Dale Earnhardt Jr. persevered in the NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway to earn a 17th-place finish despite an early altercation and a less than generous teammate on Sunday.
Earnhardt started the Aaron's 499 12th, but 20 laps into the race he said he thought there was an issue with his left rear tire following contact with Travis Kvapil. Coming off of Turn 2, David Stremme squeezed Kvapil and the No. 93 Toyota pinched Earnhardt, with the two cars making contact.
"I was going around the outside of somebody and I don't know if they got tight or whatever, but we got together," Earnhardt said. "It just tore the quarter panel off; the tire didn't actually go flat. The quarter panel rolled up on top of the tire and tore the tread off the tire, but the tire was still up. Goodyear builds a good one. ... I just (did) not have room right there.
"When we hit, I thought we had a flat; it kind of turned me down and inside there. Luckily, we didn't have any more trouble than that. Got it fixed up, the team did a good job sorting everything out and getting everything right."
Although Earnhardt fell off of the lead lap, crew chief Steve Letarte opted to err on the side of caution and ensure the car was safe to return to action. Earnhardt was forced to restart 43rd. He got a break when Trevor Bayne's engine expired on Lap 24 and Letarte elected to check the fenders, tires and crush panels once again.
The ability of Earnhardt's crew members to remain calm and stick to their game plan enabled Earnhardt to return to the lead lap as the beneficiary of the free pass following the race's second caution, on Lap 51. Sixty-five circuits later he climbed to a race-high third.
"It's a long race, a lot of things can happen," Earnhardt said. "I've seen a lot of guys get in trouble down there in Turns 1 and 2. So a lot of things can happen in this race."
Earnhardt's patience was tested in the front pack. He had a run but his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson, who was drafting with Matt Kenseth, would not let the No. 88 Chevy pass for the lead even though Earnhardt said he had the faster car.
"If he wants to be a good teammate he needs to leave me the inside lane," Earnhardt said over the radio. "C'mon. I have a run. I'm not going to sit here and take care of his ass."
That's precisely what happened in this race two years ago when he pushed Johnson to the win and then settled for fourth place. On Sunday, however, spotter T.J. Majors was negotiating a partner for Earnhardt in the form of Kurt Busch. But eventually the two were shuffled back in the lead pack.
"Well, some guys built a run on the outside and got in line," Earnhardt said. "A lot of people committed up there and just went around us. I didn't think the outside line was going to be able to do that, but enough people got up there."
Earnhardt finished second in the Daytona 500 with the new Generation 6 car, but on Sunday he admitted he was still acclimating to drafting on the series' other restrictor-plate track, the 2.66-mile Talladega Superspeedway. With a lengthy race stoppage due to rain, Earnhardt didn't have enough time at the front of the field to push his car to the limit. He insists "there is still a lot to learn."
"That was our first little bit of experience up in the front," Earnhardt said. "I was trying to understand what the draft was doing and how it works. ... We can't really get as aggressive as we would like to with the car. But I don't know if that's just the way the package is working with the traffic with the draft. When we get (freight)-trained on the outside by some guys, I see it happen to a lot of cars. So I don't think it's anything just particular to our car. It's been interesting to see how the draft works and what you need to do to get up front."
"The package and the drafting is different than anything I've ever been around. The side-draft on these cars is just incredible. It's something I wish wasn't quite as strong because we can really run up beside each other and just really stop each car. And it really causes a delay in action."
When the race restarted following a three-hour and 36-minute delay for rain and then track drying, Earnhardt flirted with a top 10 finish. He lined up seventh for the final green-white-checker restart after surviving an 11-car pile-up but was shuffled back to 17th.
Given that the Aaron's 499 was a race of attrition, Earnhardt still managed to move to third in the points standings. He trails leader Jimmie Johnson by 59 points.