TALLADEGA – It was one of those Daytona doldrum days in 2008, and I was in search of a column a few days before the race. So, naturally, I went into a couple of tattoo parlors.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. had just gone from driving car No. 8 to driving car No. 88. I was just wondering, as I told a few artists whose bodies brought to mind the side of a New York subway car, if anybody else had come in to ask for an extra 8 to be added to an existing tattoo.
I mean, wouldn’t that be ultimate act of being fan-friendly? You get a number changed, but it works in sync with the tattoo that devotees already owned.
“Fan-friendly” has helped define the career of Dale Earnhardt Jr.
He’s been elected Most Popular Driver 14 times. He’ll probably still win it in absentia next year in retirement. This is his final Talladega Superspeedway go-’round, at a track where he has won six races in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup series. Only Dale Earnhardt Sr. won here more often, with 10 victories.
Many among the Senior fan base turned their adoration toward Junior after the fateful Feb. 18, 2001, crash at Daytona, joining the younger fans already attracted to a kid who seemed to rely heavily on Crayola for his hair color, on the Augustus Busch family for his extracurricular needs and the louder-the-better for his musical tastes. Dale Junior was a veritable racing Bonnaroo, a nexus for old rednecks and young hipsters.
For the last several months, and for another month or so to come, the “Junior’s Last Race Here” sentiment has been a thread woven into the storyline at every track.
Nowhere does that seem as profound as here at Talladega Superspeedway, a place overflowing in mutual affection.
He came to Talladega as a kid, watching his dad race. With his friend Brad Means, he’d scavenge the garage area for spare parts – discarded lugnuts, spark plugs and the like – to take to Means’ father, Jimmy, who raced the Alka Seltzer car with modest financial support.
One day, Junior was changing a customer’s oil in the service department at Dale Earnhardt Chevrolet in Kannapolis, N.C. It was his day job, and perhaps, the way things were going, his future.
The phone rang. It was Senior. Grab your helmet and your firesuit and head to the airport, he ordered. Senior’s KingAir would be waiting to whisk him to Talladega, where a test session was going on.
“I was scared to death,” Junior said of his first laps at the 2.66-mile track. The largest place he’d ever raced was a half-mile loop at Myrtle Beach.
The old man ran ‘Dega wide-open, and that was his command to his son.
“And,” Junior laughed, “I had a hell of a time trying to get out of the garage, onto the race track, through the garage and down pit road wide-open.”
When Junior finished his anecdote, he punctuated it by saying, “The rest is history, as they say.”
Never one to run from a party, he loved the atmosphere at Talladega.
“Truth be known, me and my crew, on Fridays and Saturdays after practice will incognito-style get in a rental car and ride through the infield and check out some of the crazy stuff going on in there,” he once said.
That was back when driver-infield visits were like a Lion Country Safari tour – keep the doors locked and the windows up – instead of another choreographed event smothered in sponsor logos.
Now, it’s the last ride here. At least on the track. Incognito-style may continue.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. should be appreciated for a multitude of reasons. One, because he was just so darn much fun to watch drive. And because he was so much fun to listen to when there was time for substantive conversation.
He should always be admired for the grace and strength with which he carried himself after his father’s death. He was not without his hiccups and mistakes, but it’s tough enough to grieve in the public eye, much less to grow up in it.
Certainly, NASCAR won’t be the same without him. And Talladega, especially, won’t be the same.
Mark McCarter is a special contributor to The Anniston Star. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.