For the final 15 laps of NASCAR’s Camping World RV Sales 500, they waited as the local favorite driver stalked race leader Jamie McMurray’s rear spoiler.
They wanted for a patented, Earnhardt family slingshot move to take the lead. Or some kind of shake-and-bake between Earnhardt and default drafting partner Austin Dillon.
They waited … and waited … and waited for the move that never came. Or, at least, the move he could never finish.
McMurray and Earnhardt ran first and second for 15 laps and finished Sunday’s weird, weird Talladega race that way, leaving Earnhardt fans scratching their heads.
Earnhardt was scratching his head, too.
“It’s all kind of a blur as to how we ended up in second,” Earnhardt said with a puzzled expression, “but I had no reason to make a move before the last lap, being in second place.
“I was in perfect position to be patient and wait as long as I wanted to, so that’s why we didn’t go any sooner than that. I just can’t anticipate a caution coming out every single time we run at Talladega race on the last lap, so I just assumed it would go to checkered and was planning my move on the back straightaway.”
A caution flag did come out on the last lap as Dillon got loose and went airborne behind Earnhardt, freezing the field under caution.
The driver whose grandfather famously said something about the second-place finisher being the first loser wound up stuck there, but Sunday wasn’t all disappointment for Earnhardt. His second place finish improved his position in the Sprint Cup Chase for the Championship standings.
Earnhardt came to Talladega in ninth place, 66 points back of then-leader Matt Kenseth. Earnhardt left in sixth place, 52 points back of new leader Jimmie Johnson with four races to go.
But Earnhardt fans don’t come to Talladega to see their favorite driver finish anything less than first, and neither do Earnhardts. Dale Jr. and his late father have won a combined 15 times here.
The younger Earnhardt has won five Sprint Cup races on the track often called “Daleadega” but none since 2004.
His drought looked likely to end as Sunday’s race developed. He led the race eight times for a total of 38 laps, second only to Johnson’s 10 leads for 47 laps.
“I knew in practice the car was strong, and just wondered if everybody was showing everything they had,” Earnhardt said. “Once you get the whole field out there it's a little bit different, but our car was a rocket, and we were able to be aggressive, and I just tried to lead every lap of the race.”
After the final green-flag pits, the lead pack ran single file in the high lane for much of the race’s waning laps. Fans used to intense racing and green-white-checker finishes, usually resulting from late-race crashes, expected second or even third draft lanes to form down the track.
Drivers in the back half of the pack tried in fits and starts, but no solid line ever formed.
Meanwhile, Earnhardt waited for his chance to leave McMurray’s bumper and get a push to the front from Dillon.
“We sort of let the 1 car (McMurray) get out there a little bit, going down the front straightaway into Turn 1, and we mashed the gas in the middle of the corner and got a run with the 14 (Dillon),” Earnhardt said. “And I was moving around just a little bit to see where the 1 thought I might be going, because I got to sort of fake him out, and I noticed the run stopped.
“I looked in the mirror and guys were out of control.”
Because of Dillon’s crash, only the second crash in a race that never produced the signature Talladega “big one,” the caution flag locked the field.
“We didn’t get an opportunity to see what would have materialized,” Earnhardt said. “It wasn’t the best run in the world. It wasn’t what I dreamed it would be, all those last few laps.
“But it was a good enough run, I think, to get up to his quarterpanel and get beside him, and then we would have found out who our friends were at that point.”
After the race, Earnhardt revealed disagreement between him and crew chief Steve Letarte on the timing of their last green-flag pit.
“I thought we pitted a little bit early, gave up a lot of time,” Earnhardt said. “My crew chief Steve didn’t really agree with that, but I just felt like, if we could stay out on the race track, we had a better shot at coming out in front of them guys.
“We ended up coming out behind a bunch of people and worked our way up toward the front there on the outside.”
In the end, Earnhardt wound up with a strong run. Except for the not-winning part, he said it was fun.
“Really happy with the way the car ran, and it was good to run up front, good to lead,” he said. “We’ve really struggled this season with being competitive, and to drive up through there and do that like we did today, and it felt great.”
Sports columnist Joe Medley: 256-235-3576, firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @jmedley_star.