Dale Earnhardt Jr. Day at Talladega Superspeedway capped a weekend of memories, old and new, for Dale Earnhardt Jr.
There are a number of reasons Earnhardt is unlikely to ever forget his final weekend as a competitive NASCAR driver at Talladega, even though he didn’t come away with a win, finishing seventh after starting on the pole in Sunday’s Alabama 500.
Among those reasons is that Earnhardt managed to finish, just one of 14 cars that were able to keep rolling to the end of Sunday’s wild Cup Series playoff race.
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NASCAR.com’s video crew shared this look from inside the No. 88 Chevrolet after Sunday’s Cup Series race. The split-screen video shows Earnhardt threading the No. 88 Chevy through one of the wrecks.
Though Earnhardt will retire from full-time racing after just five more races and isn’t among the 12 playoff drivers competing for the Cup Series championship, the video shows he still has the touch. However, he credited luck for his ability to keep dodging trouble during the race.
“... all those wrecks started happening. I don’t know how we missed all that stuff. It’s really more about being lucky than anything,” Earnhardt said after the race on a live video stream on Periscope.
But Earnhardt did get caught in one wreck, and that collision knocked the No. 88’s splitter – a piece that rides just above the asphalt on the leading edge of a stock car and supplies downforce to the wheels for stability through turns – down about an inch and a half. That was enough to present problems.
“We raced with that splitter right on the ground,” Earnhardt said. “... When it bent the splitter down, it really hurt the car.”
Earnhardt says that despite a few good runs earlier, his Chevrolet never quite felt fast enough toward the finish. Earnhardt started the last three laps in third place but faded to seventh.
Earnhardt’s memories of Talladega date back to his childhood, when he made trips to Alabama with his father and raced go-karts with buddies at a track near their hotel. Earnhardt had a run of four straight wins at the track from 2001-03 but also had some scares, including a concussion in a 2012 crash. He’s won six times at Talladega, most among active drivers.
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Other memorable moments from Earnhardt’s weekend:
▪ Talladega Superspeedway presented Earnhardt with the No. 2 Chevrolet Monte Carlo that his father raced in his rookie season in 1997 and part of his championship season, including the final race, in 1980.
Earnhardt remembers the car well.
“I was a little kid, and starting going over to my dad’s Xfinity shop, which was a two-car garage behind my mamaw’s house in Kannapolis,” Earnhardt said. “It was Ralph Earnhardt’s garage. ... So this car shows up and there wasn’t nothing but the chassis and the body.
“Dad had talked about restoring it. .... I just remember the car and climbing all over it. It was out there in the backyard and the weather for probably three or four years until he finally got a donor car [for parts] to have it restored.”
After being restored, the car was shipped to Alabama where it went into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame museum in Talladega in the mid-’80s. Earnhardt said he plans to eventually return the car, which now belongs to the state of Alabama, to the museum, where his father and grandfather have been inducted. But he can keep it as long as he wants.
“I remember going to see it as a little boy when I used to go to the Talladega races,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. said.
Now it’s headed to his garage.
“It’s THE car. ... It’s awesome and rare to be able to find history when it comes to the cars themselves that’s really legit history, that’s not just a remake. ... It’s the real car,” Earnhardt said.
▪ On Sunday, Donnie Allison, an original member of the Alabama Gang, led the field to green in that same Monte Carlo.
▪ Earnhardt won the pole, his first at Talladega, in Saturday’s qualifying. Fans in the grandstands screamed en masse during his qualifying run.
“When we got the pole Saturday and the crowd there was cheering, it just gave me chills,” Earnhardt said. “Man, it feels so good. It feels good to my team. All the guys can feed off of that and it really motivates us. ... That really made the weekend really special.”
▪ Earlier in the week, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey declared Sunday to be “Dale Earnhardt Jr. Day” across the state in honor of his last race at the track. Ivey, a Republican, also served as Grand Marshal.
“He has been an impressive, positive role model for so many and we are proud to honor him this weekend at Talladega Superspeedway, but also across the entire state,” Ivey said.
▪ Brad Keselowski won the race in a Ford with a paint scheme that paid homage to Earnhardt. The scheme recalled the car Keselowski drove in the Xfinity series for Earnhardt, who gave him the break that started his career that includes the 2012 Cup Series championship.
Earnhardt takes in all the pageantry of his last start at his home track for the Bank of America 500
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