Dale Earnhardt Jr. had to win Sunday at Talladega in order to move forward to the Eliminator Round of the Chase. For a few brief moments, it looked as though he had done that just that. However, an untimely caution flag flew and it was determined that Joey Logano was actually leading the race when the caution was called, leaving Earnhardt out in the cold.
The result was not without controversy and has left many fans questioning NASCAR’s decision-making process. Earlier in the week NASCAR announced that they had decided to limit the number of green-white-checkered attempts to one for the Talladega race, stating, “We take very seriously the responsibility of balancing exciting finishes and safety. We’re confident that this is a positive direction for both.”
It may have sounded good on paper, but the execution left something to be desired. After a first attempt at a green-white-checkered finish, a caution came out before the cars reached the start/finish line and NASCAR called a “do-over.”
Earnhardt had one last chance to claim the victory at Talladega. But shortly after the field took the green flag again, another caution was called and Logano was declared the winner.
The final yellow flag was brought out by Kevin Harvick who clipped the No.6 car of Trevor Bayne, causing a multi-car pileup behind him on the track, thereby ending the race. Bayne, along with Denny Hamlin, Matt Kenseth and Ryan Newman, were vocal in their displeasure with Harvick, claiming that he had caused the wreck to freeze the field and ensure his spot in the Chase.
Kenseth didn’t mince words, saying, “He pulled out of the way the first time because he knew he was blowing up and this time he said he was going to hold his lane, so we went up to go round him and then he clipped the 6 (Bayne). He knew if he put him in a slow spin the race was over and he’d make it, so, like I said, it feels we lost control here the last two weeks. I don’t think that’s what racing is about. The spot they put us in, it’s hard to blame people, but that’s not what racing’s about.”
Harvick maintained, “I thought I could get going better than I did the first time and I just didn’t get going. So, as I was pulling up, I was looking to the inside waiting for them to shoot the gap and I hit the 6.”
While the drivers and the fans played the blame game on social media, Earnhardt took the high road.
Clearly disappointed, he said, “I’m glad this weekend is over with.”
But as others pointed fingers, Earnhardt chose to accept the defeat with grace, putting the day’s events in perspective, as he explained, “I just wanted to go out there, whatever happened, put forth a good account of myself, my team. I’m real proud of what we did today. So I can feel good about that.
“I can look back on a lot of different things that put me in this situation right now, starting with the first two races in this round where we didn’t run well. We got wrecked by the 19 (Carl Edwards) and just didn’t run well at Kansas.
“I’m going to get asked about the green-white-checkered rule, which I’m fine with it. I feel like no matter the rules when the race is over, I can live with the result as long as everyone else is going by the same rules.”
“So I felt like, per the rule book, it sorted out and I finished second. I’m okay with that. We could argue they could have waited another 100 foot to throw the caution, but they didn’t have to. They threw it when they needed to. I’m fine with that.”
Judging by Earnhardt’s final words to the media, it was evident that Talladega was disappearing in his rear view mirror as he looks ahead to the remainder of the season.
“Well, the best thing that could happen for us is the same thing that happened last year; go win,” he stated. “We’re disappointed today. We were disappointed last year when we left Talladega. But we went to Martinsville and sort of surprised ourselves with our first win there.
“Dang, you know when I look at that video of all of us jumping up and down on that trailer like idiots, that’s a team that’s not too bothered being knocked out of the Chase right there. If we can go to the racetrack and win, it certainly makes our situation more bearable. If we could go to Homestead and run well, I’d love to win there, never won there. I like that track. Running against the wall is a lot of fun. We’ll see.”
As his fans adjust to the loss and a Chase without Earnhardt, it’s clear that he has already shifted his focus to the future. A victory in the weeks ahead will make the bitter pill of Talladega a little easier to swallow.