They call Talladega Superspeedway “Earnhardt Country” for a reason.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., entering his final Talladega start before he retires from NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series racing at the end of the 2017 season, has won six Cup races at the 2.66-mile mammoth of a racetrack — second, of course, only to his father Dale Earnhardt, who won 10 Cup races at the superspeedway.
Talladega and the Earnhardts have developed a relationship perhaps more special than that of any other track-driver combo in the sport. As Junior drives his last laps on the circuit at which he’s won more Cup races than anywhere else, the place itself and the fans who fill its grandstands will be met with mixed emotions, primarily sadness.
“It’s been an Earnhardt track for many, many years. You know it’s going to be a tough goodbye,” Talladega Superspeedway chairman Grant Lynch Jr. told WHNT.com amid news of Junior’s announced retirement. “For that to have happened to one family at this track, that’s just amazing. And for it to happen to the two biggest stars maybe ever in the sport.”
Earnhardt Jr.’s success at Talladega leads many, including SN, to believe the track presents his best chance to earn a win before he retires — something we can presume all race fans want to see given Junior’s status as a 14-time Most Popular Driver Award winner.
Ahead of Earnhardt Jr.’s last Talladega run, SN counts down the driver’s 10 greatest moments at his best track, including, of course, all six wins.
10. Detached steering wheel
May 1, 2016
Our first memorable Junior-Talladega moment is one Earnhardt Jr. likely would prefer to forget. While driving under caution during the 2016 Geico 500, crew chief Greg Ives told Junior to check his steering wheel after a break for garage repairs.
The wheel came off in his hands — with the car still rolling on the track. His Chevy dipped to the grass as he tried to regain control with the shaft.
“When it was on the asphalt, I couldn’t do (crap) because it was just spinning in my hand,” Earhnardt Jr. told USA Today. “That hurt like hell. But I was trying to stop it because it was going into the infield and it was going to hit the wall! As soon as it got on the grass, it was easy as hell. I was like, ‘Oh, hey! I can turn it!'”
Junior was able to reconnect the steering wheel and continue the race, though he finished in last place.
9. Earnhardt Jr. recalls father’s last win
Turns out Earnhardt Jr. played a significant role in his father’s final Cup Series win before his death in the 2001 Daytona 500. Earnhardt Sr. won the 2000 Winston 500 at Talladega after he passed 17 cars, including that of his son, in four laps to take the lead in the closing stages.
Junior, 15 years later, recalled his account and point of view of his father’s race-winning moves that day.
“Dad’s line formed on the outside and was coming,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “I could see them in the mirror getting closer toward the lead. Then I had to decide whether I was going to try to pass Mike (Skinner) now and then maybe battle my dad for the lead, which was probably the best thing I could have done, or was I going to try to push Mike.
“I knew pushing Mike Skinner past daddy was not gonna work well. I knew he wouldn’t have wanted that. So I started not pushing Mike. I started lifting. And then our line really started falling. I went to the bottom, and (Skinner) stayed against the apron, and that wasn’t going to work, so I had to lift. When I lifted to get back in line, I fell to like 14th place.
“I just sort of self-destructed mentally. But (Earnhardt Sr.) won the race. It worked out for him, and that was good.”
8. Earnhardt Jr. finishes behind Waltrip
Sept. 28, 2003
In one of several 1-2 restrictor plate-race finishes for the “23 car,” the combination of Dale Earnhardt Incorporated’s No. 8 (Earnhardt Jr.) and No. 15 (Michael Waltrip), Earnhardt Jr. and his then-teammate successfully fended off closing-lap challenges from Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick, Tony Stewart and others.
Waltrip won the 2003 EA Sports 500, a race Earnhardt Jr. described as “wild and crazy.” Junior’s second-place finish snapped a four-race winning streak at Talladega, a track and personal record. (More on that later.)
7. Earnhardt Jr. pushes Jimmie Johnson to tandem win
April 17, 2011
Tandem restrictor plate racing is best left in the past, but Earnhardt Jr. and his Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Jimmie Johnson, used it to perfection on the last lap of the 2011 Aaron’s 499.
The Johnson-Earnhardt Jr. combo made a last-second move to the bottom of the track, and the nose of Johnson’s No. 48, pushed by Junior’s No. 88, beat the nose of Clint Bowyer’s No. 33 to the line by 0.002 seconds, tied for the closest Cup finish in NASCAR’s electric timing/scoring era (since 1993).
“If I couldn’t win the race, I wanted Jimmie to win the race,” said Earnhardt. “I had worked with him all day, and he’s my teammate and I’m proud to be driving for Hendrick Motorsports.”
