Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s final Talladega race closes the book on epic NASCAR dynasty

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TALLADEGA, Ala.— If you never saw an Earnhardt take the lead at Talladega, friend, you missed one of the great moments in sports. Whenever Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s black 3, or Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s red 8 or green 88 took the lead, the cheers surged like a wave, like something alive, running the length of Talladega’s mile-long, sun-baked bleachers. It didn’t matter if there were 170,000 fans in the stands, or a quarter of that; you could hear the noise in your bones, and it echoed from Birmingham to Atlanta.

Talladega got its last chance to cheer Dale Earnhardt Jr. on Sunday at the Alabama 500, and although the cheers weren’t for a win—Earnhardt dodged three separate monster wrecks largely unscathed, but still finished seventh—Talladega won’t hear anything like them anytime soon.

There are other Earnhardts still running in NASCAR, of course—Jeffrey Earnhardt, grandson of the Intimidator, raced Sunday, and Jeffrey’s brother Bobby Dale has begun running in lower-level series—but Sunday marked the end of a remarkable run, a four-decade era where the fortunes of one track and one family rose and fell in tandem. The story didn’t finish up in victory lane, but it ended in triumph all the same.

***

What is it about Talladega that brings out the best in Earnhardts, and vice versa?

Start with the track itself, the largest and longest on the NASCAR circuit. You could, in theory, fire your engine at the starting command and not touch the brakes until the checkered flag. That wide-open and screaming feeling doesn’t sit well with every driver, but—for all their differences—it suited both Senior and Junior just fine.

“If you’re afraid to go fast,” Senior once said of Talladega, “stay the hell home. Don’t come here and grumble about going too fast. Dip rags in kerosene [and wrap them] around your ankles so the ants won’t jump up and bite your candy ass.”

Senior still holds the career record for wins at Talladega with 10 (Junior and Jeff Gordon rank second with 6.) His feats at this point are Bunyanesque:

• A 12th-place finish in his first-ever visit to the track, as a wandering freelance driver in 1978;

• A wreck that broke his kneecap in 1982; doctors refused his request to stitch up his leg with a “W” scar for then-sponsor Wrangler;

• Victories in three of four and five of nine races starting in 1990;

• The coup de grace, a triumphant victory that happened 17 years before Sunday to the day, when Senior drove from 18th place up to the checkered flag in just four laps. It was Earnhardt’s final victory, and one of his finest.

“If it was up for a vote, Dale would probably vote to race at Talladega every week,” Senior’s team owner Richard Childress once said. “He and the track are a perfectly matched pair.”

Dale Earnhardt Sr. and Jr. race at Talladega in 2000. (Getty)
Dale Earnhardt Sr. and Jr. race at Talladega in 2000. (Getty)

***

There’s a sense of freedom at Talladega you don’t find at other tracks, an exhilaration as wide and broad as the Alabama sky that blankets these flatlands. You come here knowing that you’ll get your mind and spirit expanded, whether you’re on the track or in the infield. Dale Earnhardt Sr. never saw a track he didn’t want to tame, and Junior? Some of his best memories of childhood began right here at this track.

“When I was a little kid, we got to go to a handful of races throughout the year,” Junior recalled after Sunday’s race, noting that at Talladega, his father would give him a hundred bucks to do some damage at the nearby go-kart track while Senior was racing. Junior and his pals would race, then roam the exhibits at the International Motorsports Hall of Fame, and then check out the skeletons of wrecked cars left in the garage during the race. “So many good memories as a kid coming here,” he said. “You could run anywhere you wanted to go, and we was all over the place having fun and goofing off.”

Junior ran his first laps on a Cup-level track here, testing V8 cars in 1994 for what’s now the xfinity series. By the time Junior was racing at the Cup level here, he’d seen both the best and worst of what the world beyond these turns could throw at him. And now, he’s just about ready to let it all go.

“Running at a track wide open, we don’t do that too much. It’s pretty fun. I’ll miss that,” Junior said Friday. “I’ll still come and watch it … but I never will be able to replace that actual experience of doing it.”

Junior owes a significant measure of his early success here to his father’s strategic mindset. Earnhardt, Childress, and other confidants broke down the entire NASCAR schedule by track style—short, intermediate, superspeedway—and proceeded to attack each one in turn like lumberjacks felling redwoods. Senior brought all the throttling, drafting expertise he’d learned about speedways to his own team, Dale Earnhardt Inc., and his teams blossomed. A DEI car won at Daytona and Talladega, the circuit’s two restrictor-plate speedways, in 11 of the 16 races between 2001 and 2004, thanks in large part to the technical, strategic, and engineering foundations Senior had laid down years before.

