Tampa Bay Sports Day

NASCAR Notebook: Loose Wheel Dashes Earnhardt’s Hopes at Talladega


By Reid Spencer, NASCAR Wire Service
TALLADEGA, Ala. — Dale Earnhardt Jr. lined up third for a restart on Lap 174 of Sunday’s GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway, after a massive 18-car wreck on the backstretch thinned the field.

The anticipation in the air was palpable, as Earnhardt rolled through the tri-oval toward the start/finish line, but what happened next had fans in the front grandstands ripping the radio headphones off their heads and throwing them to the ground.

As the field came up to speed, Earnhardt pulled out of line and moved to the top of the track, coming perilously close to the outside wall. As the pack sped away, Earnhardt’s No. 88 Chevrolet slowed and rolled gingerly to pit road.

“Oh, I had a wheel come off,” Earnhardt said after the race. “The guys said it was real similar to the issue we had at Atlanta, but it was pretty bad. We were about to wreck. And we were lucky to get to pit road and get it changed. The left rear tire come loose. We didn’t change it on the last stop but the glue build-up on the stud didn’t allow them to get the tire tight, and it just kind of worked its way loose.

“We only had one nut tight when we come down pit road. It was real close to coming off. I hated it, because we were right there in good position to get a great finish–if not win the race–and I had to bail out. That was a hard decision to make. But, knowing what I know now when we come down pit road and they saw the tire, I’m glad I did, because it wouldn’t have made it another lap or two.”

Earnhardt lost a lap because of the unscheduled stop but got it back as the highest-scored lapped car when NASCAR called the seventh caution on Lap 179. But over the final few circuits, which included a two-lap overtime, Earnhardt couldn’t make progress and finished 22nd.

“Yeah, it was very disappointing,” Earnhardt said. “But the wheel was coming off, and I felt something in the caution. I thought I had a flat tire. But, (Jamie) McMurray said the tires were fine. Something just wasn’t right. And, I’m glad I got out of there when I did because we only had one lug left on it and it was going to come off in the race.

“It wouldn’t have made it to the end, and that would have been pretty catastrophic. So it was a good choice to come down (to pit road). I was hoping we were going to be able to rebound and gain a couple of spots, but we just didn’t get in the right lane, and our car wasn’t very good in the pack.”

Having announced his retirement from Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series racing at the end of the year, Earnhardt will have one more shot at a seventh Talladega victory when the series returns during The Playoffs on Oct. 15.

Bold move propels McMurray to runner-up finish
Race winner Ricky Stenhouse Jr. wasn’t the only driver who made a strong move on the final lap of Sunday’s GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway.

After Stenhouse took the lead from Kyle Busch, thanks in part to a push from Jimmie Johnson, Jamie McMurray threaded the needle between Johnson’s Chevrolet and Busch’s Toyota to vault into second place.

McMurray held the spot, trailing Stenhouse to the finish line by .095 seconds and beating Busch to the stripe by .004 seconds.

“It’s really circumstantial as to what the guys do in front of you, and what is happening behind you,” said McMurray, who posted his best finish since running second at Martinsville in the fall of 2015. “I just got a run at the right time.”

McMurray shouldn’t sell himself short. Acknowledged as an adept restrictor-plate racer, he claimed the most recent of his Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series victories at Talladega in the fall of 2013.

“This has been a really good track for me, and I haven’t been able to finish here the last couple of years, so really happy with that,” McMurray said. “We had good pit stops. (Crew chief) Matt (McCall) did a great job calling the race.

“The guys are building really good cars. It’s interesting, because in year’s past, I feel like this is always a track that you thought you could win at and gain great points. And we have run so well at so many tracks this year, this was a track that I just wanted to survive at, so we could get to another track and race.”

Patrick had a feeling about boyfriend’s prospects
Danica Patrick said she had positive vibes about boyfriend Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s chances in Sunday’s GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway, and not just because Stenhouse had won the pole during Saturday’s time trials.

But Patrick was otherwise occupied when Stenhouse took the checkered flag for the first time in his 158th start in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.

“I was in the bus sitting and packing up, but I had a feeling all day,” Patrick said after congratulating her boyfriend in Victory Lane. “I mean, obviously, he qualified on the pole, but at the beginning of the race when he was leading (the first 13 laps), I was thinking he was either going to stay in the lead, or something bad might happen.

“But I got the feeling that it was just one of those days where he was going to make it happen. It’s a very good day.”

Patrick hasn’t won in 164 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series races, but she got her only IndyCar victory in her 50th start in the series.

“I can relate so well, and especially knowing how much success he has had before he came into the Cup Series,” Patrick said. “It’s that relief, like something you’ve been waiting for so long, and I think we both felt it coming in the last month at least. I’m just totally proud of him.