Dale Earnhardt Jr. navigates the chaos in Talladega finale

(AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

By JOHN ZENOR

AP Sports Writer

TALLADEGA, Ala. (AP) Dale Earnhardt Jr. went out without a big bang at Talladega Superspeedway, and that's more than most of his fellow drivers could say.

Earnhardt had hoped to close out his final scheduled race at `Dega with a seventh victory. Instead, he finished seventh.

But, he was one of just 14 drivers still running at the end of Sunday's wreck-filled race on the day the state of Alabama declared "Dale Earnhardt Jr. Day" to honor NASCAR's retiring most popular driver. To complete the race, he had to dodge trouble time and again.

"Just got lucky on those wrecks - just things start flying around," he said. "This has been a hell of a weekend for me, and I'm glad to be able to finish and finish well. That means a lot to me. I know a lot of folks came and traveled here to see us run.

"I know they're disappointed we didn't win but I know they're glad they got to see us run the whole event and hopefully they enjoyed it."

The weekend was a celebration for Earnhardt , even though Brad Keselowski got the win .

Donnie Allison, an original member of the Alabama Gang, led the field to green in the late Dale Earnhardt's No. 2 Chevrolet Monte Carlo. Talladega officials presented the car, driven by his father during his 1979 rookie season and part of his 1980 championship season, to Earnhardt as a retirement gift.

The two combined for 16 victories at Talladega.

Earnhardt started on the pole for the first time at Talladega, was penalized twice and managed to maneuver through the chaos that took out most of the field and brought out three red flags.

Earnhardt, who had a Bible verse affixed to his driver's side door, chalked it up to good fortune. But he made no bones about being glad to leave unscathed while noting that "you can't win the race if you race scared."

He said the last crash bent his splitter down about an inch and a half, slowing the car after the final restart. He didn't get a chance to challenge Keselowski for the win.

Talladega's a place that carries memories dating back to childhood, coming to Alabama with his father and racing go-karts at a track near their hotel with buddies. He had a run of four straight wins here from 2001-03 while also having some scares, suffering a concussion in a 2012 crash.

"I really do owe a lot to this track, and the support that we've had here from the fans, I owe a lot to them," Earnhardt said. "It just has been a very fun place. When I was a little kid we got to go to a handful of racetracks throughout the year, and this was always a fun trip."

Now, he has six races left before Hendrick Motorsports and replacement driver Alex Bowman take over the No. 88 ride. Earnhardt remains winless this season and didn't make the playoffs

Nostalgia aside, Earnhardt said the final 17 minutes under red flag left time to sweat, not let the moment "wash over" him.

"Hey, it's 110 degrees in there," he said. "Ain't nothing washing over you except your own sweat. I was sitting there cussing NASCAR the whole time if you want me to be honest with you.

"Like, why are we sitting here? It's going to be like a three-lap to the finish; why can't we at least coast around and get a green white checkered out of it? But I know that there's reasons to be sitting there, but it just is not the most comfortable situation."

On this day, there was a certain comfort in just finishing.

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More AP Auto Racing: http://racing.ap.org/

Updated October 15, 2017

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