The last of those, the EA Sports 500 at Talladega in October 2004, marked a turning point in Junior’s career. Exultant, covered in beer and confetti, he reveled in both the moment and the way it brought him closer to his father … and for a moment, the revelry got the best of him.

“What does it mean to win here not only once, but to win here five times?” pit road commentator Matt Yocum asked Junior.

“It don’t mean [expletive] right now,” Junior grinned. “Daddy’s done won here ten times. I gotta do a little more winning.”

That little expletive—uttered in a kinder, gentler America clutching its pearls in the wake of Janet Jackson’s Super Bowl exhibition—cost Junior 25 points and the Cup Series lead. He’d never get that close to a championship again.

Talladega and Junior grew ever more estranged, their once-warm relationship bottoming out in 2012. That year’s dreaded Big One collected Junior, leaving his car in shards as he sat on his hauler’s back bumper staring into the middle distance. He was already suffering from the effects of a concussion, though he didn’t know it yet. “It’s not safe, wrecking like that,” he said. “It’s ridiculous, man. It’s bloodthirsty. If that’s what people want…If this was how we raced every week, I’d find another job.”

And he did, but not before another couple of highlight moments at Talladega. Back in May 2015, he edged teammate Jimmie Johnson for an unexpected and welcome victory. His eyes edged with tears in victory lane as he understood the enormity of what he’d just done. “Everything is just so good for me right now in my personal life and my racing,” he said. “I don’t feel like I deserve this.”

He took one last victory lap around the track that day, holding up three fingers to the fans pressed up against the fence. “I love when we go to victory lane here, because I just feel like I add to his legacy,” Junior said. “All I ever wanted to do was make him proud, and I feel like when we win at those tracks where he was successful like Talladega, that’s exactly what we’re doing.”

It was a beautiful moment, son connecting with father through speed on their favorite track. But Talladega still had one more gift remaining for Junior.

***

He looks a little ready for this whole “Appreci88on” tour to be over, to be honest. It’s got to be a touch embarrassing, all these gifts for a guy who’s 1. shy by nature and 2. out of the playoffs. He’s started looking forward to his new gig—Friday, he sounded excited about trying to match the standard in NASCAR booths that newcomer Tony Romo has set in NFL ones.

He’s also in full DGAF mode on Twitter, calling out trolls, questioning rules and broadcast decisions, hyping the next generation of NASCAR, and standing up for his political beliefs, regardless of how much that might enrage some of his fan base. (And he’s settling old scores; a Friday shot at ex-driver/broadcaster Jimmy Spencer for questioning Junior’s legendary Daytona win in 2001 was straight out of the “Godfather” school of resolving all outstanding family business.)

The “Appreci88on Tour”—cringeworthy nickname and all—shares a lineage with the recent retirement tours of Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon, where track after track offered peculiar, locally relevant gifts. (Texas, for instance, gave the drivers a life-sized bobblehead and a Shetland pony, respectively.) Junior has sidestepped most of those gifts, preferring them to be donations to local charitable efforts. But then Talladega stepped up and, like it always seems to, engraved its name in Earnhardt lore.

Friday afternoon, Talladega presented Earnhardt with a priceless, one-of-a-kind gift: the exact No. 2 Chevy Monte Carlo his father drove during his 1979 rookie season and 1980 championship season.

“That man and his father sold a lot of tickets for us,” Talladega spokesman Russell Branham said Sunday. “When you look at the history of Talladega, it’s the Alabama Gang—Bobby [Allison], Donnie [Allison], Red [Farmer] and the rest—that got us going, and the Earnhardts picked it up and carried it from there.”

Joy and nostalgia washed over Earnhardt’s face when he got a look at the car. He settled into the seat, looked over the old analog pressure and temperature gauges and the vintage cue-ball shifter knob, and fired it up for a couple laps. He wheeled it around Talladega, one arm out the window, and the expression on his face via the in-car camera was pure bliss.

“I love to be able to sit in the car, to see the perspective of what the view is like,” Earnhardt said. “So different from our cars today.”

