Talladega takes its toll, but Earnhardt rides to the finish

Steve Hummer, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on

Published in Auto Racing

TALLADEGA, Ala. -- It was Dale Earnhardt Jr. Day everywhere in Alabama except for the 2.66-mile circuit of slanted asphalt where it mattered most.

No, at Talladega, the day belonged to mayhem, which seems to win here more often than even the Earnhardt family.

And, almost parenthetically, Brad Keselowski grabbed a piece of Sunday for himself by winning the Alabama 500. With only 14 of the 40-car field still running at the final three-lap restart, this day was survive and advance, in literal NASCAR style. And with his victory, Keselowski was assured of a place in NASCAR's playoffs when they are downsized to the round of eight in two weeks.

Keselowski was not exactly the frequent Talladega victor all the fans came to salute with raised, sweating beer cans every time he passed in view. This was his fifth win here -- no small accomplishment. But Keselowski has time to add to his cache. This was the last ride for Earnhardt, a seven-time champion on this big, cruel track and the heir to the goodwill created by his 10-time-winning daddy.

The soon-to-retire Earnhardt, 43, after all was the driver of such status that the governor declared this to be officially his day in Alabama. Thus, her voter appeal was about all that got out of here undamaged.

A metallic carnage worthy of a Bruce Willis movie broke out over Sunday's conclusion. Three times there was so much debris and broken hope strewn about the place that they just had to park on the track while it all was scooped up for recycling beneath a red flag of surrender. By the time of the final restart, only three laps of the race and 35 percent of the cars remained.

The last of the wrecks held importance to the folks in the north Georgia mountains. In that one, Dawsonville's Chase Elliott, son of Bill, trapped high on the track and getting desperate, saw a sliver of escape and went for it. It was like trying to parallel park at 200 mph. "It was time to go and I went," Elliott said. That slightest opening collapsed as he ducked down on the track, and much spinning and smoke ensued. His car ruined, Elliott left Talladega with a 16th-place finish and dropped from fourth to sixth in the playoff points standing.

On the restart after that final mishap, Earnhardt found himself tucked in behind the leader, in theoretical position to make one last push for an epic kind of victory. But his car had been wounded in the process of dodging calamity, and began spitting sparks as it got back up to speed. In no condition to further contend, Earnhardt drifted back to an eventual seventh-place finish.

That left it to Keselowski to make the one last fancy move through the severely culled herd and get to the safety of victory lane.

Could Earnhardt really miss this kind of homage to twisted sheet metal, now that he officially can walk away from restrictor plate racing (a gift not afforded his father, who died in 2001 at Daytona)?

He admitted to a sense of relief just to have gotten through Sunday less dented than his ride. Remember that a severe concussion cost him the bulk of last season, and raised the specter of lasting damage.

"This was one I was worried about. You know, in the back of my mind I was a little concerned," Earnhardt admitted afterward.

"But you can't win the race if you race scared. I've raced scared here before, and you don't do well when that happens. So, you have to block it out and just go out there and take the risks and hope that it's just not your day to get in one of those accidents. And it wasn't."

For a good part of the day, Earnhardt could not claim that his superior talent or innate ability at Talladega played crucial roles. "Ain't nothing I'm doing. I'm just not getting hit," he said.

With the relief that came with not getting hit (hard) also came a measure of disappointment, he said. He hoped all those in the seats who spent their weekend in the garden spot of Talladega didn't feel cheated that he had failed to do something really memorable.

"I know these folks were hoping we could put something together," he said. "I know there's a lot of folks who came here particularly to see this race because it's the last one here. I hate to leave slightly disappointed. But hopefully they enjoyed everything else they saw. I mean, we ran as hard as we could and did the best that we could."

Earnhardt qualified for the pole Sunday, led for seven laps, stayed intact through to the finish, which on this day was a defying-the-odds accomplishment. Hardly a total loss.

There are five more races to run before the end of the season. Earnhardt's no longer the competitive factor he was -- it has been 50 races for him since his last victory. He has his health. It is definitely time to put up his feet -- both the regular one and the lead one -- on a comfortable stool and let someone else deal the mayhem.

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