By David Morgan, NASCAR Editor
As Dale Earnhardt, Jr’s full-time career in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series continues to wind down, this weekend, he heads to Talladega Superspeedway – the track he has been the most productive at – for the final time.
With Sunday’s Alabama 500 being his last ride around the 2.66 mile facility, this week’s “Throwback Thursday Theater” takes a look back at his triumphant Talladega moments over the years.
2001 EA Sports 500 – October 21, 2001
After winning at Daytona earlier in the year to finally break through with his first win, Earnhardt came into the second Talladega race of the season looking to make it two restrictor plate wins in a row by scoring his first at the track his late father had won at 10 times.
Starting in sixth place, the race lead would shuffle between four main players for the majority of the race, with his Dale Earnhardt, Inc. teammate, Michael Waltrip, Bobby Labonte, and Earnhardt himself all leading laps into the double digits.
Waltrip retired early after an overheating problem and Earnhardt was the dominant force out front as the laps wound down. However, Labonte didn’t make it easy on Earnhardt to walk away with the win, blasting by Earnhardt’s No. 8 Chevrolet and into the lead with five laps to go as the field ran three-wide several rows deep.
Earnhardt would drop as far as fifth in the shuffle, but powered his way back to second with two laps to go, setting his sights on Labonte and retaking the lead.
As the field took the white flag, Earnhardt muscled past Labonte and back into the lead, while Labonte drifted high to try and fend off a hard charging Hamilton. Labonte and Hamilton would tangle off of Turn 2, setting off a multi-car crash that saw Labonte on his roof at one point.
With the melee unfolding behind them, Earnhardt held off Tony Stewart and Jeff Burton over the final half-lap to score the win, his third of the season.
“We proved there wasn’t a fix over in Daytona,” said Earnhardt. “I had to get really aggressive there at the end, but, hell, everybody else was. You just block them or get run over. I was trying to do a little bit of both.”
“It was a great race car. Congratulations to Budweiser, Remington, all of our sponsors. Great day. We won a million dollars for a fan, so I can’t be any happier.”
“We’ve done some crazy things this year. Winning at Daytona, winning after the terrorist attacks, the race after that, and now winning this race just like my Daddy did. It’s crazy, man.”
2002 Aaron’s 499 – April 21, 2002
Much like the October 2001 race at Talladega, the 2002 Aaron’s 499 was once again a DEI showcase, with Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Michael Waltrip leading all but 41 laps in the race as the two were the dominant drivers of the day.
Jimmie Johnson started on pole, but it only took Earnhardt until lap nine to make his way to the lead, where he would stay for the majority of the race.
The first two-thirds of the race was a pretty quiet affair, with only one caution for debris slowing the field, but on lap 165 the relative calm was shattered when a 24-car crash broke out on the backstretch, turning it into a junkyard in an instant. The crash started when Kyle Petty tried to find a place in line, causing a chain reaction behind him and from that point the carnage was on.
When the race restarted on lap 176, it was Earnhardt that was back in command of the race and he would remain there for the balance of the remaining laps. Waltrip attempted to get past him on the last lap, but it was too little too late as Earnhardt streaked across the line for his second straight Talladega win.
Following Earnhardt and Waltrip was Kurt Busch, Jeff Gordon, and Sterling Marlin to round out the top-five finishers.
“It was a good car,” said Earnhardt. “We tore the body off of it at Daytona, so for it to come back and be as good as it was today says a lot about the fabrication department at Dale Earnhardt, Inc. They work real hard and I want to thank all them boys. This is their race.”
“What a teammate I’ve got in Michael Waltrip. Not many people, I don’t care if they are your teammate, are going to do that for you and help you. He deserves as much credit as anybody for where we are right now.”
2002 EA Sports 500 – October 6, 2002
It’s not often that a race at Talladega goes caution-free, but the fall 2002 race did, and in fact, was the last time any Cup Series race has gone green for the duration. Despite NASCAR introducing a smaller fuel cell for the race, it was business as usual for Earnhardt, Jr. and his DEI crew.
Starting in 13th, Earnhardt took his No. 8 car to the lead for the first time on lap 18, where he would be a constant presence as the day went along.
The lead changed 35 times among 12 different drivers, but it was Earnhardt that found himself in command with 39 laps to go.
The smaller fuel cells broke up the pack late in the race with the top eight drivers running single file ahead of the pack lagging further behind them. Tony Stewart ran second to Earnhardt as the laps wound down, but could never get enough help ganged up behind him to try and make a move and had to settle for following Earnhardt across the line.
Earnhardt’s win was his third straight at Talladega, making him only the second driver in the track’s history to win three in a row. The first to do so was legendary driver Buddy Baker. The season sweep also made Earnhardt the first to sweep both Talladega races since his late father did so in 1999.
“As the pack sort of thinned down, with only four or five cars in line, that makes it harder to pass the leader,” said Earnhardt. “I was having a good time. The car wasn’t doing everything I wanted it to do, but it did enough.”
2003 Aaron’s 499 – April 6, 2003
Earnhardt may have been the favorite heading into Talladega in April of 2003 having won the last three races at the track, but in order to win a fourth in a row, he would have his work cut out for him.
Forced to start at the back of the pack after changing engines, Earnhardt found himself in the middle of chaos when a massive 27-car accident broke out in Turn 2 just five laps into the race. After ditching through the infield grass, Earnhardt sustained damage to the front valence of his car, requiring several pit stops to get the damage fixed and the car aerodynamically sound again.
Earnhardt’s crew would get the car repaired and back in action, leading to Earnhardt taking over the lead for the first time on lap 107. From that point on, he would be a constant fixture near the front of the pack.