The Monte Carlo has spent the last few years in the nearby International Motorsports Hall of Fame, but Branham and track president Grant Lynch decided it deserved a better home. They hired Talladega’s operations team to swap in a working engine and other parts—one of the ops guys had to use his own carburetor—and bang, the greatest gift, or “permanent loan,” you could possibly give an Earnhardt.

“That car ran all over Kannapolis [Senior’s hometown], that car ran all over the South,” Branham said. “That car sat in [Junior’s] grandmother’s driveway for years. She’s going where she belongs. She’s going home.”

Dale Earnhardt Jr. in his father’s car. (Getty)
Dale Earnhardt Jr. in his father’s car. (Getty)

***

You never want to concede your era is ending. But if you were looking on Sunday, there were signs. While Earnhardt waited backstage to be called for driver introductions, the children of fellow drivers—Kevin Harvick, Kasey Kahne, Denny Hamlin, and Clint Bowyer, among others—danced and played. Earnhardt himself had to be called out early, even though he’d won the pole, because he hadn’t made the playoffs. It’s better to get out too early than too late, of course, but the sad truth is, one way or another, you always have to get out.

“The end of the season is coming really fast,” Earnhardt said Saturday. “I didn’t really feel much emotion about that and the finality of it until maybe this weekend. These few weeks will go by so fast, and that’s it. There’s no reliving it. So, I think I’m starting to take it in just a little bit in letting myself feeling some emotion about it.”

Junior’s 35th and final race at Talladega began with him at front, but that didn’t last long. Joey Logano got around him before a single lap completed, and Junior was only able to lead seven laps all afternoon. Keselowski won Stage 1, Ryan Blaney won Stage 2, and it appeared Junior’s final race would be like much of his final season—celebration followed by frustration.

But then something strange happened. Earnhardt began working his way up through the field, not unlike someone else did once upon a time. Two pit-road penalties had dropped him as low as 30th place, but here he was, slicing his way through the Harvicks and the Hamlins and the Keselowskis. With 60 laps remaining, he got as far as leader Chase Elliott’s bumper—another Earnhardt and another Elliott dueling; old-school NASCAR fans surely get a charge out of that—but that was as far up as Earnhardt could get. Shortly afterward, Ryan Blaney—whose age combined with Elliott’s is just a year older than Earnhardt—edged around the 88.

That one last cheer never came.

Earnhardt spent most of his time in the 10th to 15th position, too far back to make a good run at the front but close enough to the rear that he ran the risk of getting collected in the inevitable Big One. And he very nearly did. Three times, cars wrecked around him, and three times, the neon-green 88 evaded the carnage. By the time of the final restart, only 14 cars of an original 40 in the field were still running. And you started to think, hell, if Junior can’t outrun these guys, maybe he can just outlast ‘em.

But, no. Junior began his final laps staring at the back bumper of Brad Keselowski, his former protégé, who—irony upon irony—was driving a Dale Jr. tribute car with “CHEERS 2 DALE JR” across the bumper, filling Junior’s field of vision. Soon afterward, it became clear that Junior’s car didn’t have enough go left; the wrecks had damaged his splitter too badly for him to hold a lead.

“I know a lot of folks came to see this race just for the fact that it was my last plate race,” Junior said out on pit road, standing before a media horde that dwarfed that of all the other drivers combined, while Keselowski did victory burnouts in the far distance. “Trust me, I wanted to win it for all those folks more than myself, but just couldn’t get it done.”

Later, in the Talladega media center, he turned more contemplative, taking one last look back at his winningest track. “I hope to always have a good connection here. Trust me when I say, whatever the track needs from me, anytime they want anything, I’ll be here,” he said. “They’ve done so much for me, and I want to remain very, very close.”

He stepped down off the podium then, and began to leave the media center. A couple fans asked for selfies and autographs. One began rooting around in her purse for something to sign.

Junior didn’t even hesitate. “Here, take this,” he said, pulling off the neon-green Mountain Dew cap he’d carried in the 88 for all 500 miles of the race. He signed it and handed it over to the disbelieving woman, his last act as a driver at Talladega.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. greets fans for the last time in Talladega. (AP)
Dale Earnhardt Jr. greets fans for the last time in Talladega. (AP)

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Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports and the author of EARNHARDT NATION, on sale now at Amazon or wherever books are sold. Contact him at jay.busbee@yahoo.com or find him on Twitter or on Facebook.