Dale Earnhardt Jr. isn’t lacking motivation to win in final Talladega start

Sunday marks Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s last race at Talladega Superspeedway, a track where he and his father have a combined 16 wins.

A look around Talladega Superspeedway and one thing immediately becomes apparent: This is Earnhardt Country, and most of those who visit the NASCAR track twice a year are loud and proud devotees of the family whose accomplishments here have taken on almost mythic proportions.

Everywhere you look at Talladega, the site of Sunday’s Alabama 500 (2 p.m. ET, NBC), there is an omnipresent regalia of Earnhardt-related merchandise. From T-shirts to hats, koozies to flags, even shoelaces and hair braids are branded with either the car numbers for Dale Earnhardt Jr. (8 or 88) or the stylized white No. 3 Dale Earnhardt Sr. made famous.

That bond between driver and his fans is why anytime Earnhardt Jr. swoops into the lead, a loud roar emanates from Talladega’s grandstands, one that can be heard quite clearly over the engines of 40 cars racing around the 2.6-mile oval. And that kinship isn’t lost on Earnhardt, who on Sunday is set to make his last scheduled start at a track he’s synonymous with.

“People want to see [his team] go to the front,” Earnhardt said. “Our fans want to see us take the lead as fast as we can possibly take it. They want to see us in the lead every lap. And I can see in the grandstands the reaction when we have taken the lead and come around Turn 4 on the front straightaway.

“I know that’s there, and that pushes me all day at these plate tracks to do as much as I can to get into the lead and stay there.”

While many drivers dread restrictor-plate racing, which leaves them susceptible to circumstances beyond their control, Earnhardt is not one of those dismayed by racing at Talladega or sister track Daytona International Speedway. He relishes the challenge that horsepower-sapping restrictor plates bring out, and it’s no coincidence that confidence manifests itself on the track.

Six times Earnhardt has won at Talladega. His father won a track-record 10 times, his final victory coming in a stirring charge from 18th over the final five laps in the 2000 fall race. That would be the elder Earnhardt’s final NASCAR win, as he was killed the following February when he crashed on the white flag lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. Earnhardt Jr. would win his first plate race in July 2001 at Daytona, then followed by winning at Talladega three months later.

“Either you love it or you hate it,” Earnhardt said. “It seems like there’s no middle ground. I always enjoy coming to the track and trying to figure out what’s working in the draft and what’s changed. And as you change the cars … I always kind of like to find that out. Just being able to make moves and find your way up toward the front.”

Like a master craftsman would pass on his tricks of the trade to his son, Earnhardt Sr. did the same with his namesake. Yes, to go fast at Talladega and Daytona a powerful engine and a sleek aerodynamic car are necessities, but to win and to do so consistently one must possess a deeper skillset.

Whether to pass high, low or through the middle and when to do so requires a driver have a keen understanding of the draft and what is happening around them. When to block and stall out the momentum of those trailing is an art form when done correctly. And the slightest miscalculation will trigger dire consequences, with a multi-car accident almost assuredly to occur.

Like his father, Earnhardt is one of the very best at manipulating the draft to his advantage. When he last won at Talladega in May 2015, he led the final 27 laps, an inordinate number for a driver to lead over the closing stretch of a plate race.

If his legion of partisan supporters had their way, a similar outcome would occur Sunday. Earnhardt would dominate and win, which would be his first Cup Series victory of this his final season and likely the last of his career. A sentiment which isn’t lost on NASCAR’s 14-time most popular driver, who says the thought of giving his fans another fond memory is a strong motivating factor.

“This place has been great to me and we’ve got a lot of fans that come see us run here because they see it as a great opportunity to see us run well,” Earnhardt said. “So that’s more motivation. I’m excited and hoping we can get up there and give everybody that’s going to be pulling for us a reason to cheer, and hope they leave the track on Sunday satisfied.”

But even if a win doesn’t materialize, Earnhardt’s Talladega legacy remains indelible. Assured of lasting as long as one of those No. 88 tattoos some of his adoring followers have on their bodies.

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