TALLADEGA, Ala. — At the end of three chaotic overtime periods, Noah Gragson emerged the winner of Saturday’s NASCAR Xfinity Series race at Talladega Superspeedway, taking the checkered flag for his second victory of the season.
While Gragson led twice for seven laps, only the final three were under green.
“(Crew chief) Luke Lambert … called one hell of race,” Gragson told Fox Sports. “It came down to fuel strategy, there was one point where I was like, ‘We can’t get up there, we’re just don’t have the car fast enough.’ But we never quit.”
But as Gragson charged to Talladega’s start-finish line for the final time, a familiarly eerie scenario began unfolding behind the JR Motorsports driver.
A black No. 3 Chevrolet, piloted by an Earnhardt, emerged from the chaos with a chance to steal a win at NASCAR’s biggest oval.
Almost 22 years after Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s miraculous final NASCAR Cup win at the same track, his grandson Jeffrey Earnhardt put in his best effort.
In a one-off deal with Richard Childress Racing, and with Dale Earnhardt’s former crew chief Larry McReynolds atop the pit box for the first time in 22 years, Jeffrey Earnhardt went from eighth to second on the final two-lap overtime run.
At 32-years-old and making his 136th career Xfinity start, it is Earnhardt’s best career result.
He did that despite having lost both his teammates, Austin Hill and Sheldon Creed, to two separate late-race accidents.
“It’s been a dream of mine to come out here and race the No. 3 RCR car,” Earnhardt said on pit road, as a throng of supporters looked on. “Just hard to make a move without a push … It’s every man for himself really at the end there. … We showed up with a strong car. I mean we set on pole.
“I knew we were gonna get to (Gragson) I just didn’t know if we were going to get by him. Looked in the mirror and didn’t see a whole lot of help.”
He had help on the pit box in the form of Reynolds.
A crew chief for Earnhardt Sr. from 1997-98, it was Reynolds’ first race in crew chief form since the 2000 season finale before he transitioned into a TV analyst for Fox Sports.
Moments after Earnhardt crossed the checkered flag, Reynolds clasped hands with another former Earnhardt crew chief, Andy Petree, who sat next to him on the pit box.
Reynolds then made the trek down pit road toward Earnhardt’s car, where a crowd was growing around the No. 3 car.
“No doubt there was an Earnhardt in that car that last lap or two,” McReynolds told SPEED SPORT and NASCAR.com. “He made a lot of stuff happen that I wasn’t sure was possible. It’s like we just were stuck in ninth, 12th. We just couldn’t get anybody to help us and nobody could push us. But some things unraveled there at the end, and it all fell our way and came close. It’s bittersweet. To come down here and sit on the pole and finish second. It’s pretty awesome. But when you come that close, it’s also disappointing.”
McReynolds said it was “awesome” be back on the pit box for the one-off affair with his former team.
“To be gone 21-and-a-half years, to come back and do it, just honored just to be asked and put everything I knew to put in at this last week,” McReynolds said. “I feel like I’ve been drinking through a firehose for about seven or eight days trying to absorb everything that I needed to.”
McReynolds emotions were “all over the place” on the final lap, which began with Earnhardt just barely in the top five.
“We crossed the white flag … and our monitor blanked on us,” he said. “So I lost what was going on down the back straightaway, but I could hear Mike Dillon, our spotter who did a phenomenal job, just tell him ‘to come on, keep going, keep coming, keep coming, keep coming.’ So that told me something we were headed into in the right direction.”
For Earnhardt, he thought he had a shot on the final restart because, like a typical Talladega race, they go haywire at the end.
“The last lap everyone just goes everywhere,” said Earnhardt, who led once for 10 laps in the first stage. “I knew if they started breaking up, I knew we had some guys behind us that were gonna stay on our bumper and keep pushing.
That was true until Turn 4, when Earnhardt was pushed by AJ Allmendinger, who went on to finish third.
“Just never could build a run,” Earnhardt said. “I wanted to sit on pole and win this thing. We sat on pole and we fell a little short on winning, but I would say mission accomplished.”
Gragson, who drives for Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s team, wasn’t aware Earnhardt had come in second until he came to victory lane to congratulate him.
The 23-year-old is the only active NASCAR driver who can say they beat an Earnhardt driving a No. 3 car at Talladega.
“That’s very humbling,” Gragson said when informed of that stat. “It was really special. Just this whole weekend. … that was really cool of him to come over. … This is Earnhardt country. … It’s pretty special to be able to run (an) Earnhardt Jr. car to the win and have a 3 (behind him), just to be on the same racetrack as Jeffrey was really special. …
“I told our guys yesterday, ‘Man, I don’t know if you’ll ever see an Earnhardt in a black 3 car again on the pole. But it’s a pretty special weekend that we got to witness and I hope it happens again, but I don’t know if we’ll ever will see it, so we need to appreciate the moment while we got it.”