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

 

Danica says goodbye: ‘Definitely not a great ending’ but ‘I’m for sure grateful’

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INDIANAPOLIS – Danica Patrick’s final racing news conference didn’t go quite as planned, but at least she didn’t lose her sense of humor about it.

“Is that like the Oscars when they close the show out?” Patrick joked when her opening address was drowned out by the midrace broadcast of Sunday’s Indianapolis 500 in the media center. “Take my mic away. I’ll leave. I promise. I don’t really want to be here because I’m pretty sad, but all right. I guess I’ll stop there.”

That was about as lighthearted as it got, though, for the most accomplished female driver in racing history after the final start of her career. That naturally made for some reflection, too.

“I will say that I’m for sure very grateful for everybody,” she said. “It still was a lot of great moments this month. A lot of great moments this year.”

Patrick was the first woman to lead both the Indianapolis 500 (in her 2005 debut) and the Daytona 500 (in 2013 when she also was the first female to qualify on pole position in NACAR history).

But she couldn’t bookend that with similarly memorable finishes. After crashing out of her final two Cup races in the November 2017 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway and the 2018 Daytona 500, Indy concluded the same way.

“Definitely not a great ending,” she said. “But I kind of said before I came here that it could be a complete disaster, as in not in the ballpark at all. And look silly, then people may remember that. And if I win, people will remember that.

“Probably anything in between might just be a little part of the big story. So I kind of feel like that’s how it is. I’m appreciative for all the fans, for GoDaddy, for Ed Carpenter Racing, for IndyCar. Today was a tough day. A little bit of it was OK. A lot of it was just a typical drive.”

Beforehand, Patrick seemed relaxed while smiling and laughing outside her car with a tight circle of close friends and family that included her parents and boyfriend Aaron Rodgers, the Green Bay Packers quarterback.

“For sure, I was definitely nervous,” she said about her first Indy 500 start in seven years. “I found myself most of the time on the grid being confused what part of prerace we were in. I was like, ‘I remember this,’ and ‘Where are the Taps?’ and ‘When is the anthem?’ but I had all my people around me, so I was in good spirits.”

And with that, she bid adieu.

“Thank you guys,” she said. “Thank you for everything. I’ll miss you. Most of the time. Maybe you’ll miss me just a little. Thanks, guys.”