In the run-up to Sunday’s Geico 500 at Talladega Superspeedway, Dale Earnhardt Jr. said he felt pressure to perform well for his demanding legion of fans at a race track where his late father always excelled.
Earnhardt drove that pressure away on a warm and sunny afternoon at NASCAR’s biggest track, winning the race in impressive fashion, with Hendrick Motorsports teammate and runner-up Jimmie Johnson providing a buffer late in the race.
“I love when we go to victory lane because I feel like I add to (Earnhardt Sr.’s) legacy there,” an emotional and reflective Earnhardt said after the race. “All I ever want to do is make him proud. I feel like when we win at those tracks where he was successful, that’s exactly what we’re doing.”
The victory, his first of the season and 24th of his career, accomplished several things for Earnhardt, not the least of which is certainly a spot in the Chase. It was also his sixth career triumph at Talladega, a track where Earnhardt Sr. won 10 times before he was killed at Daytona in 2001.
“I don’t really get to think about him that much,” Earnhardt said. “His birthday (April 29) came and went. (Sunday), it made me think about his birthday, how much I miss him, how much he meant to me and so many more people. I can’t even fathom the number of folks that he had a relationship with in this sport, a connection with all his fans out there who really enjoyed seeing him compete here.”
Being the son of Dale Earnhardt hasn’t always been easy for the driver they call Junior. He admitted Sunday that it might have been a crutch for him at times, especially during a 76-race winless stretch that lasted the better part of three seasons and ended in 2008. He also struggled in his early days at Hendrick, winning once in his first 158 starts after leaving Dale Earnhardt, Inc.
“There’s just not many second chances,” Earnhardt said. “I feel like if my name wasn’t Earnhardt that I wouldn’t have had the second chance. I feel like I owe my second chance to my dad, his legacy, because the way I ran from ’09 through those years till 2011 or so, I feel I didn’t deserve to be kept around or hung onto.
“I’ve watched a lot of sons follow a lot of fathers, regardless of the profession, and just have a real challenge of it. That is the part I feel like I’m fortunate about.”
Although Earnhardt led the final 27 laps of the race, he said it was anything but easy.
“(Talladega) is some of the hardest racing that we do on a mental scale,” said Earnhardt, 40. “It’s very difficult. You’re about 80, 94 laps in, you’re just getting halfway, and you feel like you’ve been racing for 10 hours, but you’re only halfway. You think to yourself, ‘How much is left in the tank mentally to get to the rest of the race?’ And the hard stuff hasn’t even really started yet.
“I don’t know. It just seems like when I was younger, it was easier to win these races.”
Earnhardt’s victory was hugely popular among the fans at Talladega, many of whom stood and waved as he crossed the finish line.
“When you have 43 race cars go by and you scan still hear crowd in stands, it’s emotional,” said Greg Ives, Earnhardt’s first-year crew chief who won his first race with Earnhardt.
Earnhardt appeared fatigued after race – happy, but fatigued. The nature of this victory was different for him.
“Most wins you sort of pop like a bottle of champagne and everything pours out really fast,” he said. “You’re super happy. 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.”