As Matt Kenseth led with five laps to go, Earnhardt dove low entering Turn 3 and his two left side tires went below the yellow line, which had been ruled as the “out of bounds” line, as he made the pass for the lead. NASCAR ruled the move as legal, noting that he had been forced down there, allowing Earnhardt to keep the lead.
It turns out that pass would be the winning move as Earnhardt would lead the remaining laps en route to a fourth straight Talladega win, making him the first to ever win that many in a row on the treacherous Talladega high banks.
“This is cool,” said Earnhardt. “Four in a row! Ol’ Buddy Baker! I bet he’s loving this. I’m just happy. After everything that was going on today, I was like ‘Man, I just want to be near the front, get some points.’ I saw a shot there. I was working with Matt to keep him up there. Me and him were working together and he left such a big ol’ hole down there going into (Turn) 3. He would have done the same thing. Man, I’m worn out. That took everything I had.”
“That was a scramble. With no more cars than we had on the race track, it was a hell of a race.”
2004 EA Sports 500 – October 3, 2004
Despite having his Talladega win streak broken by back-to-back runner-up finishes in October 2003 and April 2004, Earnhardt headed into the 2004 EA Sports 500 looking to make a return to victory lane in what had been his most successful year on the Cup Series circuit, having won four races on the season.
Starting 10th, Earnhardt made his way into the lead by lap four, leading the next 19 laps. Though he wouldn’t see the lead again until lap 98, Earnhardt was a constant presence up front for the remainder of the race.
As he led teammate Michael Waltrip with 11 laps to go, the two, along with the rest of the leaders had to come to pit road for the final pits stops of the day, when Sterling Marlin and Bobby Labonte crashed in the tri-oval to bring out the caution. Earnhardt completed his two-tire pit stop, but returned to the track back in 11th place.
The race would go back green with five laps remaining and Earnhardt got down to business, methodically working his way forward with each passing lap. Two laps later, he was up to fourth and had his sights set on the lead.
With help from Ricky Rudd, Earnhardt powered his way to the front by the time the field got the two to go signal and that was all the restrictor plate master needed to score his fifth Talladega win. Kevin Harvick would finish second, followed by Dale Jarrett, Brendan Gaughan, and Kurt Busch.
Greg Biffle and Kasey Kahne crashed on the backstretch on the final lap, and Elliott Sadler had a wild flip in the tri-oval coming to the checkered, but NASCAR let the race play out.
“Man, that car was awesome,” said Earnhardt. “We came down pit road and the yellow came out and Tony, Jr. said ‘Two tires! Two tires!’ and man, we just smoked them guys that were on them old tires. The car just drove right around them in the corner. Great engine by DEI, Richie Gilmore, everybody back at the motor shop, the fabrication department; the body was awesome. I beat the front bumper all to hell today and it’s still there…It’s a good win for us. Five this year! I just can’t believe it.”
Earnhardt was then asked about his Talladega win count in comparison to his late father’s and what he said next still lives in infamy.
“It don’t mean shit right now. Daddy’s done won here 10 times, so I’ve got to do a little more winning, but we’re going to get there. He was the master. I’m just following in his tracks.”
Though he took over the points lead with his Talladega win, NASCAR didn’t take too kindly to his language on live TV, docking him 25 points for it and fining him $10,000, dropping him back to second in the standings.
2015 GEICO 500 – May 3, 2015
For 11 long years, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. had waited to return to victory lane at Talladega and all of the pieces finally fell into place for Earnhardt to drive across the finish line in first to score his first Talladega win since 2004 with his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson coming home in the runner-up position.
That weekend at Talladega, everything seemed to have pointed to an Earnhardt victory from the time the teams rolled into the track for practice on Friday.
After qualifying fourth for the race, Earnhardt wasted no time in taking his No. 88 to the front of the field, showing just how strong his car and the remainder of the Hendrick Motorsports four-some was going to be and that they would be the cars to beat when it came down to it when the checkered flag flew.
Taking the lead for the first time on lap 12, Earnhardt steadily made his way back into the lead each time a different driver had overtaken him and by the end of the day, Earnhardt had led the most laps in the race with 67 laps led.
Despite having trash on the grille that drove the water and oil temperatures sky high in his Chevrolet and threatened to derail their hopes for a win once again, the engine power held and Earnhardt was able to streak across the line for the win.
Once he pulled into victory lane, the engine let loose with water steaming up through the overflow and the emotion that Earnhardt and his crew showed in victory lane and afterwards was much the same, showing just how much a win at Talladega meant to all of the members of the Earnhardt team.
“Just real emotional, man,” said Earnhardt. “Everything is just so good for me now. My personal life. My racing. The team I am with. I don’t know why. I don’t feel like I deserve it. I just feel overcome with a lot of emotion. It has been a long time since I won here. I’ve run so good here, and not to win here in so many races has bothered me.
“I want to thank Nationwide and my team, my guys. Greg (Ives, crew chief), Kevin (Meendering, engineer). All the guys from last year, Steve Letarte, I’m sure they are happy. All those guys that have moved on. It is a great day for a lot of people that have been a part of this and helped us get here. We just have a really good group of guys. I’m blessed, man. I’m blessed. We just have a really good group of guys.”
“Most wins you sort of pop like a bottle of champagne and everything pours out really fast. You’re super happy. This win had a lot of responsibility behind it with Greg being the new crew chief. We got a lot of new guys over the wall, new guys in the garage. A lot of changes. Brand-new sponsor, a lot of pressure there, trying to get those guys to Victory Lane. My dad’s birthday. A lot of things really happen at once when we cross the finish line. The pressure of trying to get in the Chase, knowing we’re locked in. Such a relief. Just winning. You just want to win. You want to win as often as possible. So this was really emotional. I don’t really get too emotional about wins. I get excited and super happy about them. But this one was certainly different. Just being at Talladega, I love this racetrack, the history here.”
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