Dale Earnhardt Jr. is nothing but relaxed in the Talladega garage prior to Friday's practice session. (Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)
Photo: Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images
Photo: Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

Dale Earnhardt Jr. mounts for one last ride at Talladega

Even as we are being told that Dale Earnhardt Jr. will drive his final laps around this vast oval in the wilderness Sunday, it is scarcely possible to believe. 

A Talladega race without an Earnhardt is just another traffic jam. In these parts, to these fans, such an absence seems as foreign as imported beer or Mountain West football.

But, yes, an Earnhardt ending is indeed at hand.

Speaking Friday in advance of Sunday afternoon’s Alabama 500, Earnhardt was sparing with the parting emotions. But clear on the importance of finishing well here, even as he has been pretty much riding shotgun this entire season: 

“I haven’t really thought beyond all the usual emotions and anticipations that you have every race,” he said. “I do know this place has been great to me. We’ve got a lot of fans who come see us run here because they see it as a great opportunity to see us run well.

“There’s motivation to do well and run hard for all the folks who have come to see it happen. I’m sure there are a few extra here this weekend considering that it’s our last trip here, so that’s more motivation. I hope we can get up there and give everybody who’s pulling for us a reason to cheer. I hope they leave the track Sunday satisfied.”

The intimate family connection to Talladega was underscored when it came time for the ceremonial parting gift Friday. Dale Jr. had mostly resisted such tokens, but this one was a little different. On Friday, Talladega handed over his father’s blue-and-yellow Monte Carlo that he drove for part of his 1980 championship season. Like a son borrowing his dad’s car for a trip to the movies, Dale Jr. took this one on a joy ride around the track and then into the garage area to show off to his buddies.   

Dale Earnhardt Jr. poses with Talladega's parting gift to him: His father's car of 37 years ago. (Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)
Photo: Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images

It was Daddy Dale who first established proxy ownership of Talladega, where he parlayed his feral aggressiveness and his famous, mythical ability to “see the air” into 10 victories. His was a style that played perfectly to the appetites of the Talladega crowd. That’s how they would race if only they had a sponsor.

Then came the son, 43 now, a more refined sort who nonetheless inherited the gene for superspeedway, restrictor-plate racing. Name recognition initially recommended him to the fans, especially after his father’s death in 2001 and the emptiness that left. Six victories at Talladega – nearly a quarter of Junior’s overall career total of 26 – took care of the rest.

A giant track requires drivers to scale. The Earnhardts fit the mold. Even though Dale Jr. won not a single series championship – while dad won seven – he was still family to the customers here.

If you cared at all for the Earnhardts and their legacy, Talladega was the place you had to visit.  

“Talladega was a very important track to my dad. He won so many times there. It was very important to me to be able to emulate his success there,” Dale Jr. said last week.

It has been a singular experience in a sport running dry of them: An Earnhardt in the lead at Talladega, sweeping around the wide turn that feeds into the front stretch and its endless grandstand. The audience rising to its feet, urging the leader on, their roars competing gamely but unsuccessfully with the engines’ screams.  

Even if your last name is Elliott, and you have your own family connections to this track, the sight was something to behold. 

“To be a spectator and see how fired up people get in the stands when Dale makes a good move or takes the lead of a race, it definitely is something that will give you chills,” said Chase Elliott, who before he raced here watched here in the company of his own driving dad, Bill.

And if your last name is Earnhardt, you certainly can never forget the Talladega scene.

“Our fans want to see us take the lead as fast as we can possibly take it,” Dale Jr. said. “They want to see us in the lead every lap. I can see in the grandstands the reaction when we have taken the lead around Turn 4. That’s motivating. I know that’s there, and that pushes me to do as much as I can to get into the lead and stay there.”

He’s the cutting edge Earnhardt experimenting with wearing a special miniature helmet cam this weekend that might give the TV audience a video game-like view of his last Talladega race. If some comfort and vision issues can be solved, it would provide his fans a chance to see what he is seeing, which really appeals to a guy who looks to spend part of next year in the broadcast booth. Hard to imagine his father, The Intimidator, doing any of that, even if the technology was available 30 years ago.

There’s no guarantee, though, that the view through the camera will be a pleasing one, the kind of unobstructed one that only the lead dog enjoys.

Dale Jr. has not won a race since 2015. He never recovered competitively from the profound concussion that cost him much of the 2016 season.

Well out of the current chase for the championship, he mainly has been a ceremonial presence for most of the season. A fifth-place finish in Texas in April has been the best result of a difficult year. He finished 22nd at Talladega this spring.

But you can’t throw a lug nut around here without hitting some kind of hopeful omen or possible sentimental story line where an Earnhardt is concerned.

There’s this one Sunday, for what it’s worth: Dale Jr.’s last ride at Talladega coincides 17 years to the day that his father won for the last time on this same track.

There are dozens of ways this Alabama 500 may shake out. But only one potentially perfect ending.  

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