Joe Medley: Talladega fans, start your Earnhardt hearts
by Joe Medley
Oct 19, 2013 | 10367 views |  0 comments | 43 43 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Dale Earnhardt Jr. signs memorabilia at the NASCAR sign in trailer Friday at Talladega Superspeedway. (Photo by Trent Penny/The Anniston Star)
Dale Earnhardt Jr. signs memorabilia at the NASCAR sign in trailer Friday at Talladega Superspeedway. (Photo by Trent Penny/The Anniston Star)
TALLADEGA -- It’s tempting to waste time asking why Dale Earnhardt Jr. is so popular in NASCAR, especially at Talladega. Really, there is a devil’s advocate argument.

He has won exactly one Sprint Cup race since 2008, four since 2004 and 19 since first breaking into NASCAR’s senior circuit in 1999. He hasn’t won one at Talladega since 2004.

He did win five times in seven races, spanning from 2001-04, but nine years is a long time for good memories to sustain the affection Earnhardt clearly enjoys at Talladega. It’s clearly not based solely on results.

Nor should it necessarily be.

But why waste time explaining love? The heart wants what it wants.

Whereas they say his late father could see the wind, the younger Earnhardt can see his dad’s wake every time he takes the lead on Talladega’s 2.66-mile trioval.

“Sometimes you swear you can hear them, but most of the time you can’t,” he said Friday. “But you can definitely see it.

“You can definitely see, after lap after lap of going by the grandstand and seeing them sitting down. When you come by and they are standing up, it’s obvious, and you see the arms in the air and all that stuff.”

For as long as Earnhardt races, it’s hard to foresee a scenario where he wouldn’t be the most beloved driver at the track often called “Daleadega.”

Talladega fans were seemingly quick to forgive when he called racing here and Daytona, NASCAR’s other restrictor-plate track, “ridiculous” and “bloodthirsty.”

“I don’t even want to go to Daytona or Talladega next year,” he said after the 2012 fall race at Talladega, “but I ain’t got much choice.”

He later explained that a concussion he sustained in a last-lap crash might have affected his mood, and all was forgotten.

So, he’ll always be the fan favorite and top topic during Talladega’s two racing weekends. It is what it is.

It’s not unjustified by results. He has won five times here and has 13 top-10 finishes.

He runs for Hendrick Motorsports, NASCAR’s top team, so he’ll always have the equipment to be competitive, and he probably learned a thing or two from his dad to supplement his own instincts.

Earnhardt enters today’s Camping World Truck RV Sales 500 at ninth in Sprint Cup’s Chase for the Championship, 66 points back of leader Matt Kenseth with five races to go, and eighth on the starting grid.

It’s not like Earnhardt has become irrelevant, and it’s not like Talladega fans need much of an excuse. He is under no delusions as to why.

“So, I think that dad really started all that with the success he had here,” he said. “Our DEI (Dale Earnhardt Inc.) team came in and just kind of inherited already a pretty loyal fan base.

“This sport has got the most loyal fans as it is already. We sort of adopted a lot of people, and we were able to go out and win. And that endeared them and has for some time now.”

Yes, it helps to have had a dad whose legend transcends his sport and record-tying seven points championships. It helps to have had a dad whose man’s-man, race-to-win persona so appeals to Talladega’s clientele.

When Talladega fans saw the elder Earnhardt, they saw an ideal. After he died in that tragic crash in the 2001 Daytona 500, Talladega fans had only memories and his legacy.

Then the younger Earnhardt went out and won. He and his dad have a combined 15 victories at Talladega, home to arguably their most devoted fans.

“It makes it fun to come here, knowing you’ve got a lot of people excited to see you run,” Earnhardt said. “And as soon as the race starts, when you’re starting on the line out there before you even get in the car, the first thing you’re thinking about is how fast you can get to the lead because you know a lot of people want to see you leading the race.

“And they come here to cheer that specific moment and, hopefully, see you go to Victory Lane. You just want to produce as soon as you can.”

Sports columnist Joe Medley: 256-235-3576, On Twitter @jmedley_star.
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