A couple of weeks ago Dale Earnhardt would have turned 65 years old and there were many tributes in the media to the Intimidator. There were many more, in various forms, all over social media. But one thing I noted via Twitter was that Kevin Harvick had given Dale Earnhardt Jr. a diecast car of one of his father’s first race cars. What was even neater was the fact that you could see in the photo that the car was autographed.
During his weekly press conference, it was the first thing that Earnhardt was asked about at Talladega.
“He texted me and said he had a… he texted me a picture of it and said he was going to give it to me,” Earnhardt explained. I don’t know how he got it or when he got it or how long he has had it. But he wanted me to have it and I told him he should probably keep it if he had any connection to it. But he insisted on me having it. I thought it was pretty neat. I don’t really know if I have too many autographs of Dad’s, so when I got to really thinking about it, I don’t know that I have any. I thought that was pretty cool. He (Harvick) is just a real good guy. We have a real good friendship, just a pretty good respect for each other. I thought that was a cool thing.”
Earnhardt went into Talladega with five Sprint Cup victories there but had not had one since 2004! But the fan favorite is always considered a factor there.
“I feel like I’m supposed to get up there and lead,” he said. “I feel like it’s a real disappointment for a lot of people when we don’t finish well and if we are not up in the battle trying at the end. If we are not in that group crossing the finish line that is up front, I feel that disappointment from all the supporters of our team; more so here and at Daytona than other racetracks for sure.”
So when he qualified fourth, under the reinstituted quasi single-car qualifying rule, much was expected of Earnhardt for Sunday’s big race. Earnhardt was up front almost all day, missed the big wrecks and lead a race-high 67 laps to get his sixth victory at the largest track that NASCAR’s touring series races at and the crowd loved it, just as one would expect.
When Earnhardt got out in victory lane he was clearly emotionally charged up and readily admitted it, in tears, saying, “Just real emotional, man. Everything is just so good for me now. My personal life. My racing. The team I am with. I don’t know why. I don’t feel like I deserve it. I just feel overcome with a lot of emotion. It has been a long time since I won here. I’ve run so good here, and not to win here in so many races has bothered me. I want to thank Nationwide and my team, my guys; Greg (Ives crew chief), Kevin (Meendering, engineer), all the guys from last year, Steve Letarte; I’m sure they are happy. All those guys that have moved on. It is a great day for a lot of people that have been a part of this and helped us get here. We just have a really good group of guys. I’m blessed, man. I’m blessed. We just have a really good group of guys.”
Earnhardt continued to express appreciation to his team. “What a great group of guys I get to work with every weekend,” he said. “I feel really blessed to have everything that I’ve got. I’m just real fortunate to be in the position I’m in, surrounded by so many good people. We have so much support. I want to thank all the fans. I hope they enjoyed the race today. It sounds like they did.”
The reaction from fans was one of adoration. Social media was full of comments supporting Earnhardt for expressing emotions in victory lane. Frankly, for those that follow me, I expressed my support because it’s rare for any driver to do so anymore, let alone an Earnhardt. It is not something I can recall in my 18 years of covering the sport.
Earnhardt explained himself in the media center afterward saying, “I felt like we had a lot of supporters here because of dad’s success. He won so many races here. I think about all the races he won here and at Daytona. I love when we go to Victory Lane because I feel like I add to his legacy there. 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.”
He then spoke specifically about his father, “I don’t really get to think about him that much. His birthday came and went. Today, it made me think about his birthday, how much I miss him, how much he meant to me and so many more people that I can’t even fathom. The number of folks that he had a relationship with in this sport, a connection with, all his fans out there, really enjoyed seeing him compete here.”
He mentioned his family as well saying, “I miss my family. Can’t wait to get home. I love racing here and winning here. It’s some of the hardest racing that we do on a mental scale. It’s very difficult. You’re about 80, 94 laps in, you’re just getting halfway, and you feel like you’ve been racing for 10 hours, you’re only halfway. You think to yourself, ‘How much is left in the tank mentally?’ to get to the rest of the race, and the hard stuff hasn’t even really started yet.”
So what does a guy like me think when this is all going down in Talladega? I think about all those fans that give guys a hard time for being emotional in this sport. Now that the sport’s most popular driver has exposed himself to everyone as a human being with feelings, will people lay off the bashing? I would hope so because it was actually a great thing to witness. Not only because it’s rare, but because it was necessary. We never saw him mourn for his father and I believe we finally saw him realize what he’s missing; his dad.