TALLADEGA, Ala. — Pit road was empty, every car pushed back to its waiting hauler. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was celebrating his first win in the Cup series over in victory lane. The tens of thousands who’d come to Talladega this afternoon had begun walking, stumbling, staggering, or crawling toward the exits.
And yet, here was Dale Earnhardt Jr., surrounded by cameras and microphones. He’d just finished 22nd in the Geico 500, a promising race at his favorite track turned ugly and unwatchable. He wasn’t happy, but he was swallowing his frustration — most of it, anyway.
“I wasn’t really feeling a lot of confidence in the car,” Earnhardt said. “We were shaping up to have an opportunity for a good finish. It’s disappointing. I was having a hard time figuring out what we needed to do or what we were missing there for most of the race.”
Which is a shame for Earnhardt, considering that 1. he’s the second-winningest driver at this track (tied with Jeff Gordon, and sharing a name with the winningest driver) and 2. he had a car capable of running extraordinarily fast at this track. He started on the outside of the front row, losing the pole position to eventual race winner Stenhouse by two-tenths of a second.
Earnhardt wasn’t able to keep up with leaders like Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, and eventual race winner Ricky Stenhouse Jr., and he drifted deep into the pack. But he managed to elude by mere inches two straight potential wrecks, including an 18-car pileup that brought out a red flag, and with 13 laps remaining was in third place and looking ready to challenge for another victory.
But just as he was preparing to make a run, Earnhardt felt something very, very wrong. He brought the car into the pits, killing his chances at a win, and the 88 team found that only one of the five lug nuts on the wheel was tight. “You’re lucky it didn’t come off,” Earnhardt said on the radio afterward. “It was [expletive] close!”
The lost opportunity clearly weighed on Earnhardt; he spent several minutes pacing around his car after the race, looking again and again at his left tire like it had personally failed him … which, in a way, it did. He smoothly dodged a question about the emotions of his penultimate Talladega race: “No emotions. Just frustration.”
As Earnhardt wrapped up his interviews and headed for the garage, public address announcers began crowing about the fall Talladega race, the final one for Earnhardt at this most favorable of tracks. All this “last-time-ever!” talk is going to define the next six months for Earnhardt. He’s got to be hoping talk of an Earnhardt-free future doesn’t overshadow the work he still has to do this season.
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports and the author of EARNHARDT NATION, on sale now at Amazon or wherever books are sold. Contact him at email@example.com or find him on Twitter or on Facebook.