Jr. ready for last Tal­ladega run

Earn­hardt has six wins at track

The Signal - - SPORTS - Mike Hem­bree @mike­hem­bree Spe­cial for USA TO­DAY Sports

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.


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