Sun Sentinel Broward Edition
An emotional Dale Earnhardt Jr. got his sixth victory at Talladega Superspeedway.
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.