E.A. Sports Today

A most popular winner

[corner-ad id=2]Earnhardt Jr. wins Geico 500 for first win at Talladega in 11 years — four days after dad’s birthday

Dale Earnhardt Jr. (88) leads Jimmie Johnson (48) and Ryan Blaney late in the Geico 500.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. (88) leads Jimmie Johnson (48) and Ryan Blaney late in the Geico 500.

By Al Muskewitz
East Alabama Sports Today

TALLADEGA — It’s safe to say there has not been a more popular win — or winner — at Talladega Superspeedway in … well … the last 11 years.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., the most popular driver in NASCAR who once had a stretch where he couldn’t be beaten here and later endured a stretch where he couldn’t win on the circuit, finally broke through at the track synonymous with his family name, winning here for the first time since 2004 Sunday when he took the checkered flag at the Geico 500.

There was a time when Junior won four races in a row here and everyone thought he was a chip off the old block. But he hadn’t won here since 2004. Now he’s locked into the Chase for the Cup, the eighth driver to do so this season.

“It’s just real emotional,” Earnhardt said. “I hadn’t won here in a long time. With Daddy’s birthday a few days ago; I’m just real emotional.

“Everything’s just good for me right now – my personal life, my racing, the team I’m with right now. I don’t feel like I deserve it. I just feel overcome with a lot of emotion.

“It’s been a long time since I won here. We’ve run so good here and not won, it bothers you. It’s a great day for a lot of people.”

This first time Earnhardt won here, the emotions were a lot different and just flowed like a bottle of champagne that just lost its cork. Sunday’s win came with a lot more responsibility — joining the Chase, working with a new crew chief, a new crew, a new sponsor.

The win comes four days after what would have been his legendary father Dale Sr.’s 64th birthday. The patriarch won 10 times here. This was Dale Jr.’s sixth win here, tying Jeff Gordon for second most among active drivers.

Because of the deep connections to the track, he admitted he leaves here more disappointed than other tracks when he doesn’t win. That’s happened 20 times since he last won here in the EA Sports 500 in October 2004; 13 different drivers have won in the interim.

Jimmie Johnson, who has won twice between Earnhardt victories here, finished second Sunday. Paul Menard, Ryan Blaney and Martin Truex Jr. rounded out the top five. Kevin Harvick finished eighth and remained atop the Sprint Cup points standings.

And Earnhardt was truly focused on winning this race, losing focus only briefly in the final 200 yards when all he could think of was some kind of disaster befalling him to snatch the victory away.

“In the lead, the times I chased him, he definitely was being aggressive,” Johnson said. “Where I saw him most aggressive was in traffic; he was most relentless in a run. Every chance he had to take an advantage he took it.”

Earnhardt was genuinely appreciative of the compliment. He moved to the front on a restart with less than 30 laps to go and stayed there to the end. He led a pack of 10 cars that separated itself from the rest of the field by nearly a second, but the gap closed with about 10 laps to go.

“I felt before the race started I needed to be leading at the end; it’s real hard to pass the leader so I felt I was in a good position,” he said. “I just needed to run the line that I felt could sustain and calm everything behind him. I didn’t want to see the lines forming and guys coming and going and making runs.

“Last year at end of race I waited in back expecting the wreck and was just shamed of that choice. I felt like I really wasted my team’s time and everybody hard work. I was just really ashamed of that, so I’m going to run up in there even if they wreck and I’m up in there we’re gonna be racing for the lead. That’ll be my mentality until I don’t race any more.”

Everyone was wondering when Johnson, Blaney or somebody else was going to make a move in the single-file draft, but it never came. Earnhardt, Johnson and pole sitter Jeff Gordon did a good job controlling the front and led a combined 164 of the 188 laps.

Earnhardt led six times for a race-high 67 laps. He was rarely out of the top two in the final 120 laps. He won by 0.158 seconds.

“You work all day long to be in that position and you just frankly don’t want to mess it up,” Johnson said. “With everybody running the top and over the years having that (wrecking) situation at the end, being aggressive bit me so many times so I was being as patient as I possibly could.

“The only chance I had was making a move off 4 (Kevin Harvick) in the tri-oval — and there was no chance guys behind me would wait that long. I think our small breakaway, there wasn’t that much energy to create a pass for the lead. I don’t know what I could’ve done differently to win. I’m just glad I didn’t mess it up.”

Shortly after the leaders took the white flag, Carl Edwards spun out behind them in Turn 1. Race officials allowed the pack to race to the wire, leading to a victory that kept the crowd in the stands well after the checkered flag flew. Afterwards, Edwards complained that no one checked up as the melee was unfolding.

“(Earnhardt) was driving super aggressive and you knew he wanted to win this bad,” Gordon said without a hint of complaint. “You can tell his fans are enjoying this.”

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