Jr. ready for last Talladega run
Earnhardt has six wins at track
Virtually every time a man with the last name of Earnhardt drives a car onto the steep banking of Talladega Superspeedway, thousands ride with him.
Talladega has been an Earnhardt family capital since the days when Dale Earnhardt Sr. essentially made the racetrack his own with daring passes, aggressive driving and 10 Cup series victories. The sweeping grandstands at NASCAR’s biggest track vibrated with joy when Earnhardt made a late-race pass or otherwise outfoxed the competition.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. picked up the baton at Talladega after his father was killed in a last-lap crash during the 2001 Daytona 500.
On Sunday, the retiring driver gets his final chance to entertain the Talladega crowd in the Alabama 500 (2 p.m. ET, NBC), scheduled to be Junior’s last race at a track he has called his second home. When Junior surges into the top five at Talladega, the grandstands still rock.
Talladega’s love for Junior is returned by the driver. He won a record four consecutive Talladega races from the fall of 2001 to the spring of 2003 and has totaled six Cup wins (most among active drivers) there. Over a seven-race stretch at Talladega from 2001 to 2004, Junior had five wins and two seconds. In 34 Talladega starts, he has led 960 laps.
“Those four wins kind of blur together,” Earnhardt said. “I guess I remember the fourth because we broke the record.
“Talladega was a very important track to my dad. He won so many times there. It was very important to me to be able to emulate his success there. To have any type of record of that type and for it to stand for any length of time, it means a lot to me to have those little oddball, random records.”
It would be impossible to compare the sizes of their fan bases at Talladega, but it’s clear that many of Senior’s Alabamacentric fans moved on to Junior, who also picked up younger fans who knew his father only through talk and race replays.
Earnhardt, 43, is winless this year and is not involved in the playoffs, which reach their fifth race Sunday. He hasn’t raced particularly well of late, but his record at Talladega along with the engine restrictor plates that bunch the field closely on the 2.66-mile track should put him in the mix.
“I’d like to fly under the radar a little bit,” he said. “I don’t want to put too much pressure on us — it messes up the way you think, the way you use strategy in the race, everything. But Talladega is a great track and a great opportunity to win. I expect to race up front and expect our car to be strong, and our guys expect us to work hard and be toward the front all day.
“That is what we are going to have to do to try to win. I think we need to be leading the race with 50 to go or at least (be) on the front row for those last few restarts.”
If the No. 88 is in the top 10 with 10 to go Sunday, Earnhardt Nation will be on its feet one more time.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s last of six wins at Talladega came in 2015.
ADAM HAGY, USA TODAY SPORTS