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Caraviello: For Earnhardt, it's always sweet home Alabama

October 22, 2011, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com

The biggest roars at NASCAR's biggest track consistently come for Dale Earnhardt Jr.

TALLADEGA, Ala. -- You can hear the sound even above the roar of 43 engines on NASCAR's biggest race track, a wave of voices that escalates to a crest as the cars first become visible in Turn 4. The mass of humanity rises to its feet in a ripple effect, one row at a time, one section at a time, until the grandstand explodes in a chorus of cheering and stomping. There is no roar in the Heart of Dixie quite like that which erupts when Dale Earnhardt Jr. takes the lead at Talladega Superspeedway, a noise that shakes this old place right down to its soul.

"It rocks and rolls," track president Grant Lynch said. "If you closed your eyes and just didn't open them for the whole race, you'd know when he was at the front. It wouldn't be hard. Once you hear it one time, you know what you're listening to."

"It would be great for the sport, would be great for us. How can you not pull for him? We do, for sure. I'd like to see this place turn green. That would be fine with me."

--TALLADEGA PRESIDENT GRANT LYNCH

He may be a native of Kannapolis, N.C., but nowhere is Earnhardt more at home on the race track than big, bad Talladega, where his status as NASCAR's most popular driver is as obvious as the houndstooth fabric on a Bear Bryant hat. His father's often spectacular exploits on the restrictor-plate facility, his own string of victories here, his family's connection to the Alabama Gang, his willingness to hammer the accelerator and go to the front -- they all combine to make Earnhardt so beloved in this part of the world, it sometimes seems like he grew up in nearby Eastaboga.

"You've almost got to say, in this state, it's like Alabama football," said Donnie Allison.

Indeed, the devotion at times seems to reach that level, even in a state where the Crimson Tide is something close to a religion. Talladega may very well be the capital of Junior Nation, a place where Earnhardt frenzy can reach such a level that those who beat him here can find beer cans pelting their windshields -- as Gordon did in 2004, when he edged Earnhardt under caution in a finish that led to the green-white-checkered rule being adopted by the Sprint Cup tour. That unacceptable behavior is one extreme. The other is the raucous joy that erupts whenever Earnhardt takes the lead, something other drivers can hear even ensconced in their race cars.

"Yeah, absolutely," Gordon said. "It's a big place, long straightaways, you've got a lot of time to look around. It depends on what situation you are in, but even if you don't see it physically with your eyes, you sense it. You know how excited they get around here when Junior is leading and battling for the win."

Winning has helped cement the Earnhardt legacy at Talladega. The Intimidator won 10 times here, still a record, and 11 years ago this month recorded his final career victory by surging from 18th to first in the final four laps -- a comeback so jaw-dropping, so memorable, that the details of that race remain as vivid as they were the day it happened. Talladega had never roared like it did that Sunday afternoon, when the No. 3 crossed the finish line first to the delight of those legions of black-clad fans. That level of affection clearly carried over to Earnhardt Jr., who helped his own case by winning five times at Talladega, including four in a row between 2001 and 2003.

"He did a lot of things in the sport that paved the road for me," Earnhardt Jr. said of his dad. "When I was able to come in here and win some races, that just solidified my position and the Earnhardt family's legacy at this race track. I have said it throughout my career: I know deep down inside I owe a great debt and a lot of credit to him for where I am, and who I am in the sport, and how I am perceived, the path that I have been given and what I have done with it and what I have accomplished with it. I think he was a legend here, and won a lot of races, and was very good at plate racing. He was real easy to cheer for when you came here. No matter who you were a fan of, it was fun to watch him race. ... When I was able to come here and have some success, I think it sealed the deal for all [those] Earnhardt fans out there."

And yet, it all seems to go much deeper than just winning. Gordon has won six times at Talladega, more than any other active driver, but there's no question with whom loyalties in the grandstand lie. The Earnhardts have always been close with members of the Alabama Gang, the extended family of racers led by brothers Bobby and Donnie Allison who operated out of Hueytown, a hamlet on the western outskirts of Birmingham. The elder Earnhardt and Hueytown resident Neil Bonnett were so close they used to go hunting together in Alabama, Lynch said. Donnie Allison said he's known Earnhardt Jr. since the younger driver was "this high," holding his hand at hip level.

