October 15 will mark the end of arguably the best family-racetrack combos in NASCAR history as Dale Earnhardt, Jr. is set to make his final Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series start at Talladega Superspeedway.
Sunday will be the end of an illustrious chapter for Talladega Superspeedway as fan favorite and six-time winner Dale Earnhardt, Jr. will start his engine for the last time at the unpredictable 2.66-mile superspeedway. Perhaps his last great opportunity to win in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series and give JR Nation something to celebrate that goes beyond cheering and hollering. There’s a lot of headlines and this one is its headline instead of the playoff battle.
Throughout the season, they’ve been tired of critics and Dale Jr.’s detractors saying, “he hasn’t won in two years,” “he should not be racing anymore,” “overrated,” etc., and I’m sure Dale Jr. has been annoyed of hearing his struggles.
Me and everyone else watching will keep an eye on every move he makes on the track and see if Oct. 15 will be another amazing chapter to the Earnhardt legacy. That’s what I’ll be focusing on, not so much about his subpar final season.
Outside of Daytona, Talladega has also been Earnhardt’s playground. They’ve won a combined 21 races with his dad leading the way with 14 wins, 10 of which were in NASCAR’s premiere division. Earnhardt’s first win was with Bud Moore July 31, 1983 via a last-lap-pass over Darrell Waltrip, his last of his three wins with the Hall of Fame car owner.
The following year, Earnhardt put Richard Childress Racing on the map after his incredible duel with Terry Labonte where he utilized the draft and passed the eventual series champion on the outside with a lap remaining for his 10th career win.
From there, the rest was history as he and Childress would win six championships the pair won eight more times at Talladega including a photo finish with Ernie Irvan July 25, 1993 which had it all, emotion, action, drama and excitement.
Above all, the site of his 76th and final victory Oct. 15, 2000 (the same day Sunday’s race will take place) where he came from 17th to first in four laps. Earnhardt’s magical moments at Talladega is what made him NASCAR’s all-time great driver.
Earnhardt’s other four wins were in the Busch Series (1993) and IROC (1990, 1995 and 1999). His last of his non-Cup wins has been forgotten, but it was clutch as was his entire 1999 IROC campaign. Earnhardt passed his long-time friend and rival Rusty Wallace at the tri-oval on the white flag and went 2 for 2.
At any given time, fans should never count an Earnhardt out when it matters most and Dale Jr. carried the torch after capturing a million dollars and his first Talladega win Oct. 21, 2001.
Much like his dad’s first win at Talladega, Dale Jr. took the lead on the final lap from Terry’s brother Bobby and escaped the chaotic big one which saw Bobby flip upside down. His EA Sports 500 victory was the start of his amazing streak of four straight wins.
Out of his four-peat wins, his last one stands out. I loved that race when I was younger and years later, I’m amazed how the No. 8 Budweiser Chevrolet overcame adversity where aerodynamics was key back then.
After starting at the rear of the field due to an engine change, Dale Jr. damaged his front bumper in the 27-car pileup on lap 4. His Bud crew worked on his car all day from added sheet metals to tons of black tape, they never gave up. When the dust settled, he took the lead with five laps to go from Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth and surpassed Buddy Baker for most consecutive wins at Talladega.
Dale Jr. was the man to beat and anyone that gets in his way from winning, fans tuned out, a shower of boos will occur and debris will be thrown at a driver’s car. Ask Jeff Gordon, he’s had that happened twice in both spring 2004 and 2007. Call them crazy and arrogant, but they’ll go far and between to voice their opinions at their enemies.
Dale Jr. would win two more times in Cup, but it was almost an 11-year span between those triumphs. By 2015, Dale Jr. has been driving for Hendrick Motorsports since 2008 and the high expectations critics had hoped for him was gone.
But on that sunny May 3rd afternoon, a little of the nostalgia came back as the powerful “Amelia” led a race-high 67 laps including the last 27 to win for Dale Jr.’s sixth Cup win.
It was a reminder that he wasn’t a flash in the pan and proved he still rules the circuit. Nobody had a stronger car that day and to date, the last time Chevrolet went to victory lane at Talladega. Dale Jr. later won at Daytona two months later and was Chevy’s last win there as Ford—notably Team Penske—has been the best manufacturer at the restrictor plate tracks by performance and luck.
Ford’s dominance could be at risk Sunday and Dale Jr. is no doubt the guy who can dethrone them and bring Chevy back to the promise land on the same day his dad won his last Cup victory 17 years ago. Imagine if it does happen, I don’t think the circuit can withstand a thunderous roar from JR Nation. “Beast Quake” was one thing, but I think that moment may be louder than anything you’d hear in sports.
It’ll be the most iconic moment in recent NASCAR history, much like when he won the 2001 Pepsi 400 at Daytona and his two Daytona 500 victories (2004 and 2014). They’ll party for days and who can blame them, it’s been awhile since the words “Dale Jr. goes to victory lane” was shouted and there’s no place bigger than Talladega to have that event unfold.
For now, that’s just mine and others vision. One thing is certain, if an Earnhardt arrives to the race track, expect them to be heavy pre-race favorites. It continues to be this way today and Sunday will be evident as everyone knows Dale Jr. will be motivated for another win at Talladega and only the wild nature of the circuit will dictate his outcome.