Dale Earnhardt Jr. winning at Talladega Superspeedway is a big deal. Not just for sponsor Nationwide, but as the sport’s most popular driver.
Leading a race-high 67 laps, Earnhardt led Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson to checkered flag in Sunday’s GEICO 500.
“This is really emotional,” Earnhardt told FOX in Victory Lane. “I haven’t won here in a long time.”
The win for Earnhardt, the 24th of his Sprint Cup Series career, was his first at Talladega since 2004, when he capped off four consecutive wins at the 2.66-mile superspeedway.
“It was my daddy’s birthday a couple days ago and everything is just so good for me right now,” Earnhardt continued. “My personal life, my racing, the team I’m with. I don’t know why. I don’t feel like I deserve it but I just feel overcome with a lot of emotion.”
The win was the first for crew chief Greg Ives, who pairs with Earnhardt for his first full-time Sprint Cup season on the pit box.
“We knew we had a great opportunity when we showed up in Daytona to win at one of these speedway races,” said Ives who was in tears atop the pit box after the checkered flag. “We are doing an awesome job here. We had a lot of fight in us.”
As the field took the white flag, the race for the lead turned from a “who moves first” to a “who’ll finish first” as Denny Hamlin first sparked the shuffle.
Shortly after, Carl Edwards got loose going into turn 1 and collected Casey Mears. As drivers tried to avoid the No. 19, Jeff Gordon and others starting spinning off the second turn. NASCAR let the field race back to the checkered flag since no drivers took a significant hit and kept rolling.
Ryan Blaney looked to hold off the hard-chargers, running third and finishing fourth for the legendary Wood Brothers Racing team.
“I was really trying to watch what the [No.] 11 did,” said Blaney who made only his sixth Sprint Cup start. “I knew he was going to make a move and he was laying back a little bit, kind of judging runs. Luckily Sam [Hornish Jr.] picked me up on the fronstretch and got us back up there.”
Earnhardt finished the weekend that was started and maintained by Hendrick Motorsports. Johnson led 50 laps and joined Gordon (47), Kasey Kahne (3) and Earnhardt (67) to lead all but 21 laps in the 188-lap race.
Johnson had to settle for second spot following a 26-lap stint to the end that was dominated with single-file lines up front.
“I was waiting for guys to kind of spread out maybe with three to go but it didn’t happen,” said Johnson who grabbed a fourth straight top-four finish. “Coming around to take the white it happened and we had such a small group there wasn’t much energy in the single-car draft. The [No.] 11 got rid of the [No.] 21 and that hurt my opportunity.”
Winning the pole by tenths of a second, Gordon was looking strong before speeding while entering pit road under green-flag conditions.
“I thought I was plenty conservative there but the tires were worn out and I just carried too much speed on pit road,” said Gordon who later was collected in a last-lap accident, resulting in a 31st-place finish. “After that issue on my part, we were just in the back and trying to make our way to the front. They started wrecking and we avoided one of them but couldn’t avoid the second.”
Kahne was caught up in the lap 48 Big One on the backstretch, later re-joining the track and finishing 34th.
“I saw the [No.] 6 get sideways in front of me,” Larson said after being checked in the infield care center. “From there, (I) tried to miss the wrecks and thought I was gong to clear it all and then the [No.] 40 started coming up the track.”
Tony Stewart had his best race of 2015, leading the race for six laps and racing Earnhardt Jr. for the front spot for a majority of the sunny afternoon. However, the single-file line in the closing stages hurt Stewart as he attempted to keep the inside lane rolling. He finished 19th.
Plate racing has always being known for giving the underdogs a true shot at the ultimate prize. Seeing the infamous No. 21 Ford finish in the top five led the way, with Wise and his Phil Parsons Racing No. 98 Ford grabbing their first top 10.
The race had 27 lead changes, six cautions and had 15 drivers lead a lap.
Next week, the Sprint Cup Series circuit heads to Kansas Speedway for a Saturday night race under the lights.