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TALLADEGA: Junior's last lap victory plans go up in smoke
Then the legs were kicked out from under him.
Earnhardt Jr. was running second to eventual winner Jamie McMurray over those closing miles, and fellow Chevrolet driver Austin Dillon was in third – all at the front of a long single-file Talladega draft. The assumption along pit road – and the anticipation in the track's sweeping grandstands – was that Junior would pull out of line on the backstretch on the last lap, Dillon would follow him and they would sweep past McMurray to produce what would have been a very popular Earnhardt Jr. victory.
In an instant, that idea dissolved.
On the final lap, Dillon, driving in place of the injured Tony Stewart in the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet, lost control of his car. Casey Mears plowed into the rear of Dillon's car, shooting it into the air and sparking a big wreck. That brought out the day's third and final caution, "freezing" the field immediately and dropping the win into McMurray's lap without a challenge from Earnhardt Jr. or anyone else.
"I had no reason to make a move before the last lap," Earnhardt Jr. said. "Being in second place, I was in perfect position to be patient and wait as long as I wanted to. I can't anticipate a caution coming out every single time we run a Talladega race. I assume we're racing to the checkered."
Earnhardt Jr. finished second, in front of Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Paul Menard and Kyle Busch.
Junior said he planned to attempt to pass McMurray on the back straightaway.
"We let the 1 car (McMurray) get out there," he said. "I got a run with the 14. I was moving around a little to where the 1 thought I might be going. I knew I had to sort of fake him out. Then I noticed the run stopped."
The run stopped because Dillon's car had sailed into the air.
"I don't know what Austin would have done, for sure," Junior said. "But I thought he was probably going to help me once, and, after that, you're on your own. We hadn't really talked to the 14. We were just waiting to the last lap to make a run. That's what we were trying to do."
Because of the pattern of late-race crashes in recent races at Talladega, Earnhardt Jr. said he might adjust his thinking about the proper time to be aggressive.
"We have a last-lap wreck every time," he said. "I guess next time we're in that situation we'll try to go a lap sooner."
Although drivers raced two- and three-wide most of the afternoon, the top dozen were in single file over the closing laps, a situation that mystified several contenders, including Earnhardt Jr.
Asked why the pattern of the field changed late, he said, "I don't know. We raced like hell all day long."