TALLADEGA, Alabama — As cars wrecked behind him, Dale Earnhardt Jr. drove to the win in the Geico 500 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Talladega Superspeedway on Sunday. Earnhardt became the eighth different winner so far in 2015. It was his sixth win at Talladega, but his first in more than 10 years.
“Just real emotional, man,” Earnhardt said in victory lane. “Everything is just so good for me now — my personal life, my racing, the team I am with. I don’t know why. I don’t feel like I deserve it. I just feel overcome with a lot of emotion. It has been a long time since I won here. I’ve run so good here, and not to win here in so many races has bothered me.”
Jimmie Johnson finished second to give Hendrick Motorsports a one-two finish. Earnhardt and Johnson also wound up first and second in the laps-led category, with Earnhardt leading 67 laps and Johnson 50. In all, Hendrick Motorsports drivers combined to lead 167 laps of the 188-lap race.
“I tried (to get by Earnhardt for the win),” Johnson said. “I was waiting for guys to really spread out with maybe three to go, but it didn’t happen.”
Paul Menard finished third. Ryan Blaney ran third with two laps to go before Denny Hamlin pulled out of line and temporarily took the spot. Hamlin dropped back to ninth by the end, while Blaney was able to hold on to fourth. Martin Truex Jr. rounded out the top-five.
“We didn’t have any (help),” Hamlin said. “The 4 (Kevin Harvick) helped us at the end, but we just didn’t have enough help. I knew the 48 (Johnson) would be content to push the 88 (Earnhardt), so just in a tough spot, there. The odds were very stacked against us. The Hendrick cars and engines were just extremely tough today and, really, I did my best just to kind of hang with those guys, but they’re definitely in a league of their own right now, for sure.”
After leading 47 laps, Jeff Gordon was among the drivers caught up in the last-lap wreck. Other drivers involved included Carl Edwards, Casey Mears and Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Throughout the closing laps, Earnhardt faced challenges from Edwards, Tony Stewart and Blaney but was able to maintain his position at the point, primarily with Johnson behind him.
“I didn’t know what he had up his sleeve,” Earnhardt said of Johnson. “Maybe they got busy behind him, and he couldn’t form a charge (in the closing laps). We had a real strong car. I didn’t know if the engine was going to last.”
After leading laps early, Gordon was back up front at the halfway point of the race and ran in or near the lead until Earnhardt took the top spot with 65 laps to go in the 188-lap race. Gordon dropped outside the top-20 over the course of the remaining laps, while Johnson kept Earnhardt company up front.
Hendrick Motorsports showed itself as the class of the field on Saturday by claiming four of the top-five starting spots of the race. Gordon led the HMS brigade by claiming the pole. He led 33 laps early in the race before the yellow flag waved for a 14-car crash on lap 47.
Johnson, Earnhardt, Kasey Kahne and Stewart also led laps early.
Gordon and his teammates, Earnhardt, Johnson and Kahne were all mainstays at or near the front throughout the early stages, but Kahne’s car was among those collected in the lap 47 crash. Other drivers involved included David Ragan, Kyle Larson, Joey Logano, Kevin Harvick and all three Roush Fenway a Racing teammates Greg Biffle, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Trevor Bayne, who set off the chain-reaction wreck when his car broke loose.
“It felt like the 27 (Paul Menard) was really tight on our door and sucked us around,” Bayne said. “Our car was loose, but we had a fast race car today. I hate that a lot of cars got torn up, but especially our AdvoCare Ford.”
After another quick caution for debris, Johnson took over where teammate Gordon left off, maintaining the lead with Earnhardt in tow. Gordon, though, drifted to the back of the top-10.
Finishing sixth through 10th were Ryan Newman, Sam Hornish Jr., Harvick, Hamlin and Josh Wise.