the ground. I had Brandon (Jones) push me trying all he could do to get me going and just sucks.
“These guys put a heck of a race car underneath me and I was really looking forward to hell, maybe winning this thing for my sponsors iK9 and Joe Gibbs and all the fans that came out here to see us today. That Toyota Supra sure was pretty fast today.”
After making his Xfinity Series debut a decade ago, this is the first time that Earnhardt has finished inside the top-10. His best finish, 12th, came in 2014 at Bristol Motor Speedway with JD Motorsports, a ride now occupied by Ross Chastain. Earnhardt matched that finish in 2015 at Talladega Superspeedway during a stint with Viva Motorsports.
In 10 years of NASCAR National Series competition, Earnhardt has had just one top-10 finish prior to Atlanta was in the NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series at Daytona International Speedway with Rick Ware Racing. That night, he finished seventh.
Earnhardt summed up his career-best run with a smile.
“It is awesome. Just to get to go and compete in a really good car like this. I hate we got stuck on the outside on that last restart. Restarts are really hard on the outside here, but the Toyota Supra was super-fast today. These guys put me in a heck of a car. We came up short on the win, but we showed we belong here and we’re going to run up front the rest of the races.”