|“You know they're going to crash..."|
The meek may indeed inherit the earth, but they won’t win races at Talladega Superspeedway.
Case in point? Dale Earnhardt, Jr., who played it safe late in Sunday’s Aaron’s 499 en route to a disappointing, 26th-place finish.
Earnhardt had a strong car Sunday, leading 26 laps and running among the leaders throughout the event. He was at the head of the class when David Gilliland’s blown engine put the field under caution on lap 151, and ducked onto pit road in search of tires and a much-needed splash of fuel. He restarted 13th, but soon fell to the back of the pack, never to be heard from again.
As the laps wound down, the packed Talladega grandstands braced for a patented, late-race Earnhardt charge. He did mount a brief assault in the outside lane, but when Josh Wise slid into the three-wide line and slowed his roll, Earnhardt shockingly elected to throw in his cards.
“We had an opportunity to get a run, we took it; but we got blocked by the No. 98,” he recalled. “And with two (laps) to go, you’re not going to get another run.”
So while Denny Hamlin, Greg Biffle and Clint Bowyer battled for the victory, NASCAR’s perennial Most Popular Driver languished in the back, leaving fans to wonder what had become of the driver who dominated Talladega so often in the past.
"We came out too far behind," said Earnhardt of his final pit call. "It's hard to drive up through there. The track is three-wide forever (and) I just didn't feel confident we could do it without getting in a crash.
|"...and I can't afford to wreck anymore here."|
“You know they're going to crash and I can't afford to wreck anymore here,” he said, recalling the October 2012 Talladega crash that sidelined him for two races with a severe concussion. “You've got to pick your battles, and I felt like we were better off not getting in a wreck. Them other guys were way more aggressive... so I just sat there and watched the wrecks until the end of the race.”
With a win already in hand and a spot in the 2014 Chase essentially secured, Earnhardt can perhaps be forgiven for saving his car – and his health – for another day. It’s not, however, what his loyal legions of fans expect, especially at a track where his legendary father once drove from 18th to first in the final three circuits.
There is little comparison between Earnhardt the elder and his stock car driving son, and that’s fine. “Junior” is a kinder, gentler soul, more introspective and less aggressive, both on and off the race track. And Sunday, he showed a side of himself that the Old Man rarely (if ever) displayed; a willingness to accept defeat and live to fight another day.
“We’ve already got a win,” said Earnhardt afterward, “(and) I’ve been in too many late-race wrecks. I didn’t want to be no part of it. There were three or four (crashes) we dodged pretty good, so we’ve got a car in one piece.
”We’ll go to Daytona and do it a little bit different, where we aren’t pitting and giving up all that track position at the end.”