TALLADEGA – He can see you, you know.
Not you specifically, in your Dale Earnhardt Jr. T-shirt and sipping from something encased in a Dale Junior coozie. And not you in the sweat-stained, faded red No. 8 cap you pulled from deep in the closet, just for good luck. But he can see the collective you. He can, in proper Alabama-ese, see all y’all.
“I can see in the grandstands the reaction when we have taken the lead and come around Turn 4 on the front straightaway,” Earnhardt said in advance of today’s Alabama 500. “So, that’s motivating. I know that’s there, and that pushes me all day at these plate tracks to do as much as I can to get into the lead and stay there.”
Offered Chase Elliott, “To be a spectator and see how fired up people get in the stands when Dale makes a good move or takes the lead of a race, it definitely is something that will give you chills.”
He’ll at least lead going to the green flag in front of what is expected to be one of the largest crowds in years. On Saturday afternoon, Earnhardt won the pole for – believe it or not – the first time in this, his 35th and final ‘Dega start. Teammate Elliott will start on the outside front row and Joey Logano, the winner of the last two fall races, qualified third.
“There ain’t much to it as a driver,” Earnhardt said of Talladega qualifying. “This place has meant a lot to me. It’s awesome to hear those fans happy for us and hopefully we’re going to give them a lot more to cheer about before this weekend is over.”
Such is his clout here, a tense, unpredictable championship race is almost an afterthought. A quick diversion from all things Junior:
This is no longer the cutoff race in the Round of 12, meaning if calamity strikes (especially for the bottom four of Matt Kenseth, four-time ‘Dega winner Brad Keselowski, Ryan Blaney and Ricky Stenhouse), there is an opportunity to make up some ground next week at Kansas. Seven-time champ Jimmie Johnson and Jamie McMurray rest precariously in seventh and eighth, respectively, and must feel some heat.
Points leader Martin Truex Jr. will start 21st, but he is already assured of a spot in the Round of 8. Second place Kyle Larson goes off 12th and third place Kevin Harvick qualified 13th.
Starting outside Earnhardt will be Elliott, his Hendrick Motorsports teammate. Joey Logano, the winner of the last two fall races here, will start third, Kyle Busch fourth and Stenhouse, who earned his first career victory here in April, is fifth.
Earnhardt, alas, is not among the 12 contenders for this year’s title. He’s gone thirsty for a victory since Nov. 11, 2015, in Phoenix, 49 starts ago. Six of his 26 career victories have come at Talladega, the most recent in May 2015.
Dale Earnhardt Sr. had 10 Talladega triumphs, the last coming exactly 17 years ago today, months before he was killed at Daytona. Junior won on the next trip to Daytona – “that’s the stuff movies are made of, to come back after your dad passes away and win that race,” he said – then snatched his first ‘Dega victory on Oct. 21, 2001.
“He had a lot of pressure on him because of the last name, all that he went through with his father’s death, and I think he’s done an amazing job at being himself,” Jamie McMurray said. “He’s had an amazing career. He’s been a great ambassador for our sport.”
Nowhere has that ambassador role seemed so enormous as Talladega, and nowhere does the fan devotion seem so overwhelming.
“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,” Earnhardt said. “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.”
Watch and see what he does. Because he’s watching you.