E.A. Sports Today

The ‘Hardt of ‘Dega

Concussion-like symptoms will keep Earnhardt behind the wall the rest of the year, but he’ll be around Talladega Superspeedway all weekend

Dale Earnhardt Jr. (R) laughs as Donnie Allison displays a collage of Junior's paychecks when he worked in Allison's shop as a teenager. On the cover, Earnhardt is welcomed as an honorary member of the Alabama Gang by (from left) Donnie Allison, Red Farmer and Bobby Allison. (Photos by B.J. Franklin/GungHo Photos)

Dale Earnhardt Jr. (R) laughs as Donnie Allison displays a collage of Junior’s paychecks when he worked in Allison’s shop as a teenager. On the cover, Earnhardt is welcomed as an honorary member of the Alabama Gang by (from left) Donnie Allison, Red Farmer and Bobby Allison. (Photos by B.J. Franklin/GungHo Photos)

By Al Muskewitz
East Alabama Sports Today

TALLADEGA – The loudest roars at Talladega Superspeedway during the Sunday Cup races come every time a driver named Earnhardt blows into the lead. Dale Jr. can’t really hear them with the car blasting down the track at full throttle, but he acknowledges he feels their presence.

Those roars will be a little muted this year as the most popular driver in NASCAR will be forced to miss next month’s Alabama 500 as he continues to sit the remainder of the season for concussion-like symptoms brought on by a series of wrecks, culminating by a hard crash at Michigan in June.

He wrecked twice in the spring race here, turning his beloved “Amelia” into a pile of twisted metal by the end of the race.

It will be the first time Junior hasn’t driven at Talladega, a track he’s won on six times, since he started racing here regularly in 2000.

“It’ll be frustrating more than anything because … I like being here; this is like sitting in my own living room,” he said. “It’s a special race track; there’s no place like it.”

It’s not that he won’t be at the track at all. He plans to be at Talladega the entire weekend, which is a lot more than he plans for the other stops the rest of the year while honoring his sponsor commitments outside the car and forcing himself to be active.

But he admits it won’t be the same as if he were inside the cockpit going three-wide, swapping paint and trying to avoid The Big One, which could have devastating effects for a guy in his condition.

“I’ve gotten to where I feel pretty good and want to get out and do,” Earnhardt said. “Any race car driver will tell you if you’re not in the car you feel kind of weird being there. Donnie (Allison) says you feel like a bump on a log, which is probably what I’ll feel like, but I think I need to be there for the Chase and I want to show my support.

“I don’t think I’ll be able to help a whole lot, but I’ll be pulling for Alex because it’s an amazing opportunity for him. He’ll be in a good car to try to show people what he’s capable of.

“But I’m looking forward to just getting back to the track, seeing some folks, seeing some friends and try to listen and learn. I think if I get an opportunity to race next year like I hope I definitely need to stay plugged in to what teams are doing and be around those guys through their meetings so I’m up to speed when we get back in the car.”

And it’s going to be next year before he gets back in the car. Alex Bowman will drive the No. 88 Chevy in Earnhardt’s place here and in six of the remaining eight races this season. Jeff Gordon is slated for the other two, and it should be no surprise Talladega isn’t one of them even though he’s won here six times considering all the bad feeling he has for the racing here.

“Coming here, obviously Dale probably has more fans here than anywhere, so there’s probably more pressure running here and notoriously the 88 car has always been really good here and Hendrick Motorsports always brings a good piece,” Bowman said. “So there’s definitely a little added pressure coming here, but I’m really looking forward to it.”

Earnhardt said recovery has been “real gradual” with “some stuff not completely shored up,” but he reports being “a whole lot better” than he was six weeks ago. He remains on “a couple” medications and will have “a couple” evaluations through the rest of the season before he can be released.

“You don’t see changes really from day-to-day, it’s more week-to-week or a couple weeks,” he said. “You kind of take two steps forward and one step back. You might feel great one day, not quite as good the next. It has no rhyme or reason.

“If you look back over the season there’s been a lot of accidents; it was probably one of the more accident-prone seasons I’ve had and all the stuff kind of caught up with me. I think the Michigan event sent it over the edge. It’s a little bit different and a lot longer process than I was expecting but I feel good enough to get out and do. A couple, three or four weeks ago, I didn’t want to leave the house.”

Earnhardt and his family is as much a part of Talladega as The Alabama Gang — from the time he took his first secret laps around the place as teenager to today. On Thursday, the founding members of the Gang – Donnie Allison, Bobby Allison and Red Farmer – formally made Junior an honorary member of their famous group.

His lineage with them goes back to a 17-year-old working for Donnie Allison and his sons helping build their Legacy cars, where “about every day was an adventure.” Among the mementos Donnie presented Earnhardt Thursday was a framed collection of his first five paychecks. They ranged from $50 to $151.86 a week.





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