Dale Earnhardt Jr. (88) hugs the yellow line through the corner at Talladega (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
You've just got to love Dale Earnhardt Jr. His folksy attitude, his low-keyed approach to this sport, despite the deluge of adoration from his fans.
Perhaps no one in this sport wears his feelings so openly as this man.
Now Earnhardt Nation might not be as strong and vocal as it was. And he just turned 39, and maybe most of his best years are behind him.
But this is Talladega, an Earnhardt stronghold for years and years....going back to the days his legendary father pulled off some of the sport's most dramatic finishes.
And this sport, at this moment, considering all the bad hits it's been taking lately, is ripe for another Earnhardt victory here.
One year ago here marked the end of Earnhardt's title bid. That last lap crash, though it was only a 20-G hit, forced him to the sidelines for several weeks recuperating, coming after a savage crash at Kentucky.
And remember those glory days when Earnhardt and Michael Waltrip were teammates at DEI and helping each other to victory after victory at Daytona and Talladega? With Waltrip's current woes, maybe he's got a role to play here again too. And remember he was going for the win last October when Tony Stewart blocked his pass...
"This was actually the first race track I drove on, aside from Myrtle Beach," Earnhardt was musing here the other day, awaiting Sunday's Talladega 500 (2 p.m. ET).
Earnhardt will start 8th in the race. Rain washed out qualifying, and in an odd turn of events -- certainly as per the rulebook but certainly not in keeping with the characteristics of the draft at this track -- the field was set by speeds in the first round of Friday's practice. That first round of practice was typical jockeying in the draft, at much higher speeds than clean air solo runs, which is the method of actual qualifying.
So Aric Almirola and Jeff Burton are on the front row for the start, title contenders Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth are side by side in Row Six. Jeff Gordon will start 19th, Kyle Busch 27th, and Kevin Harvick 33rd.
Junior (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
"Actually I wasn't even racing Myrtle Beach; I was racing street stocks at Concord," Earnhardt recalled.
"They were going from V6s to V8s in the Nationwide series, and Dad was down here driving, and Dave Marcus was out here driving Dad's car.
"Dad called me at the dealership; I was changing oil. And he told me to get my helmet and my suit and be at the airport the next morning and not to ask any questions or tell anybody where I was going.
"I didn't know where I was going. I mean I knew I was going to Talladega, but I didn't know why. I assumed I was going to drive a race car somewhere.
"We got here, and he told me to get my stuff on and get in the car and go out and run. 'And hold it wide-open, because it will stick.'
"I remember going down the back straight in that car and wondering if it was really going to stick when I got in that corner because it just didn't seem like it was possible."
Since then Earnhardt has become one of this track's favorites, as the crowds will easily atest.
Earnhardt understands some of this history perhaps better than most.
"This track is really a special race track to the sport. The history of this place, and just how it was conceived, the unique circumstances of that first race and how the drivers -- many felt it was unsafe.
"And how the track eventually turned into one of the most impressive and unique. And how the style of racing you have here is so unique.
"It's just amazing what this place has been able to deliver year after year."
However this place hasn't been that kind to Earnhardt lately.
Yes, he's won here five times. But that last win was back in 2004.
"We were winning so many races there in a short period of time from '01 to '04 (five wins here in seven starts). And when we weren't winning, we were running second or third, and always in the middle of the race for the lead.
"I think maybe our personality is a good match for this area. I have had a lot of friends down in this area, and spent a lot of time down here hunting. It's just been a real comfortable area for me to be in.
"You travel all over the country, racing in all the different parts, and some places you feel almost like you're at home. And this is one of them."
His father, of course, was legendary at this place. His uncanny win in the fall of 2000 was just one of many.
"I think that Dad really started all that, with the success he had here," Earnhardt says of his fanbase here. "Our team came in and just kind of inherited already a pretty loyal fan base.
"It makes it fun to come here knowing you've got a lot of people excited to see you run.
"As soon as the race starts -- when you're out on the line 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."
For most other drivers here, though, this race is something to be endured, hopefully survived.
Earnhardt understands the trepidation: "As much as I feel like a lot of things are out of your control.... you start the race thinking 'I've got no control over what is going to happen. I'm just going to do this, or I'm just going to do that.'
"'I'm either going to lay back, or.....You make up your mind probably hours before the race: I'm going to run hard every lap, or I'm going to take it easy.
"Maybe you spent a week on figuring your plan.... you still feel as helpless as a guy with no plan at all. Just because so many things are out of your hand.
"But I think you can psych yourself out; you can definitely anticipate negative things happening so much that you almost guarantee that as your fate.
"If you think positively -- 'Man this is going to work. I'm going to make the right choices, I'm going to get something out of this today' --typically it works out.
"Typically that attitude is going to prevail over 'Man, this isn't going to work. Every time I come here I'm going to wreck. Every time I come here I'm going to have trouble. I can't figure it out, so why even try.'
"That attitude never works."
Still the total lack of control over your fate does grind on some of these drivers.
"When you are driving at other tracks, you are driving a car you are in control of. You are in control of a lot more.
"Here you are at the mercy of the draft and what line you are in.
"A choice to change lines a couple of laps ago might have you just going backwards, with no option to get out. You are trapped in that box. Trapped by the cars around you. Ande you just ride that decision out for a few more laps.
"That is frustrating.
"But you have to stay positive, to not end up in that crash... or not end up having a terrible result because you make all these terrible choices.
"You have to stay positive and keep pushing.
"You will make five bad decisions, but that one right decision you made might be the one that gets you where David Ragan ended up. Just like that, he wins the race.
"You are going to make a lot of bad decisions; you've got to get ready for that."
Here Sunday? His championship dreams are all but over. Still.... "I'm waiting on something good to happen.
"I don't think I've made too many bad decisions. I don't look back over each race and go 'Man, this is exactly where I went wrong.'
"I don't take a record of everything.
"I feel like we haven't got the job done (in the playoffs), and this is a place where I feel like I should know what I'm doing and should be able to go out there and get a great result every time.
"Everytime you show up here thinking 'This might be the weekend that you get it turned around and put things back in the right direction.'
"It hasn't been going great here, as great as I want it to go here lately. We have torn up a lot of cars and been frustrated most times when we leave here.
"I still come back as confident and excited about the opportunities as ever.
"That is the way we feel this weekend."
What has happened over the years here since his last win?
"The package changes a lot, and you've got to adapt. Maybe I haven't adapted as well to some of the packages.
"Or maybe I'm just not making the right decisions.
"You've got to make all the right decisions in the draft to put yourself in position to win. And I haven't been doing that to win these races here.
"But my confidence and my determination has not changed a bit.
"I think you've got to adapt, and I don't think I've adapted as well as I've needed to (to these new 2013 cars)... to the way this package needs to be run.
"But I'm going to stay open-minded to that and try to do a good job this weekend of putting the car where it needs to be and making better decisions that put me in position to have a shot at it.
"I just want to have a shot at it. We haven't really even done that.
"Everytime we have had these late restarts we have been in the back or outside the top-10, or just things haven't gone the way we need them to go at the end of these races to have a shot and be up close to the front to make a move at the last few laps.
"That is the goal this weekend."