TALLADEGA, Ala. -- It seemed like a sound strategy in a race featuring an outbreak of late cautions that whittled down the field in Sunday's Aaron's 499 at Talladega Superspeedway.
The plan called for Dale Earnhardt Jr. to lay back and exercise patience as others became consumed by the typical madness associated with restrictor-plate racing at Talladega.
On this front Earnhardt proved prophetic, as the yellow flag fell three times for wrecks involving 26 cars in the final 50 laps.
In each instance, the No. 88 car steered clear of damage. But it was the failure to execute the second half of his plan that resulted in Earnhardt leaving Talladega with a 26th-place finish. This portion calling for him to mount a charge, swoop into the lead and drive away with his second victory of 2014.
The charge never materialized.
A call to pit road on lap 152 of 188 dropped Earnhardt out of the lead, and, once bogged down in traffic, he never recovered. The Chevrolet that had led three times for a total of 26 laps suddenly became ordinary. And it's why Earnhardt couldn't help but repeatedly second-guess himself, standing beside his car in the garage post-race.
"Those other guys were way more aggressive," Earnhardt said. "I couldn't do anything there but drive up through there and get wrecked. So I just sat there and watched the wrecks at the end of the race.
"I couldn't go anywhere when they're two-wide, three-wide. The outside lane doesn't work very well. When we gave up the lead and came on pit road, I knew we weren't going to be able to get back to the front."
Among Earnhardt's laments was pitting for fuel, as those who stayed out finished near the top of the running order. Because passing was difficult for those back in the pack Sunday, few drivers were able to move forward with any ease.
Also contributing to Earnhardt's anticlimactic afternoon was a look at the bigger picture.
All but assured a berth in the Chase for the Sprint Cup via his Daytona 500 victory, and having suffered a concussion in an October 2012 race at Talladega, Earnhardt was hesitant. After all, why put himself in a position that might endanger his health and, with it, his quest to secure a championship?
"I know there was going to be a wreck and I didn't want to be in it," Earnhardt said. Simple as that.
"You know they're going to crash and I can't afford to wreck any more 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."