On a night where the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series regular season concluded at Richmond Raceway in Virginia, Martin Truex, Jr. won the regular season championship and will be the No. 1 seed going into the playoffs. He and 15 other drivers who’ll be fighting for the championship beginning at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Illinois Sept. 17 was also set Saturday.
Ryan Blaney and Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. will compete in the playoffs for the first time, some drivers will look to become a multi-time champion like the Busch brothers (Kurt and Kyle) while another looks to make history and become the first 8-time champion and his name is Jimmie Johnson.
While each of the 16 drivers who made the playoffs have their own stories, the rest of the field like rookie Erik Jones, former Championship 4 contender Joey Logano and playoff veteran Clint Bowyer, will have to wait next season to have another chance for NASCAR’s prestigious prize.
There’s one driver however, who’ll never have another shot at the championship and it’s fan favorite Dale Earnhardt, Jr., who finished 13th Saturday in his final trip at a track he’s won three times (Springs 2000, 2004 and 2005).
He’ll end his 19-year Cup career without a championship that’s eluded him since competing in NASCAR’s highest level full-time in 2000. Dale Jr., ended the regular season 22nd with only four top 10 finishes and 21.3 average finish.
Dale Jr. said he had hoped a caution would come out before making a pit stop on lap 357 after being off sequence with the leaders.
“We needed one. That was the only way we were going to win the race. We weren’t going to pass the top three guys. We had speed. We could run up to fifth and sixth, but we weren’t going to get around those five guys running in front of us,” Dale Jr. said. “We had to pull that strategy and if the caution comes out while we’re leading, then we got that track position we needed. I ran around the No. 42 and a lot of the guys tonight and think we had the speed in the car to keep that rack position once we got it. I think if we could’ve gotten a restart on the front row late in the race, we would’ve had a shot at it.”
After a season of disappointing outcomes, Dale Jr. was encouraged on his Richmond performance and will continue to finish his Cup career on a high note.
“I thought our car was really good and that’s the way we should’ve run all year, so I apologize to our fans that we’re even in this situation that we’re in. We believe in ourselves and we should’ve been locked in before we got here,” Dale Jr. said. “It wasn’t a great season performance wise but we got 10 races to go and tonight showed us that we can certainly run well if we work hard and we’ll see if we can get a few good runs. Maybe a win, you never know. Never know, you just got to keep going. Talladega is a racetrack that anybody can win it at but we’ll keep plugging away and see if we can have some fun before the end of the season. It was a fun night though. It was great to run with the leaders. We haven’t had done that in a long time.”
Dale Jr. last went to victory lane at Phoenix Nov. 15, 2015, 45 races ago. Out of his 26 Cup wins, 12 of them took place at playoff tracks including Martinsville (2014), Texas (2000) and Chicagoland (2005). Dale Jr. finished 12th in his last trip at Chicagoland two years ago.