Dale Jr. has a special bond with Talladega
TALLADEGA, Ala. – Dale Earnhardt Jr. broke into a big grin Friday morning, recalling the five victories and his 700-plus laps outfront at Talladega Superspeedway. Specifically, he smiled remembering the highly emotional reaction this always causes for his rabid and robust fandom here.
"It makes it fun to come here knowing you’ve got a lot of people excited to see you run," Earnhardt acknowledged. "Out there before you even get in the car, the first thing you’re thinking about is how fast you can get to the lead because you know a lot of people want to see you leading the race.
"And they come here to cheer that specific moment and hopefully see you go to Victory Lane. You just want to produce as soon as you can."
Talladega is like no other for Earnhardt. Think The Beatles on "The Ed Sullivan Show" or teenage girls at a Justin Bieber concert.
Only Earnhardt’s ’Dega legions are a broad assortment of kids, college students, women and grown men from every walk of life -- across all spectrums. Truck drivers and attorneys. Housewives and XBox-crazed 12-year olds. Sorority girls and Walmart greeters.
And whenever Earnhardt’s No. 88 Chevrolet takes the lead on these high-speed high banks, tens of thousands of fans leap from their seat to wave him on. Their screams and collective cheers are loud enough you often hear it on the television broadcasts even over the thundering roar of the Talladega draft.
Even Earnhardt – in the midst of steering a car 200 mph inches away from the wall or other cars -- is aware of the full-sensory phenomena he creates.
"Sometimes you swear you can hear them, but most of the time you can’t," Earnhardt said. "But you can definitely see it. You can definitely see lap after lap after lap of going by the grandstand and seeing them sitting down. When you come by and they are standing up, it’s obvious. And you see the arms in the air and all that stuff.
"You don’t block it out. I think you enjoy it.
"You’re happy being first, obviously, but when you see the reaction that other people get from it, it’s a great feeling. It’s a really good feeling."
Not only are Earnhardt’s fans loud, animated and fervent, they are undaunted.
It’s been 35 races – nearly nine years – since Earnhardt’s last restrictor plate win which came at Talladega in October, 2004. But this Sunday’s Camping World RV Sales 500 is his to lose as far as his fans are concerned. They feel every race at Talladega is his to lose.
And even though he only has two top-10 finishes in his last eight Talladega starts, Earnhardt echoes his fans confidence every time he rolls into the massive 2.66-mile speedway located in the rolling hills of central Alabama.
"Every time you show up here, you’re thinking that this might be the weekend that you get it kind of turned around and put things back in the right direction," Earnhardt said. "I feel like we haven’t got the job done [recently] and this is a place where I feel like I should know what I’m doing and should be able to go out there and get a great result every time.
"It hasn’t been going as great as I want it to go here lately. We have torn up a lot of cars and been frustrated most times when we leave here. I still come back as confident and excited about the opportunities as ever. That is the way we feel this weekend."
Even before Earnhardt’s winning ways won over the masses, he held Talladega in special esteem. Part of that came from watching his father, the late NASCAR Hall of Famer Dale Earnhardt dominate these high banks. His 10 victories here is still a record and he won in his last race here in 2000.
Earnhardt Jr. fondly recalled coming to Talladega and "milling around the garage" as a kid, enamored by the look of the bigger superspeedway cars and awestruck by the sheer size of NASCAR’s biggest track.
As he explained Friday this was the first true "speedway" Earnhardt Jr. had ever turned laps – an impromptu test offered up by his father while the younger was still doing odd jobs in the family Chevy dealership and racing street stocks at a local short track.
"Dad called me at the dealership," Earnhardt said, remembering details even as he spoke. "I was changing oil and he told me to get my helmet and my suit and be at the airport the next morning and not to ask any questions or tell anybody where I was going.
"I knew I was going to Talladega, but I didn’t know why. I assumed I was going to drive a race car somewhere. But we got here and he told me to get my stuff on and get in the car and go out and run; and hold it wide-open, that it would stick.
"And I remember going down the back straightaway in that car and wondering if it was really going to stick when I got in that corner because it just didn’t seem like it was possible."
It did stick. And the lesson paid off years later as the love triangle between track, driver and fan has shown to be a true anomaly in the sport – one deeply acknowledged and appreciated by Earnhardt.
"I think that Dad really started all that with the success he had here," Earnhardt said. “Our DEI [Dale Earnhardt Inc.] team came in and just kind of inherited already a pretty loyal fan base. This sport has got the most loyal fans as it is already.
"We sort of adopted a lot of people and we were able to go out and win. And that endeared them and has for some time now. It makes it fun to come here knowing you’ve got a lot of people excited to see you run. ….
"If you’ve got one fan or you’ve got thousands of fans, you know that when you put the car in first place, that they’re happy.
"I think you enjoy that as much as the fan enjoys it."