TALLADEGA, Ala. (AP) — A loose wheel stopped Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s pursuit of another Talladega triumph.
NASCAR’s most popular driver ran in the back of the pack much of the way Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway after an impressive qualifying effort — he started second — gave fans hope he was poised to salvage a disappointing year.
Earnhardt, who’s on his farewell tour after saying this will be his final season, made a late surge but had his victory chances end when he was forced to pit with 14 laps remaining. He wound up finishing 22nd.
Bringing the car in to pit was a hard decision to make but clearly the right one, as it turned out, since only one of the five lug nuts was securing the tire.
“It was very disappointing,” Earnhardt said. “The wheel was coming off. I felt something on the caution and thought I had a flat tire. (Jamie) McMurray said the tires were fine, but something just wasn’t right. I’m glad I got out there when I did because it only had one lug on it. It was going to come off in the race, and we wouldn’t have made it to the end. That would have been pretty catastrophic.”
Earnhardt started behind only pole-sitter — and eventual race winner Ricky Stenhouse Jr. — at a track where he’s won six times, more than any other active driver. He left after another frustrating result.
Earnhardt has five finishes of 30th or worse this season. But this is Talladega, where he’s had as much success as anybody but his iconic father. He and Jeff Gordon are tied for the second-most wins at the superspeedway, behind only Dale Earnhardt Sr. with 10.
Dale Jr. had surged from the 25th spot back into Top 10 over the final 35 laps before the tire troubles.
“I got a wheel coming off. Coming in,” Earnhardt told his team. A caution kept him on the lead lap but Earnhardt couldn’t make much headway at the end.
Afterward, a solemn Earnhardt conferred with his team and contemplated what happened for several minutes before greeting a waiting throng of reporters. He said the car wasn’t fast in pack racing, which is especially hard to overcome at a venue where drivers are often racing three-wide.
“I wasn’t feeling a lot of confidence in the car,” Earnhardt said. “We were shaping up to have a pretty good opportunity to get a good finish. So it’s disappointing. I was having a hard time figuring out what I needed to do or what we were missing there for most of the race.”
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