TALLADEGA, Ala. – He never will hear the words again, but that doesn’t stop Dale Earnhardt Jr. from trying to impress his father.
Every trip to Talladega Superspeedway is a chance to show what he’s become. That made each defeat in the past decade even more painful.
This was the track his father dominated, winning a record 10 times, including that memorable rally from 18th in the final five laps of what would be his final series victory.
The son followed with his own magic, winning five times at this track before it went away.
A litany of failures, including ill timing and bad planning, sabotaged Earnhardt’s chances of victory until Sunday when he won at this track for the first time since 2004.
“I love when we go to Victory Lane because I feel like I add to his legacy,’’ Earnhardt said of his dad. “All I ever want to do is make him proud.”
“I feel like when we win at those tracks where he was successful, that’s exactly what we’re doing.’’
His victory came four days after what would have been his father’s 64th birthday, giving extra meaning to the accomplishment
“Today, it made me think about his birthday, how much I miss him,’’ he said.
Talladega and Daytona are more emotional for Earnhardt because of his father’s history at those tracks.
That’s what made those previous defeats at this 2.66-mile track so tough on him. It’s why he lashed out about the racing after his last-lap crash in Oct. 2012 and why he said Sunday he was “ashamed” for not trying to charge to the front in this race a year ago.
Although he had not won at this track in more than a decade, he did leave with the checkered flag in April 2011 – a gift from teammate Jimmie Johnson when Earnhardt pushed him to the win. That’s how it has been. Chances to win evaporated, others celebrated and Earnhardt headed home from a track he once dominated without a trophy.
Longtime spotter T.J. Majors, who never had won at this track with Earnhardt until Sunday, said he thought the winless drought at this track “was weighing on him a little bit.
How could it not?
Earnhardt, in his mind, wasn’t meeting his father’s expectations and also wasn’t meeting those of the fans. There is likely no track on the circuit with more Earnhardt fans. They rise when he takes the lead, and their cheers nearly can be heard over the cars.
As one fan, wearing a No. 3 cap, simply said as he put his arm around Majors after the race: “This is Earnhardt territory!’’
That can be a daunting feeling with the hopes of so many on one’s shoulders.
“The fans want to see us up front,’’ Earnhardt said. “They would love to see us win the race, but they want to see us lead every lap. They get excited when we take the lead. I feel that. You’ll get up there and get the lead and know you’re delivering upon the promise that you’re going to run hard and run good but you just can’t get satisfied.’’
Earnhardt drove to impress Sunday, leading a race-high 67 laps.
“The times I chased him, he definitely was being aggressive,’’ said Johnson, who finished second. “But where I saw him most aggressive was in traffic. He was relentless with a run. He didn’t ever choose to kind of push the car in front of him and help him. Every time he had an opportunity to advance, he took it. Even creating lanes up through the middle, slopping back and forth, trying to find a way by the leader.’’
His victory all but assures Earnhardt a spot in the Chase. He earned it at the track that denied him a chance to contend for the 2012 championship after a concussion in a last-lap crash forced him to miss two Chase races.
“I don’t think that people really appreciate the pressure that’s on these teams to get into the Chase and get these wins,’’ Earnhardt said. “I want to be able to relieve that pressure off my crew and crew chief so that they can work through the rest of the summer with ease of mind that they’re in the Chase.’’
Now, they can.
And have some fun as they did in his first visit to Victory Lane at Talladega in a Cup race since the inaugural year of the Chase.
The last time Earnhardt won a Cup race in Talladega, he was penalized by NASCAR for swearing in a TV interview.
He swore again Sunday.
“I think it’s OK this time,’’ he said with a smile. “It’s a different time. I was talking to the guys, so I wasn’t saying it to the camera but the camera was there and I let one slip.
“I knew when I said it, I was like ‘Man, it’s just something about this place that brings it out.’’
One can imagine what his father’s reaction might have been.