Loose wheel denies Dale Earnhardt Jr. a chance at NASCAR win at Talladega
Racing for the penultimate time at Talladega Superspeedway on Sunday, Dale Earnhardt Jr. was the star of the show but a loose wheel denied him a chance to win the GEICO 500.
Despite starting from the outside front row, Earnhardt quickly fell outside of the top-10 and wasn’t able to lead a single lap all afternoon. He also failed to score a single stage point. And yet, despite that, he found himself sitting third with 15 laps to go when he missed getting caught up in the massive multi-car crash that wiped out 18 cars.
But just a single lap into that next restart, the 42-year-old fell off the pace due to a loose wheel and he lost a lap as a result of pitting under green. He got that lap back due to a caution with 10 laps to go but could only recover to a 22nd place finish.
Earnhardt said the loose wheel was so bad that he was lucky to nurse it back to pit road.
“It was pretty bad,” Earnhardt said. “We were about to wreck. And we were lucky to get to pit road and get it changed. The left rear tire come loose. We didn’t change it on the last stop but the glue build-up on the stud didn’t allow them to get the tire tight and it just kind of worked its way loose. We only had one nut tight when we come down pit road. It was real close to coming off.”
And again, he was sitting third with less than 20 laps remaining when it happened.
“I hated it because we were right there in good position to get a great finish; if not win the race and I had to bail out,” Earnhardt said. “That was a hard decision to make. But, knowing what I know now when we come down pit road and they saw the tire, I’m glad I did because it wouldn’t have made it another lap or two.”
Despite his strong qualifying effort and a reputation for being one of the most prolific restrictor plate racers of his generation, Earnhardt left Talladega feeling like the current rules just doesn’t play to his strengths.
“I’m not a big fan of some of the things the cars do and how they react to one another,” Earnhardt said. “We just kind of get stuck side-by-side too easy, so it’s harder to make passes and create passes. When they changed the engine a couple of years ago, it changed the way the draft worked and I haven’t really liked it as well.
“But obviously we had a great year in 2015. We ran really good. But, when they changed the motor after that, it took a lot of the speed out of the cars as far as how they create runs and maintain runs and how you can put together passes and do things on the track. Now, everybody is just stuck side-by-side.”
More to the point, Earnhardt says you don’t have a chance at winning on a late restart unless you’re in the first two rows.
“You can’t do much about it because the cars don’t create the runs like they used to,” Earnhardt said. “I’d change a few things if I was the king of this deal. But, as long as the fans enjoyed the show, we’ll keep going down the road with what we’ve got.”
The bad finish continues a theme of disappointment for Earnhardt this season. He still has just one top-10 (a fifth at Texas) and actually lost a spot in the championship standings to 25th. Barring a sudden run of top-10s, Earnhardt likely needs a win to make the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoffs in his final full-time season.
“We didn’t run many laps inside the Top 5 or Top 10 all day because the car just really didn’t have a lot of speed doubled-up with everybody side-by-side,” Earnhardt said. “We’ve just got to try to work on that if we can. The car runs great by itself. But anytime we got a bit close to the front, those guys around me were just a little stronger to do things to put us in some bad spots and drop us back to the back.
“It happened time and time again. We’ll just have to see what we’re doing with the car and what we can improve.”