Making The Right Calls?

Dale Earnhardt Jr., Brad Keselowski

Dale Earnhardt Jr. (88) and Brad Keselowski (2) each faced questions after Sunday's race about their actions during the event. (Photo: Getty Images)

TALLADEGA, Ala. - Expecting sanity in any sport is, quite frankly, insane.

Clouded by passion, competition and an inner drive most can’t relate with, athletes - and drivers - don’t always make the best decisions while competing.

Even knowing that, the actions of Brad Keselowski and Dale Earnhardt Jr. during Sunday’s race at Talladega Superspeedway were jarring to some.

Keselowski upset drivers when he crashed at the front of the pack while running six laps down. Earnhardt frustrated fans by hanging near the back late in the race instead of making a bold run toward the front.

Keselowski said on Twitter after the race that he would “deservingly so” catch flack for his actions, while Earnhardt tweeted that he “gambled and lost.’’

What happened to both?

To understand Keselowski’s decision, go back to Saturday’s qualifying session. Starting positions mean little at Talladega. While drivers say passing can be challenging, 500 miles is plenty of time to make it to the front even if starting at the rear. Kasey Kahne went from 42nd to 13th in the first 10 laps of Sunday’s race, and eventual winner Denny Hamlin drove from 34th to 10th in the same time.

So why did drivers risk wrecking their primary car in qualifying for a starting spot that meant little?

“Ego and pride,’’ Keselowski said Saturday.

That same mixture fueled Keselowski after his early incident with Danica Patrick. The Lap 14 incident cost him six laps in repairs on pit road. Instead of running toward the back of the pack, Keselowski worked his way to the front hoping to be in position to get a lap back with a caution.

Instead, it was him.

His spin in front of the field collected 13 cars with about 50 laps left, sending Jeff Gordon, Matt Kenseth, Tony Stewart, Trevor Bayne and Brian Scott to the garage. 

“I don’t know what he was doing,’’ Gordon said of Keselowski. “Obviously thinking that was going to be the way to get his lap back. All that it did was get a bunch of other cars wrecked.’’

Kenseth said if Keselowski had been wrecked by someone running laps down at the front of the pack, “we’d all be getting lectured.’’

There’s no rule that says that Keselowski couldn’t be running where he was despite not being on the lead lap, although Clint Bowyer said “common sense” should tell a driver he didn’t belong there.

Jamie McMurray showed there was a different way of approaching things and this day it worked.

His car was damaged trying to avoid Keselowski’s car in that early incident and he lost several laps for repairs. McMurray didn’t push his car toward the front but was in position to get his lap back six times. That helped him finish 29th.

Keselowski, who finished 38th, conceded he was “racing really hard” to get one of his laps back before his wreck at the front of the field. One fan tweeted to Keselowski that he “shouldn't have even been up there.”

Keselowski replied: “Your asking the wrong guy if you want me to give up.’’

Yet, some fans wondered why Earnhardt wasn’t at the front late in the race. He gave up the lead on Lap 152 to pit for fuel because he said he was told they were a couple of laps short. Several others stayed out, including Hamlin, gambling that there would be enough cautions late to make it to the end.

Earnhardt struggled to climb back toward the front. He restarted 21st with eight laps to go and a late run to the outside ended when his momentum was blocked by Josh Wise. 

“It’s hard to drive up through there,’’ Earnhardt said. “The track is three-wide forever. You know they’re going to crash, and I can’t afford to wreck anymore here. So, you’ve just got to pick your battles. And I felt like we were better off not getting in a wreck and trying to stay back there.’’

Understand that is from a driver who suffered a concussion in a crash at this track two years ago. 

Simply, the risk wasn’t worth the reward for Earnhardt. 

“We already got a win and like I said, I’ve been in too many late-race wrecks,’’ he said. “I didn’t want to be no part of it. And there were three or four there we dodged pretty good. So, we’ve got a car in one piece. We’ll go to Daytona. You’ve just got to have the strategy right to where we’re up front at the end of these races and in the lead or around the top three or four there, inside the last fuel window, to have a shot at it.”

Still, Earnhardt second-guessed himself a bit afterward.

Asked by a fan if he could have done anything different at the end would he, Earnhardt replied: “I would have fought it out in the pack 4 a few spots.”

In the middle of competition, sometimes the answer of what to do is not easily seen.

 

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