|SOURCE: Jerry Markland, Getty Images|
The finish, which came in Earnhardt’s 587th series start, was his first of the season and first since last year’s CampingWorld.com 500 at Phoenix, 42 races ago.
Last fall at Talladega, Earnhardt was eliminated from Chase contention in a controversial finish where Kevin Harvick’s crash and Joey Logano’s restart cost him a “must-win” victory. This year at Daytona, Earnhardt brought that same car - Chassis 88-872, nicknamed “Amelia,” and looked for another strong run. Again, he contended, leading 15 laps before he wrecked off Turn 4 with just 29 circuits remaining. “Amelia” was reported to be a total loss, but last week, word came that the Hendrick team had fixed it. And so, with Earnhardt 7th in points with three runner-up finishes at Atlanta, Texas, and Bristol, Earnhardt and “Amelia” eyed their first victory of the season.
Earnhardt began the weekend just 32nd in the opening practice session despite running the most laps - 37. He then bounced back in Happy Hour with the 7th-fastest speed, and in Saturday’s qualifying, earned the 3rd starting spot with a lap of 192.424 mph.
The 40th starting spot in Sunday’s field went to David Ragan, whose #23 BK Racing entry carried sponsorship from Schulter Systems - Ragan’s third different backer in three weeks. During the pace laps, Ragan was joined by Ryan Newman, sent to the rear for unapproved adjustments, and Tony Stewart, for a driver change. After his return last Sunday at Richmond, Stewart honored his doctor’s request to step out of his car at the earliest possible moment. XFINITY Series regular Ty Dillon qualified the car, and then climbed aboard during the first caution on Lap 51.
That same Lap 51 caution also ultimately determined the last-place battle.
On Lap 1, Ragan passed David Gilliland for the 40th spot. Gilliland was making his first Cup attempt since he missed the show for the Daytona 500, having secured the 39th starting spot in Front Row Motorsports’ non-chartered #35. Ryan Newman’s penalized #31 took it on Lap 2, followed by Stewart on Lap 3 and Michael Annett on Lap 5.
Annett held 40th until the first round of green-flag stops on the 36th go-round, when Carl Edwards trailed in his #19 ARRIS Toyota. Austin Dillon took it on Lap 37 after his stop, then Paul Menard on Lap 38. Menard’s #27 Moen / Menards Chevrolet tangled with Danica Patrick’s #10 Aspen Dental Turbocharged Tooth Fairy Chevrolet when Patrick tried to get into her pit stall. The contact caved-in the right-front of Menard’s car and damaged the rear of Patrick’s. Menard passed Patrick on Lap 39, then Annett retook 40th on Lap 45. Annett was still trailing - and a lap down - when the aforementioned Lap 51 caution occurred.
That time by, Earnhardt had yet to lead a lap, but was still in the middle of the lead pack. Coming off Turn 2, Earnhardt cut left, then lost control and hooked right, catching teammate Kasey Kahne’s #5 Farmers Insurance Chevrolet. The two cars continued toward the outside wall, narrowly missing Patrick’s #10 and instead clipping the left-front of Matt DiBenedetto’s #83 Dustless Blasting Toyota. Under the yellow flag, the order of the three cars placed Kahne behind Earnhardt and DiBenedetto, and the #5 took 40th from Annett on Lap 52.
Of these three drivers, DiBenedetto returned to the track first on Lap 61, dropping Earnhardt from 38th to 39th. Kahne came out next on Lap 91, and Earnhardt took 40th for the final time on Lap 92. Though both Kahne and Earnhardt were more than 40 laps down to the leaders, the last-place battle wasn’t settled until Lap 111, when something on Carl Edwards’ #19 broke, sending him hard to the right into the passing Earnhardt, destroying both cars. Kahne and DiBenedetto also fell out in later incidents: Kahne’s #5 apparently broke a tie rod and hit the wall on Lap 129 while DiBenedetto lost the engine.
Earnhardt, Kahne, and DiBenedetto finished 40th, 39th, and 36th, respectively. Joining them in the Bottom Five was 38th-place Michael Annett, whose #46 Pilot / Flying J Chevrolet slammed a gap in the backstretch wall flush with the driver’s side during a seven-car melee on Lap 97. 37th went to Chris Buescher, whose #34 Love’s Travel Stops / CSX Play It Safe Ford was hooked by Annett in the same crash and tumbled wildly down the backstretch. All drivers involved in these and the total ten cautions on the afternoon walked away without serious injuries.
*This was Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s first last-place finish in a Cup race at Talladega.
*This was Hendrick Motorsports’ first last-place finish in a Cup race at Talladega since April 26, 2009, when Mark Martin’s #5 Carquest / Kellogg’s Chevrolet crashed after 6 laps of the Aaron’s 499. Brad Keselowski, who also won Sunday, claimed his first checkered flag in Cup that day.
*This was the first last-place finish for the #88 in a Cup race at Talladega since May 4, 1980, when Darrell Waltrip’s Gatorade Oldsmobile broke a cam after 4 laps of the Winston 500.
THE BOTTOM FIVE
40) #88-Dale Earnhardt, Jr. / 63 laps / crash
39) #5-Kasey Kahne / 82 laps / crash
38) #46-Michael Annett / 94 laps / crash
37) #34-Chris Buescher / 95 laps / crash
36) #83-Matt DiBenedetto / 98 laps / crash
2016 LASTCAR CUP SERIES DRIVER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Reed Sorenson, Josh Wise (2)
2nd) Aric Almirola, Matt DiBenedetto, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Kyle Larson, Ryan Newman, Cole Whitt (1)
2016 LASTCAR CUP SERIES OWNER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Premium Motorsports (3)
2nd) The Motorsports Group (2)
3rd) BK Racing, Chip Ganassi Racing, Hendrick Motorsports, Richard Childress Racing, Richard Petty Motorsports (1)
2016 LASTCAR CUP SERIES MANUFACTURER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Chevrolet (8)
2nd) Ford, Toyota (1)