TALLADEGA, Ala. — “Go Dale! Go, dammit, go! Go son!”
Justin Thornton, dressed in a Dale Earnhardt Jr. No. 8 Budweiser jacket, circa 2002, leaned into the chain link fence that runs behind Talladega Superspeedway’s pit road and bellowed. The man on his jacket streaked by, piloting his Chevy during NASCAR Cup Series qualifying. It was a blistering-fast effort of nearly 191 mph that placed Earnhardt’s No. 88 atop the nearby scoring pylon.
“That right there is why I came here this weekend!” Thornton said, pumping his fist and choking back tears.
Thornton is a housepainter from Houston, 700 miles and a 10-hour drive west of Talladega. The 47-year-old said he had no plans to be at the racetrack this weekend, let alone the state of Alabama.
Just a few weeks ago he’d made the much easier drive north to Fort Worth to see his favorite driver race at Texas Motor Speedway. But something happened between then and now, something big that the track says caused an immediate uptick in phone calls to the Talladega ticket office. Among those calls was Mr. Thornton.
“Two weeks ago, as soon as Dale announced he was retiring at the end of the season, I told my wife, ‘My ass is going to Talladega.’ And I’ll be back here for the fall race, too. She knows we can’t afford it, but she didn’t say a word. She knows how much seeing him race here means to me.”
The Earnhardt racing family hails from the North Carolina Piedmont. Between grandfather Ralph, father Dale and son Dale Junior their surname has provided great moments and thus has become tied to racetracks from Indianapolis to Bristol to their hometown facility in Charlotte.
But nowhere, not even Daytona, is their name more inseparably linked to a place as it is to Talladega, the capital city of Earnhardt Nation.
Junior’s daddy won here 10 times. Senior’s son has won here six times. That ranks 1-2 all-time with Junior sharing the second spot with former teammate Jeff Gordon. A win on Sunday would move him into that second spot all by himself.
Father picked up back-to-back Talladega victories three different times and earned the last of his 76 career victories here in 2000. The following year son earned the first of a record four straight Talladega victories. It’s a fair bet that he could earn the last win of his career when the series returns in mid-October, presumably his sixth-from-last Cup Series start.
That success has birthed multiple generations of Earnhardt fans, those who have long created cheers and groans that mark the rise and fall of their favorite family’s fortunes, sounds that overwhelm even the roar of a full field of racing engines.
“There are a lot of them here. It seems like we have a ton of fans in this area,” Earnhardt Jr. explained Friday. “Been coming here a long time and Dad won a lot of races here, we won some races, won four in a row. Pretty much was unbeatable there for a while just about had five in a row over there in Turns 3 and 4, they gave it to Gordon and then we won the next time back, which would have been six in a row.
“So, pretty good little streak there and I think the fans really appreciated what we were doing on the track.”
The fans standing in line at the International Motorsports Hall of Fame on Saturday morning certainly appreciated it. A mother held her young son’s hand as she walked him through the Earnhardt Room, a quiet memorial display paying tribute to The Intimidator, who died at Daytona only a few months after his final Talladega victory. In the center of the museum fans dressed in Dale Jr. gear filed through the RV that Earnhardt Sr. lived in during his 1994 championship season.
“I like to think about teenaged Junior sleeping in here with his daddy,” said Lindy Carlson, a retired schoolteacher from Atlanta, as she stepped down out of the motor coach. “You know his daddy won both of the races here that year. I know because we were here, weren’t we, honey?”
“Yep,” her husband replied as he helped her navigate the stoop. “Sure did.”
“I always loved coming here as a kid to see the races,” Junior said Friday. “This was such a fun race track to be at. And the little go-kart track not far from here where we stayed at the hotel and we used to burn through a $100 bill every night with my buddies Mike Whitcomb, [team owner] Bob’s son, and Doug Williams’ son, Scottie and Brad Means, [driver] Jimmy’s son.”
That’s why they love him here. Sure, the winning helps. So does his name. But even as he has built that name into its own brand and built himself into his own man, stories like that, playing with his buddies in the infield, has helped him to remain relatable. He gets it. He gets the people who support him. And he knows what they have come here to see.
“They come out here to have fun,” he said. “I think watching a race at Talladega is so different than anywhere else because at Talladega when you come to watch a race just imagine all you guys in here [in the media center] that you have a favorite driver, right? If you go to a race at Talladega your driver can literally, possibly take the lead at any moment in the race. You can’t say that anywhere else.
“So, with that comes a responsibility, I think, as a driver to try to make that happen because when you come off Turn 4 you can see a big difference in arms in the air and people excited about what just happened when you take the lead. That really … you can’t create that anywhere else. And they want you to keep doing that all day long because they just want to celebrate all day. They want to have fun. When you get up there and mix it up it gives them what they want.
So, I think that is why I like running here and definitely makes it a unique experience as opposed to any other track we go to.”
Years ago, as a young adult, he would celebrate Talladega wins by disappearing into rural Alabama to party in a double-wide trailer with other redneck millennials. If he wins Sunday he’ll jet home to hold a low-key party with his new wife.
There will be plenty of trailer throwdowns in and around the Talladega campgrounds to pick up the slack.
“Sonofa … “
Back against the fence, Justin Thornton was angry. Dale Junior was only on the pole position for about two minutes. The last driver to make a qualifying run, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., stole the top spot by two-tenths of a second.
“It don’t matter, man. All that matters is Sunday. And he’s only got two more Sundays here left.”