Sun Sentinel Broward Edition

An emo­tional Dale Earn­hardt Jr. got his sixth victory at Tal­ladega Su­per­speed­way.

- Ge­orge Diaz

TAL­LADEGA , Ala. — Tears welled in Dale Earn­hardt Jr.’s eyes, a mum­bo­jumbo of emo­tions that spanned decades and a quick in­ven­tory of sel­f­re­flec­tion:

A kid who came here years ago with his daddy and used to stick 100 bucks in his pocket to race gokarts with his friends. A driver who hadn’t won at Tal­ladega in 11 years. A son who re­mem­bered the an­niver­sary of his daddy’s birth­day, April 29, 1951.

Tears. Happy ones. Sad ones. Introspect­ive ones.

“Most wins you pour a bot­tle of cham­pagne and ev­ery­thing pours out and you’re su­per happy,” Earn­hardt Jr. said af­ter win­ning the Ge­ico 500 on Sun­day af­ter­noon on NASCAR’s fa­bled su­per-speed­way. “This win, there was a lot of re­spon­si­bil­ity be­hind it with a new crew chief, a brand new spon­sor, my dad’s birth­day, a lot of things hap­pen­ing at once.

“This one was cer­tainly dif­fer­ent.”

Earn­hardt Jr. — for­ever NASCAR’s fa­vorite son — won his sixth race here on a typ­i­cal day of ran­dom re­stric­tor-plate at­tri­tion. Earn­hardt sur­vived the first “Big One” in­volv­ing 16 driv­ers on Lap 47. Most im­por­tantly, he sur­vived the last one, on the fi­nal lap, when Denny Ham­lin broke free from the pack of sin­gle-file cars to cause more chaos.

But Earn­hardt was in front, free and clear, and an­other Tal­ladega race win­ner in NASCAR’s ver­sion of hit­ting the lot­tery.

It was dicey at ‘Dega. Isn’t it al­ways? Earn­hardt was lead­ing Hen­drick Mo­tor­sports team­mate Jim­mie John­son and rookie Ryan Blaney in the fi­nal 10 laps. It was peace­ful as things go in Tal­ladega; sin­gle-file, all boys and girl be­hav­ing.

But Earn­hardt had other is­sues to worry about: a wrap­per on his grill that was caus­ing his en­gine to heat up quickly. As the laps clicked down, Earn­hardt en­vi­sioned a sce­nario in which the en­gine would die with about 200 yards to go.

His brain was close to empty, too, wear­ing down from the day’s de­mands.

“I love rac­ing here and win­ning here, but it’s some of the hard­est rac­ing we do on a men­tal scale,” said Earn­hardt, who with his first victory of the sea­son es­sen­tially se­cured a spot in the 10-race Chase post­sea­son. “It’s very dif­fi­cult. You’re about 95 laps in and you’re just get­ting half­way and you feel like you’ve been rac­ing for 10 hours.”

His crew chief — the new guy, Greg Ives — also was deal­ing with some un­due wear and tear. Pay­ton, his 8-year-old daugh­ter, had slipped while on a swing and suf­fered a break in her right arm.

He felt like com­ing home. Earn­hardt Jr. told him they were ready to fuel up the plane and send him back. But the spunky kid — the one who never cried af­ter the fall — told her dad to stay: “It’s your job to go out there and try to win the race.”

That was the “kick in the butt” Ives needed. So they both pushed on. Earn­hardt was also for­tu­nate that John­son was on his bumper. The Ju­nior Na­tion had kept tabs on John­son and felt he owed Ju­nior one — maybe sev­eral — vic­to­ries be­cause Earn­hardt had been an ex­em­plary team­mate. One time in par­tic­u­lar in­cluded Tal­ladega in 2011 when Earn­hardt Jr. pushed John­son to victory.

But those dy­nam­ics would not go into play, ei­ther. No­body wanted to chal­lenge the sta­tus quo un­til it was too late.

“We just had such a small group there was very lit­tle en­ergy to cre­ate a run and to try to get the No. 88 and he had a re­ally fast car,” John­son said.

And then there was noth­ing but the check­ered flag be­hind the No. 88.

Earn­hardt Jr. even­tu­ally grabbed the flag and took it for a victory spin. The crowd stayed, scream­ing, cel­e­brat­ing, want­ing to take in the mo­ment. So did Earn­hardt Jr. “Ev­ery­thing is just so good for me now,” he said. “My per­sonal life. My rac­ing. The team I am with. I don’t know why.”

Maybe it’s just the flip side of bad karma for a son who lost his daddy way too early in life.

Happy tears.

 ?? MATT SUL­LI­VAN/GETTY IMAGES ?? Dale Earn­hardt Jr. cel­e­brates in Victory Lane af­ter win­ning the GE­ICO 500 at Tal­ladega Su­per­speed­way.
MATT SUL­LI­VAN/GETTY IMAGES Dale Earn­hardt Jr. cel­e­brates in Victory Lane af­ter win­ning the GE­ICO 500 at Tal­ladega Su­per­speed­way.
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