Talladega, AL (SportsNetwork.com) - Dale Earnhardt Jr. punched his ticket into this year's Chase for the Sprint Cup championship with a victory in Sunday's Geico 500 at Talladega Superspeedway.
Earnhardt, who led the most laps with 67, won a Sprint Cup Series race at Talladega for the sixth time, but it was his first victory here since October 2004. He is now tied with Jeff Gordon for second most wins at this 2.66-mile track. Earnhardt's late father, Dale Earnhardt, holds the record with 10 victories here.
Earnhardt Sr. was killed in an accident on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. His last career victory in NASCAR's premier series occurred at Talladega in the fall of 2000. He would have turned 64 years old this past Wednesday.
Earnhardt Jr., who is NASCAR's most popular driver, turned 40 years old last October. He won a record four Cup races in a row at Talladega from 2001-03 before scoring his fifth victory here the following year.
"It's just real emotional, and I haven't won here in a long time," a jubilant Earnhardt said in Talladega's Victory Lane. "It was my daddy's birthday a couple of days ago (April 29). Everything has just been so good for me right now, in my personal life and the (No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports) team I'm with. I don't feel like I deserve it. I just feel overcome with a lot of emotion."
Unlike previous Talladega races, the field ran single file in the late going until the final lap when several drivers broke away from the file and attempted to pass Earnhardt for the lead. Earnhardt took over the top spot for good with 27 laps to go, following the last restart. During the final 15 laps, Earnhardt had a piece of debris on the front grille of his No. 88 Chevrolet, which caused his water temperature to significantly rise, almost to the point of overheating.
"We had a real strong car, but I didn't know if the engine was going to last," he said. "I had faith in it that it would because we build fast cars and they are tough. All those guys in the motor shop and the body shop, they earn their money today."
Jimmie Johnson, the six-time Sprint Cup champion, ran second to Earnhardt in the closing laps, but Johnson could not make a pass on his Hendrick Motorsports teammate for the lead. He crossed the finish line 0.158 seconds behind Earnhardt.
"I was waiting for guys to spread out with maybe three (laps) to go, and that didn't happen," Johnson said. "When we came around to take the white (flag for start of the last lap), it started. We had such a small group. There really wasn't much energy in our single-car draft. I was trying to back up to the guy behind me, but all it would do is open up the gap between me and the No. 88 (Earnhardt), and I could never really close it."
Hendrick drivers Earnhardt, Johnson, Gordon and Kasey Kahne combined for 167 laps led in this 188-lap race. Johnson ran in front for 50 laps, while Gordon, the pole sitter, led 47.
Gordon received a penalty for speeding on to pit road on lap 162 and fell back to 31st in the field. The four-time series champion had made his way through the field, but he was involved in a multi-car crash in turn 2 during the final lap. Carl Edwards had spun out on the frontstretch just prior to the multi-car incident. NASCAR did not display the yellow flag, which would have ended the race under caution.
"We did a pretty good job making some spots up and we were going to see what happened that last lap, but then they started wrecking. We avoided one of them but couldn't avoid the second one," said Gordon, who ended up finishing 31st.
Paul Menard finished third, while Ryan Blaney, running a partial schedule for The Wood Brothers in Sprint Cup this season, took the fourth spot. It was Blaney's sixth career start in the series.
"It was tough at the end because they were all single file for a long time," said Blaney, who was running in the third spot on the final lap. "It was hard to get a run. I saw the 11 (Denny Hamlin) coming, and I just didn't react fast enough, and that really would only have worked if we got by the 88 (Earnhardt) and the 48 (Johnson)."
Martin Truex Jr. placed fifth, followed by Sam Hornish Jr., Ryan Newman, Kevin Harvick, the current points leader and defending Sprint Cup champion, Hamlin and Josh Wise.
This race featured one major accident, involving 15 cars on the backstretch, on lap 47. Trevor Bayne, the 2011 Daytona 500 winner, lost control of his No. 6 Roush Fenway Racing Ford and spun into the outside wall, triggering the pileup.
Kahne had started on the front row with Gordon and led three laps before he was one of the drivers caught up in the big wreck. He finished 34th after spending 30 laps in the garage for repairs.