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(Photo: Nigel Kinrade/NKP)

5 Points To Ponder: Dale Earnhardt Jr. Falls Just Short At Talladega

ONE: Dale Earnhardt Jr. Falls Just Short

In the end, on a day dedicated in his honor and the 17th anniversary of his late father’s last win, it was not to be for Dale Earnhardt Jr., who finished seventh at the end of an insane race at Talladega.

“I would have loved to have won the race for all the fans that came out here,” he said afterwards. But it simply wasn’t meant to be.

The weekend started off well, Earnhardt winning the pole at ‘Dega for the first time in his Cup career. As the afternoon progressed, Junior managed to avoid major damage in the big wrecks and found himself still with a shot on the final restart. But a last-lap block by Joey Logano and a dragging splitter kept the perfect ending from playing out.

“I know a lot of folks came to see this race just for the fact that it was my last plate race,” he said. “Trust me, I wanted to win it for all those folks more than myself, but just couldn’t get it done.”

What a celebration it would have been at a raucous, packed Talladega house. But with the Earnhardts announcing a pregnancy Monday, a beautiful baby girl on the way there’s plenty of good times ahead for this retiring driver.

TWO: Congrats, Gray Gaulding

Congratulations to rookie Gray Gaulding on picking up a hard-fought first top 10 (ninth) and career best finish at Talladega Superspeedway. In his 27th Cup race, the teenager beat his previous best finish of 20th (also at Talladega.)

“It means so much,” said Gaulding in an interview with Frontstretch. “It’s so cool to know a small team is up here duking it out, getting top 10s. We got a top 10 at Talladega. Pretty cool to race in front of these fans, it’s a dream of mine to be able to race here and get a good finish, and we did it.”

I’ve always celebrated the underdog in these columns and I’m delighted to do so again this week after an absolutely crazy race on the high banks in Alabama. Gaulding’s top 10 was just the third ever in BK Racing’s six-year, 487-race existence and a magical day for a driver still in his teens (he’s 19).

THREE: Cutoff Race #2

For the second time in the ten-race Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoffs we head into a cutoff race weekend. After Sunday’s 400-mile race at Kansas Speedway, just eight drivers will remain in the hunt for the 2017 title with only four races still to run.

Two drivers, Martin Truex Jr. and Brad Keselowski, have already qualified courtesy of their wins at Charlotte Motor Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway, respectively. The other ten drivers will battle for the final six spots in the penultimate round this Sunday afternoon.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (-22 points from eighth) and Jamie McMurray (-29) likely need a win to advance or a bizarre confluence of on-track circumstances. On the other end of the spectrum, Kyle Larson (+33 from 9th) could be qualified by the end of Stage 2 should points fall his way.

As things stand now, the two other drivers on the outside looking in are Kyle Busch (ninth) and Matt Kenseth (10th). But, as we’ve seen, with the addition of up to 20 stage points circumstances can change quickly.

After the drama of Talladega – and drama really is the right word – we should see a race that is somewhat staid by comparison this weekend with the dreaded aero push playing a significant role. After four pretty dull races to kick off the playoffs, Talladega shook things up.

Sadly, expect things to return to normalcy this weekend at Kansas Speedway. Here’s hoping this race turns out better than the other intermediates so far in the playoffs.

FOUR: Next Up, Kansas

Speaking of Kansas, this weekend marks the second trip in 2017 to the 1.5-mile circuit and 24th in total. Just five of the sport’s current full-time drivers ran the inaugural race here back in September 2001: Ryan Newman (who finished second that day), Kevin Harvick, Matt Kenseth, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Kurt Busch.

Not surprisingly, Jimmie Johnson has the most wins (with three) while Harvick, Kenseth, and Joey Logano each have a pair of them. Five other drivers (Newman, Denny Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr., Brad Keselowski, and Kyle Busch) have managed a single victory.

When we last visited, all the way back in mid-May of this year, Truex won the the race going away. He led a race best 104 of 267 laps after Ryan Blaney showed some strength in the early going. Aric Almirola, meanwhile, sustained a compression fracture in the year’s most vicious wreck and ended up sitting out seven races to recover.

Much has changed since we last visited but the one thing that hasn’t is the form of Truex. Expect the No. 78 to be a factor all day long and bounce back from that Talladega “Big One.”

FIVE: The Wine Country Fires

Finally this week, for the last eight days, northern California’s picture-perfect wine country has been plagued by massive wildfires. 41 people have lost their lives while over 5,000 homes and businesses are reduced to smoking rubble. “This is truly one of the greatest, if not the greatest, tragedy that California has ever faced,” said the Governor of California, Jerry Brown, this week. “The devastation is just unbelievable. It’s a horror that no one could have imagined.”

My wife’s own 90-year-old grandmother, a true badass if ever there was one, was evacuated at 2 a.m. Monday morning from her Santa Rosa home on the first night of the fires. I’m happy to say she is absolutely fine and we’ve heard her home is still standing. Despite the power cut and the acrid stench of the altogether too near fires, in the middle of the chaos, Grandma remembered to retrieve her husband’s ashes, have a neighbor hold open her garage door, and then drive down to safety at her son’s house. She even saw a propane tank explode on her journey south. On that first night of the fire, fueled by high winds, the multiple fires had spread across a massive swathe of Wine Country and it ended up over 100 square miles in total, a staggering number.

In the days since the fires began, the response has been massive with first responders coming from all over the country, including 10,000 firefighters to help quell the outbreak. We talk a lot about sporting heroes – and I do it in this column all the time — but the truth is the real heroes are the ones fighting on the very front lines. I’m so thankful and grateful to all the amazing people battling this terrible blaze and caring for those affected.

As ever, at times like these, the response from the Bay Area restores your faith in humanity. Signs saying: “The love in the air is thicker than the smoke #SonomaProud” tell the story of the recovery that is already beginning while the fires still burn.

My thoughts and prayers are with all those affected by this horrible tragedy. Tell the ones that matter to you most you love them. It’s something you can’t say enough.

About Danny Peters

Danny Peters

Danny starts his 10th year with the Frontstretch in 2016, writing the Tuesday signature column Five Points To Ponder. An English transplant living in San Francisco, by way of New York City, he’s had an award-winning marketing career with some of the biggest companies sponsoring sports. Working with racers all over the country, his freelance writing has even reached outside the world of racing to include movie screenplays.

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