Earnhardt and Gordon names inseparable in Talladega history

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The 2007 Aaron’s 499 at Talladega Superspeedway, held on April 29th, will be remembered as the day “Wonder Boy” passed the “Intimidator.”

After starting from the pole, four-time Sprint Cup champion Jeff Gordon won his 77th career NSACAR Sprint Cup race, breaking a tie with the late Dale Earnhardt Sr. on what was Earnhardt’s birthday.

That explained the boos and beer cans directed at Gordon’s No. 24 Chevrolet as it coasted past the crowd.

“I just didn’t think we’d get (win No.) 77 here,” Gordon said afterward, adding many Earnhardt fans probably that didn’t want to see Gordon pass Earnhardt’s win total of 76. “But what are you going to do? We’re here to win.”

That’s just one of many events in the last 25 years at Talladega Superspeedway that have been associated with the last names of Earnhardt and Gordon.

When Gordon, in his final Sprint Cup season, takes the green flag Sunday in the Geico 500 at Talladega, it will mark his 45th career start at the 2.66-mile track.

It also will break a tie with Earnhardt Sr. for career starts at the restrictor-plate track.

A look at the NASCAR record book shows the drivers’ names often dovetail in comparing their careers at the track.

From his first career start in the Talladega 500 on Aug. 6, 1978, to his last on Oct. 15, 2000, in the Winston 500, Earnhardt ruled the Alabama oval and posted records that Gordon won’t be able to match in his final two starts there this year.

Through 44 races:

Victories: Earnhardt Sr. – 10; Gordon – six

Top-five finishes: Earnhardt Sr. – 23; Gordon – 15

Top 10’s: Earnhardt Sr. – 27; Gordon – 19

Laps led: Earnhardt Sr. – 1, 377; Gordon – 847

Gordon can claim the most lead-lap finishes at Talladega with 31.

The Earnhardt legacy started with his first win in his 10th start there, in the 1983 Talladega 500.

Seventeen years later, he had 10. Three times he won consecutive races. Gordon did that once. Earnhardt’s final victory there and in the series came when he went from 18th to first in the last five laps to win.

Afterward, Earnhardt admitted, “I don’t know how I won it.”

Gordon’s first win there came in the July 1996 Die Hard 500, and was overshadowed by a 13-car wreck where Earnhardt suffered a broken sternum and collarbone.

Gordon’s opportunity to dominate Talladega wouldn’t come until after Earnhardt’s death in the 2001 Daytona 500 and five straight wins by Dale Earnhardt Inc. drivers, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Michael Waltrip.

Gordon put an end to the dominance by winning the 2004 Aaron’s 499, his third Talladega victory, in the midst of  a controversial caution that put the Hendrick driver ahead of Dale Earnhardt Jr., his future teammate. NASCAR was unable to restart the race, allowing Gordon to win under caution.

The crowd believed Dale Jr. had been leading at the time and showed its displeasure by tossing debris thrown on the track as Gordon performed a burnout.

Controversy came calling again three years later when Gordon passed Earnhardt’s career win total. Gordon would claim his sixth Talladega win the fall after win No. 77. But since then the names of Earnhardt and Gordon have been absent from Talladega’s Victory Lane.

One could try to make the argument that restrictor plate racing is a young man’s game.

At 40, Dale Jr. has not won at Talladega since 2004 and has finished in the top five just three times. But he did win the 2014 Daytona 500 and he goes into this weekend’s Talladega race with best average driver rating (90.7) among those who have competed in the last 20 races at the track.

Jeff Gordon’s (79.1) is sixth best.

At 43, Gordon is in his final season, and in the 14 Talladega races since his last win he’s only finished in the top five twice. None of his 12 Cup victories since have been at Talladega or Daytona.

At Talladega since 2010, there have been eight winners in 10 races and all were under the age of 40 at the time.

Any talk of age and Talladega glory ends with Earnhardt Sr. His last five Talladega wins came after turning 42.