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Monday, May 4, 2015

Talladega win carries extra meaning for Dale Earnhardt Jr.


SB*NATION
 

PHOTO COURTESY NASCAR.COM
 
 

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Dale Earnhardt Jr.


For himself, his fans and in the memory of his late father, Dale Earnhardt Jr. scored an emotional victory Sunday.

   
The legacy of the Earnhardt Family cannot be told without chapters dedicated to the lore of Dale Earnhardt and his son Dale Jr. at Talladega Superspeedway.
 
Earnhardt Sr., who died in a final lap crash in the 2001 Daytona 500, is the track's all-time winningest driver with 10 victories and is revered almost as a demigod by those who frequent the speedway's confines. His iconic white slanted No. 3 is still prominently displayed throughout Talladega, be it on koozies, flags, t-shirts or whatnot.
  
In the absence of their hero, Earnhardt Sr.'s ardent fans have put their full support behind his son. Whenever Earnhardt Jr. completes a pass for the lead or reaches the winner's circle, as he did for a sixth time Sunday, the grandstands shake with such a fervor it can be heard clearly over the engines.
Lately, however, Earnhardt Jr.'s fans haven't had much to celebrate at Talladega. Although he's been competitive in just about every race since, before Sunday Earnhardt's last win on the Alabama track came in 2004.
 
That kind of futility can eat at a man; especially someone who's fully aware of his family's surname and its association with Talladega. Add in the fact his father would have turned 64 last Wednesday, and one understands why Earnhardt nearly broke down celebrating Sunday.
 
"I love when we go to victory lane because I feel like I add to his legacy here," Earnhardt said. "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.
 
"I don't really get to think about him that much. His birthday came and went. Today, it made me think about his birthday, 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, a connection with, all his fans out there really enjoyed seeing him compete here."
Besides the pulsating roar as he smoked his tires after winning for the first time this season, the bond Earnhardt shares with legion of devotees is obvious everywhere.

A high school teacher and football coach from Nashville, Tenn., named Michael Jackson was a self-described "hardcore" Earnhardt Sr. fan. And when Earnhardt Sr. died, that support transferred to his namesake. Jackson's level of commitment is evident on his backpack, lanyard, shirt and cooler, all adorned with No. 88's and Nationwide markings, Earnhardt Jr.'s number and sponsor.
"We were stoked," Jackson said of Earnhardt's win. "It was a helluva party up in the grandstands. Nobody wanted to leave their seats after the race ended."
 
Wishing to shake Earnhardt's hand, Jackson eventually ventured down to the infield where he stood just outside the winner's circle watching Earnhardt go through the interviews and photographs required of the victor.
 
"I was a huge fan of his daddy," Jackson said. "For the last nine years I've been coming to this spring race and hoping he'd win, and today it did. This is worth it."
 
What Jackson didn't know was that while he may have been skeptical if he'd ever see Earnhardt flourish again at Talladega, his favorite driver had his own doubts as well.
 
Eleven years is a long time between victories and during that span Earnhardt has experienced many ups and downs. He even left the team that his father started for him and sister Kelley in 2008 to join Hendrick Motorsports. Despite much promise and some early success, Earnhardt endured a 143-race winless streak.
 
But being the offspring of a treasured NASCAR great comes with certain privileges. One of them was that Earnhardt kept his ride with Hendrick, even as the losses mounted.
 
Ultimately Earnhardt returned the faith that team owner Rick Hendrick had in him by earning consecutive playoff berths every year since 2011. A season ago, Earnhardt won four races including the Daytona 500. Still, he felt undeserving of a seat with NASCAR's supreme organization.
 
"There's just not many second chances," he 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."
 
Except Earnhardt is worthy. Although he might not be a multi-time series champion like teammates Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson, Earnhardt is the winner of 24 Cup races.
 
Yes, having a famous last name certainly helped forge paths. But an unassuming personality and a lack of entitlement has made Earnhardt a respected figure in the garage, and has guaranteed that the flock of fans that once cheered for his father now cheers equally as proud for him.
 
So while Sunday may have been about the family legacy and rewarding his loyal fans, it was also more. This was also about Earnhardt and the man he's become at the age of 40. One who is very much at peace with himself.
 
"I definitely feel fortunate in my personal life," Earnhardt said. "Amy (girlfriend) and I have gotten so close. ... My sister and I are getting along great. My mother and I are getting along great. Everything is in the right direction. Everybody is happy. I guess that's the way it's supposed to be, but I feel real lucky because that's the case. I know a lot of people aren't as fortunate.
 
"Hopefully it just keeps getting better."