There was a certain style with which the Alabama Gang drivers raced, Donnie remembered, and it was a straight-to-the-front approach born out of necessity at the big track in their home state. They didn't sandbag, didn't hold back, and the fans in Alabama loved them for it. Earnhardt was embraced, Donnie believes, in part because he competed in much the same way. Even Earnhardt Jr. has talked about the pressure he sometimes feels at Talladega to be out front all the time -- an approach that pleases fans, to be certain, but also hearkens back to this state's most famous racers.

"I really think that stems from the fact that at Talladega, you've always had to be a wide-open racer, like his dad was, or I might even classify myself, or the guys who ran races back in the day," Donnie Allison said. "His daddy was so popular everywhere, but he was extremely popular here, and I really think that stems from the Alabama Gang, how close a relationship he had with the Alabama Gang. Out of all the race tracks we ever go to, they've always wanted that [get-out-front approach] out of everybody here. They've had train winners and things like that, but if you look back at all the races, the fast guys were always racing one another. Somebody might have a problem or what have you, but they were usually right there. There was no loafing around -- you had to go. Dale Sr. was good here, and Dale Jr. drives with that same mentality, so to speak."

Those intertwined legacies of the Earnhardt family and the Alabama Gang, a no-frills approach to racing, winning on the biggest and meanest track out there -- it all resonates with the traditionalist fan base that calls Talladega home. "It speaks volumes about our core fans, especially the fan base here. This is the die-hards of the die-hards in our sport," Gordon said. "When you look at the history of our sport, this fan base is what made the sport. I think Junior really symbolizes that and where the sport has come from. I think he's still able to carry that on and maintain that."

It's evolved over the years, from that sea of black that cheered for the elder Earnhardt, to that ocean of red that buoyed a Budweiser-backed Earnhardt Jr. to his best days here, and stayed strong despite the fact that most of the fans in the grandstand aren't from Alabama. Lynch said about 75 percent of his ticket-holders come from outside the state, and travel an average of 300 miles to get here. Mentally, though, they all seem to originate from the same place. "You have the core fan that built the sport. A lot of them are still here," the track president said. "And we're glad they are."

Yes, even though he hasn't won here since the fall of 2004, Earnhardt loyalty still runs strong here in the hills of north Alabama. There's perhaps only one thing that could challenge it -- another driver from the state, maybe even with the right last name. Donnie Allison knows the perfect candidate. "I'll tell you who will challenge it -- my grandson, Justin Allison," he said. "If he makes it to this level, I promise you, he'll challenge it. Because he's an Allison, and he can drive the hell out of a race car."

Justin Allison is 19, and just getting into late models after four years of racing Allison Legacy cars, which are turnkey vehicles capable of 120 horsepower. Donnie helps his grandson with the car, and said the plan for next season is to compete on the PASS late model circuit, if financing can be obtained. "I know he's an Allison, but the kid can drive," said Donnie, who has also worked with former up-and-comers like Joey Logano, Trevor Bayne and Regan Smith. "I'll tell you, the kid can get on it. It's just hard on me, because I don't have the money to back him."

The Alabama Gang has been without an heir apparent since Davey Allison's fatal helicopter crash in the Talladega infield in 1993. Hut Stricklin, a Calera, Ala., native who married Donnie's daughter, last made a major NASCAR start in 2002. Justin is a long way from the Sprint Cup circuit, but Lynch would love to see him make it one day. "We need an Allison back there at the front," he said. "That would get us back to where we were with the Alabama Gang. That would be neat."

For the time being, though, Earnhardt remains unrivaled. The fans on hand Sunday would love nothing more than to see his 124-race winless skid end at Talladega, a track where he led four laps in April, and finished fourth after pushing eventual winner Jimmie Johnson to the victory. "If he wins this race Sunday, that would be the biggest thing ever to happen to NASCAR, pertaining to the fans," Allison said. "I promise you it would be."

If it happens, the roar accompanying the Mountain Dew-backed car's trip to Victory Lane might be loud enough to rival that which the elder Earnhardt heard after his final victory here in 2000. "It would be huge," Lynch said. "It would be great for the sport, would be great for us. How can you not pull for him? We do, for sure. I'd like to see this place turn green. That would be fine with me."

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