TALLADEGA — “Man,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. shrugged after still another Talladega victory, “I ain’t doing much. Just turning left every once in a while.”
“Every once in a while” comes out to 23,784 left turns for Junior at Talladega Superspeedway, in the course of 5,946 competitive laps in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup series.
The final chapter in Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s history at Talladega will be written in Sunday’s Alabama 500. He has won six Cup races here, including four in a row, a total surpassed only by his father’s 10 victories. He is clearly the most popular driver among the ’Dega fan base. “Dale Earnhardt Jr. Day” has been declared for the state of Alabama.
It is very much as he once said while in a Victory Lane celebration in 2004:
“This is my place, baby. Talladega!”
Here’s a look at Junior’s six-pack of Talladega victories:
Oct 21, 2001: Only a year earlier, Dale Earnhardt Sr. won the Winston 500 in what would be his final victory. Junior’s first Talladega victory was thus awash in sentimentality — and some controversy. Many drivers went to the NASCAR hauler immediately after the race to complain about the perils of restrictor plate racing. Said Jeff Gordon: “It was out of the drivers’ control.”
Celebrating out of that storm was Dale Junior, who said, “It’s always really cool to do something that your father’s done.”
April 22, 2002: This was the apex of teammate-helping-teammate racing, with Michael Waltrip all but blocking other contenders as Junior won in front of a record crowd estimated at 180,000.
A 24-car wreck with 24 laps remaining thinned the herd, then the race was red flagged with six to go. Earnhardt, Waltrip and a rookie from California named Jimmie Johnson restarted 1-2-3.
Johnson may have been a rookie, but he had a veteran’s insight. Of Earnhardt, he said, “Man, it’s in the blood.”
Oct. 6, 2002: Junior joined Buddy Baker, another second-generation racer, as the only driver to win three straight races at Talladega. But there was an ominous sign that week.
Earnhardt had confessed before the race he had been driving with a concussion and there was debate launched about NASCAR’s role in “benching” ailing drivers.
“It should be up to the drivers because we know to what extent we’re injured,” Earnhardt said. “We know whether we’re capable of doing the job. If I was hurt that bad, I’d sit out. I’d make my own decision.”
Earnhardt, as most know, did not race last fall at Talladega, choosing to sit out the last 18 races of 2016 because of head trauma.
April 6, 2003: Earnhardt’s record fourth straight Talladega win came with more than a little controversy. There was a frenetic final stretch, with nine lead changes in the last 17 laps, and with three to go, Earnhardt made a low pass of Matt Kenseth in turn 3. Runner-up Kevin Harvick even pleaded for an official NASCAR review.
“He was clearly below the yellow line in my opinion,” offered Jimmie Johnson. “Anybody else who dances down there gets in trouble.”
Jeremy Mayfield was even more blunt, saying, “It looks like they gave it to the 8 car. He can do what he wants to do.”
Oct. 3, 2004: After four in a row, Junior hit a slump. He only managed to finish second in two straight Talladega races before returning to victory lane for No. 5.
“Well, it don’t mean (expletive) right now because my daddy’s won here 10 times,” he said in a cringe-worthy moment on live television (also a costly one, since NASCAR fined him $10,000 for the profanity). “I’ve got to do a lot more winning. But we’re going to get there. He was the master, and I’m just following in his tracks.”
May 3, 2015: Some 14,764 left turns since 2004, he made his favorite ’Dega left — into Victory Lane. Steam was spewing from the hood of his Chevy after a 0.159-second win over Johnson.
Earnhardt it “just real emotional,” coming four days after what would have been his father’s 64th birthday.
Over the radio during the cool-down lap, Junior summed up the victory — heck, his whole Talladega history — in a one-word command to his crew members: