For nearly 40 years, when the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series (MENCS) has visited Talladega Superspeedway, either Dale Earnhardt Sr. or Earnhardt Jr. have been amongst the many different drivers on the starting grid. With almost 80 Talladega starts and 16 wins between them – the Earnhardt name has become synonymous with the 2.66-mile race track in Talladega, Alabama, helping the pair establish an incredible legacy at the historical venue.
“It’s always meant a lot to me to run well here,” said Dale Jr., who will make his final Talladega start in the Alabama 500 on Oct. 15. “Watching my dad, who was one of the best, I learned a tremendous amount because I solely watched him whereas, someone else who grew up around the sport may not have focused as much on one particular driver. All those things maybe helped me develop into a better (restrictor) plate race car driver than the average guy. I guess our personalities matched.”
Dale Sr. made his first Talladega start on August 6, 1978. He finished 12th that day in an underfunded No. 96 Ford owned by Will Conkrite. Five years later, in NASCAR Hall of Famer Bud Moore’s No. 15 Ford, he captured the first of his 10 MENCS wins at TSS. After joining Richard Childress Racing, the elder Earnhardt would claim nine more triumphs at Talladega to become the track’s all-time winner. All the while, a young Dale Jr. was studying his father’s every move.
“When I was a little kid, I’d look back through all the books and magazines and it would show the winner of the year before,” Dale Jr. recalled. “I’d always look to see where dad had finished (at Talladega). Years later when I came to Talladega as a driver, I listened to every word he had to say.”
Using lessons learned from his father, Junior began to write his own Talladega story. After making his TSS debut in the MENCS as a rookie in 2000, the chips started falling in his direction in the fall of 2001. From that point until the spring of 2003, he reeled off an unheard of four straight triumphs at ‘Dega – a track record that still stands. After two consecutive runner-up efforts, he won again in October 2004.
“When I was winning all those races, I raced as hard in practices as I did in the race. I wanted to set the tone early in the weekend with my competitors,” said Earnhardt Jr. of opening practices. “This is the car you’ve got. When they start talking about who might be strong before the event is even here, and you’re one of those names on the list, you know they’re thinking that you’re a guy they’re going to be looking for, and you’re more likely going to get the drafting help when you need it.”
After a long dry spell, in the May 2015 GEICO 500, Dale Jr. won his sixth Talladega race to move into a tie for third on the track’s all-time MENCS win list. It happened on the weekend that would have been his father’s 64th birthday.
“That was really on my mind after the win,” an emotional Junior said of his Dad’s birthday. “It just kind of hit me all at once. Dad won so many races here. The fans loved him. We were able to come in and win our share, and add to the Earnhardt name and the heritage at Talladega. That’s something I truly enjoy – when we win races at places I know my dad had a lot of success at.”
When Dale Jr. wins, he doesn’t consider the victories his. Instead, he believes he’s adding to his father’s name and legacy. “I love just being able to add to his win total. I consider them all his wins to be honest with you, and I’m just kind of adding to it. He made this all possible for me.
“Dad did a lot of things in the sport that paved the road for me. When I was able to come in here and win some races, that just solidified my position and the Earnhardt family’s legacy at this race track. Dad was a legend here. He was real easy to cheer for when you came here. No matter who you were a fan of, it was fun to watch him race. He always did a lot of great things, a lot of fun things for a fan as far as watching a race here goes. When I was able to come here and have some success, I think it sealed the deal for all the Earnhardt fans out there.”
Can Dale Jr. “seal the deal” one final time at Talladega? Find out in the Alabama 500 that sees the green flag drop at 1 p.m. (CDT) on Sunday, Oct. 15. There is still time to secure tickets to this iconic stop on Dale Jr.’s #Appreci88ion Tour, log on to www.talladegasuperspeedway.com or call 855-518-RACE (7223). The Main Ticket office is available from 8 a.m. – 4 p.m. (CDT)during the week and now on weekends from 9 a.m. – 1 p.m. (CDT).
Talladega’s fall event weekend kicks off next Friday, Oct. 13 with a full slate of on-track activity, including practice sessions for the Alabama 500 and fred’s 250 Powered by Coca-Cola NASCAR Camping World Truck Series (NCWTS) event, both of which will play major roles in NASCAR’s playoffs. Saturday’s fred’s 250 Powered by Coca-Cola, where the field of eligible championship contenders will be trimmed from eight to six at the checkered flag, is set for a 12 Noon (CDT) start.