6. Third straight Talladega win
Oct. 6, 2002
The third victory of a legendary four-race win streak at Talladega for Earnhardt Jr. tied Buddy Baker’s record for consecutive wins at the track. His EA Sports 500 win also completed a ‘Dega sweep for the 2002 season.
Junior dominated much of the event, leading a race-high 56 laps, including the final 38 laps virtually unchallenged.
“As the pack sort of thinned down, with only four or five cars in line, that makes it harder to pass the leader,” Earnhardt said. “I was having a good time. The car wasn’t doing everything I wanted it to do, but it did enough.”
5. Second straight Talladega win
April 21, 2002
The third 1-2 finish in six plate races for the DEI combo of Earnhardt Jr. and Waltrip, the 2002 Aaron’s 499 was Junior’s first win of the season and his second win in a row at Talladega; the second of his eventual four-race win streak at the track.
The likes of Kurt Busch and Dale Jarrett had nothing for the No. 15 or the No. 8 on the final lap, and Waltrip’s final effort to pass Earnhardt Jr. before the finish line failed. Junior dominated the race, leading 133 of the 188 laps.
“I couldn’t win the race,” Waltrip admitted. “I was behind Junior, and there was no one behind me. All those guys were fighting for position to get to us. But they didn’t position themselves in time to get a run on me or for me to get a run on Junior.”
4. “It don’t mean s— right now.”
Oct. 3, 2004
A familiar Earnhardt Jr. closing-laps charge to the lead earned him a victory in the 2004 EA Sports 500, his fifth win at Talladega and first since his four-race winning streak at the track was broken up by a pair of second-place finishes. It also was his fifth Cup win of the 2004 season.
Junior, with the help of Stewart, passed Harvick as they crossed the line with two laps to go. The race stayed green despite a last-lap crash, and Earnhardt Jr. held on for the win.
After the race, Junior was asked what it meant to pick up his fifth win at such a challenging track.
“Well it don’t mean s— right now,” he responded. “Daddy’s done won here 10 times, so I gotta to a little more winning. He was the master, I’m just following his tracks.”
3. Return to Talladega victory lane after 10 years
May 3, 2015
Many assumed the days of Earnhardt Jr.’s Talladega dominance ended when he left DEI for Hendrick after the 2007 season, and they had evidence to back up their pessimism. Junior hadn’t won at the track in more than 10 years, a losing streak that ended when he took the checkered flag in the 2015 Geico 500.
Earnhardt Jr. led 67 laps of a relatively clean race for Talladega standards, and he held off Johnson for the win. But the best part came during Junior’s post-race comments, when he admitted his emotions as they related to his father.
“We’re here because of dad’s success,” he said. “I think about all the races he won here, and I love when we go to victory lane because I just feel like I add to his legacy there. All I ever wanted to do was make him proud.
“I don’t really get to thinking about him that much. His birthday came and went. But when we won today, it made me think about his birthday and how much I miss him; how much he meant to me and so many more people that I can’t even fathom the number of folks that he had a relationship with in this sport, and all his fans out there.”
2. Fourth straight Talladega win
April 6, 2003
Earnhardt Jr. will not pass his father and his 10 Cup wins at Talladega as the king of the track. But Earnhardt Sr. never won four consecutive Cup races there. Nobody has done that, and given the wild, unpredictable nature of plate racing, it’s difficult to believe somebody else will.
Given what Earnhardt Jr. had to overcome in the 2003 Aaron’s 499, his record-breaking win was even more impressive.
Junior not only had to start at the back of the field after a pre-race engine change, but he was involved in a massive, 27-car crash typical of Talladega early in the race. He also dodged a bullet when NASCAR determined he did not go below the bottom yellow line to make late-race pass, a penalty that would have resulted in a black flag.
“After everything that was going on today, I was like, ‘man I just want to be near the front, get some points,'” Junior said after the race. “I’m wore out. That took everything I had.”
1. First Talladega win; a year after father’s final Cup win
Oct. 21, 2001
Junior’s first win at Talladega came in the same fall race, the EA Sports 500, in which his father earned his final Cup Series win the year prior (then called The Winston 500). The race, in typical ‘Dega fashion, ended with a violent, last-lap crash as Earnhardt Jr. beat Stewart back to the finish line.
It was the first of a dominant stretch of Talladega Cup races for Earnhardt Jr. — seven straight races with first- or second-place finishes, from 2001 to 2004.
“It was a rough race. I wanted to win this race real bad,” Junior said after his victory. “My father won this race last year. We backed up it and won it a little bit like he did. We were beating and banging there at the end.
“I watched my dad win this race last year by passing on the outside. That’s what we did today. There were several times I wanted to pull out, do this or do that. There were times I trusted some people and it paid off. That’s what my dad did here last year. I don’t think anybody else would put that much trust and effort into that, but I learned a lot from my father to help me stay determined.”