Finishing 24th at Bristol may actually be a good thing for Dale Earnhardt Jr.

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Ever since he won the season-opening Daytona 500, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been on a rocket ship of attention.

He didn’t even get a chance to celebrate his win in the Great American Race with family and close friends until this past week, having gone on a whirlwind post-Daytona national media tour, followed by runner-up finishes in subsequent races at Phoenix and Las Vegas.

There’s a thing like a delayed reaction, but to celebrate one of the biggest wins of your career nearly three weeks later after actually doing it, well, that should show just how busy Earnhardt has been.

Sooner or later, Earnhardt was bound to come back to Earth, and did so in Sunday’s Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Two days after admitting he wasn’t comfortable with being the face of NASCAR, something that Brian France probably cringed about when he heard it, Earnhardt proved he was human and not invincible, finishing 24th.

After having the spotlight constantly and directly aimed on him since Daytona, it was time someone else enjoyed time in that same spotlight.

Plenty earned it Sunday.

There was race winner Carl Edwards, Tony Stewart’s season-best fourth-place finish, the inspiring showing by Richard Petty Motorsports teammates Aric Almirola (third) and Marcos Ambrose (fifth), outstanding 10th and 11th place runs by rookies Kyle Larson and Austin Dillon.

Admittedly, Earnhardt didn’t have the strongest car at Bristol. While strong early on in the race, his Chevrolet faded, eventually finishing 499 laps, one lap behind the leaders.

While Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jeff Gordon and Kasey Kahne finished seventh and eighth Sunday, there was no shame in Junior finishing 24th. Heck, fellow teammate Jimmie Johnson finished 18th – and he’s a six-time Sprint Cup champion.

Of course, Bristol is one of Johnson’s worst performing tracks, so that’s not such a big surprise in the whole scheme of things.

In a strange way, maybe Bristol was just what Junior needed. The media and fan attention will likely tone down heading into next weekend at Fontana. Reporters won’t make an immediate beeline to interview him there, instead likely looking for guys like Edwards and Stewart.

Sure, Earnhardt lost his lead in the Sprint Cup points standings, dropping from first to second, 10 points behind new series leader Brad Keselowski.

But it’s better to have the kind of finish he had Sunday in the fourth race of the season than to go through a similar outcome in the last few races of the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

Junior Nation may be bummed. Junior himself likely is.

But finishing 24th really isn’t all that bad. It will give Earnhardt a chance to catch his breath, to look back and review everything that has happened to him thus far – including Sunday’s showing – and figure out where to go from here.

If anything, his Bristol showing could wind up being the best thing to happen to him. If nothing else, it’ll bring everyone back to reality who was starting to think that Earnhardt was invincible this season, that if he couldn’t win every race, he’d at least finish second every week that he doesn’t’ finish first.

Remember, from adversity often comes strength.

If you think Junior was strong in the first three races, wait and see how he bounces back from Bristol.

In a season that he enjoyed the best start of his career, what he does from here will be the true measure of whether this truly and finally is going to be his best year ever or not.

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

 

Donny Schatz edges Kyle Larson for Outlaws victory at Lake Ozark

Trent Gower/World of Outlaws
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Donny Schatz made a last-lap pass on Kyle Larson, snatching a World of Outlaws victory Saturday night at Lake Ozark Speedway.

Larson started on the pole, led 30 of 35 laps and was in control until a caution set up a two-lap shootout to the finish before a limited crowd in Eldon, Missouri.

Schatz and Larson traded the lead twice over the final two laps, but the 10-time champion emerged with his first victory since the NOS Energy Drink Sprint Car Series returned in mid-May from a two-month layoff because of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

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“Man, I don’t know what to say, but Kyle’s a damn good racer,” Schatz, who led five laps, told DirtVision after his 296th Outlaws win. “I kind of had to go where he didn’t. We got that green-white-checkered, and I decided I was going to send it. He decided the same thing.

Donny Schatz celebrates at Lake Ozark Speedway after his second Outlaws Sprint Car victory of the season (Trent Gower).

“I’m glad to get the win. It feels like it’s been forever. I’ve been out here 24 years, and every night is a learning experience still.”

Larson finished second in his fifth start since he began racing with the Outlaws after being suspended from NASCAR.

“Obviously, it would have been nice to get the win,” Larson said on DirtVision. “I figured Donny would rip the middle. The restarts before, he’d almost clear me in (turns) 3 and 4. I should have known to protect and block his momentum. I felt I exited 2 OK. We don’t have spotters or rearview mirrors so you can’t see how close he is or really hear it when the pace is so slow.

“I just didn’t do a good enough job to run a smarter final couple of laps.”

Brad Sweet, Larson’s brother in law, finished third, with Shane Stewart and David Gravel rounding out the top five.

Larson rebounded from a 10th in Friday’s feature at Lake Ozark Speedway, continuing his streak of top-10 finishes in all five of his starts since the Outlaws’ return.

“We got our car a lot better from last night, so that was a plus,” said Larson, who finished second and first in back-to-back nights last week at Federated Auto Parts Raceway at Pevely, Missouri. “These guys are really tough. To be on the podium with Donny and Brad, they’ve won lots of big races and championships, it’s nice. I just didn’t do what I needed to do that last restart.”

Larson nearly had a flawless night Saturday, turning a 11.426-second lap to capture his second pole position this season and won the pole dash to start first in the feature.

Larson, who was fired by Chip Ganassi Racing from his NASCAR Cup Series ride last month for using a racial slur in an iRacing event, said last week that he plans to run several more NOS Energy Sprint Car Series races this year.

Larson remains indefinitely suspended by NASCAR but was approved to race by the Outlaws after completing sensitivity training.