When you leave Interstate 20 and descend into the madness that is Talladega, the only thing more prevalent than campfire smoke is the endless wave of Earnhardt flags, logos, t-shirts and love. "Dale Jr. sucks," so often a rallying cry at other tracks, may very well get you killed at Talladega. And Dale Earnhardt Jr. has a very good idea why.
"The success my father had here," he said on Friday afternoon. "He did a lot of things in the sport that paved the road for me ... I know deep down inside I owe a great debit 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."
And so is Junior. Whenever he takes a lead at Talladega, the roars almost certainly register on a seismic level. And the other drivers know it: "Even if you don't see it physically with your eyes you sense it," Jeff Gordon said. "You know how excited they get around here when Junior is leading and battling for the win."
While Junior hasn't had much success getting to victory lane of late, to Gordon, that's not the issue; the dedication of his fans is. "This is the die-hards of the die-hards in our sport," he 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."
Just imagine what the reaction will be should he actually win on Sunday. It could happen, you know.