Photo: Alan Marler for Chevy Racing

Junior’s Last Ride: Earnhardt Gears Up for Final Talladega Start

By David Morgan, NASCAR Editor

There are few tracks where Dale Earnhardt, Jr. is more revered than at Talladega Superspeedway. As his final season in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series nears its finale next month, he visits Talladega one final time this weekend for the Alabama 500, where he will look to add a seventh win to his already impressive resume at the track.

The 2017 season hasn’t gone as well as the No. 88 team would have liked with just one top-five finish and five top-10 finishes all year, but at Talladega, all of that bad luck from this season could go out the window. No matter how bad of a season Earnhardt has had this year or in years past, winning at Talladega always seems to erase all that. With it being his last start at the track, Earnhardt is primed to end his Talladega career on top, winning one last race for himself and his legions of fans that will pile into the grandstands to see their favorite son race at the track for the final time.

“It is a track we’ve had a lot of success at and we’ve been looking at this race as a great opportunity for us to come in and get an awesome run or finish and maybe a win,” said Earnhardt. “So, we’ve just been focusing on the car to be as good as possible and make sure it’s driving the way we need to drive it so we can be aggressive in the race; and all the usual things you think about and are concerned with on any given race weekend, that’s what we’re dealing with. I haven’t really thought beyond the usual emotions and anticipations that you have every race. But I do know this place has been great to me and we’ve got a lot of fans that come see us run here because they see it as a great opportunity to see us run well.

“I wouldn’t call it pressure, but there’s motivation to do well and run hard for all the folks that have come to see it happen. I’m sure there’s a few extra here this particular weekend considering it’s our last trip here. And, so that’s more motivation. So, I’m excited and looking forward to the race to get started on Sunday and hoping we can get up there and give everybody that’s going to be pulling for us a reason to cheer, and hope they leave the track on Sunday satisfied.”

Throughout his Cup Series career, there has always been one constant: Dale Jr. is damn good at restrictor plate racing, especially at Talladega, where he has ruled with an iron fist, scoring six wins, including four straight from 2001 to 2003. In addition to those six wins, Earnhardt has 12 top-five finishes, 16 top-10 finishes, 960 laps led, and an average finish of 15.6 in 34 starts.

Aside from the statistics backing up his chances at a win Sunday, Earnhardt also has the family factor going for him. At various points of his career, Earnhardt and his late father have had dates match up on wins at certain tracks and Sunday is yet another example of that. Dale Earnhardt, Sr’s last win came on October 15, 2000 and Sunday’s date, you guessed it…October 15, 2017.

As a part of his retirement tour, tracks on the circuit have been giving Earnhardt gifts to show their appreciation for NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver and Talladega was no different. Earnhardt was gifted his father’s championship winning race car that ran from 1979 to 1980 and carried the elder Earnhardt to the Rookie of the Year in ’79 and the championship in ’80, as well as the champagne bottles from both of their wins at the track in 2000 and 2001. The champagne put a smile on Earnhardt’s face, but the gift of his father’s car, left the ear to ear grin permanently implanted.

“That was great. The state of Alabama owns this car. They are going to let us take it to Mooresville,  North Carolina and show it off in our shop, so it is going to be great for the guys. I got to take it for a couple of laps. That was fun. Drove it through the garage so all the guys on the team can see it. Pretty neat trying to imagine what it would be like running one of those around here at 180/190 mph.

“This car is a 1979 (Chevrolet) Monte Carlo. Dad drove this car his rookie season, and probably his championship season in 1980.  They ran a Monte Carlo here (at Talladega Superspeedway) in 1979 but they ran an Oldsmobile 442 in 1980. This is the kind of car he drove at Bristol and some of the short tracks as well as the mile-and-a-half tracks.

“I drove his No. 3 Goodwrench car a couple of times at some tests that first year we were together. But never anything this old with some history. I love to be able to sit in the car to see the perspective of what the view is like. So different from our cars today. There are no head rests or anything like that. A lot of air moving around, so pretty crazy.

“I’m pretty surprised. I didn’t think I was going to take home a race car from this weekend. I just have to thank Talladega Superspeedway and the state of Alabama. They have been really good to me. Hopefully we can get them a win this weekend.”

Regardless of how Sunday’s race turns out, one thing is for sure: Dale Earnhardt, Jr. will be a factor for the win one way or another. Should their favorite son come home a winner, the year will be made for not only Earnhardt, but the thousands of fans that will trek to Talladega to see him race.

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David Morgan is the Associate Editor for Motorsports Tribune. A 2008 graduate from the University of Mississippi, David has followed NASCAR since the early 90’s and became hooked at an early age after attending his first race at Talladega Superspeedway in 1993. He has traveled across the country since 2012 to cover some of the most prestigious events both IndyCar and NASCAR have to offer, with an aim to only expand on that in the near future.