Dale Earnhardt Jr. won at Talladega Superspeedway on Sunday.
There was a time when that phrase would have been nearly an afterthought, almost a foregone conclusion; a “been-there-done-that” acknowledgement from the racing world. Earnhardt’s win on Sunday was his sixth victory at the 2.66-mile racetrack and 24th of his career, but his first since 2004. His abilities at superspeedways — and Talladega in particular — were so well-regarded and well-known that he was sometimes referred to as the “pied piper” of Talladega.
There’s no one way to pinpoint why it is that it took over 10 years for Earnhardt to make it back to Victory Lane at a track where he used to be one of the most feared competitors. Some of it might just be bad luck at a track that is generally not very friendly to a handful of drivers. At other times, it might have been a lack of speed or competitiveness against other teams. To boil the reasoning down to its most simplistic, it just wasn’t meant to be.
Not only was this the first win for Earnhardt in a while at a plate track, it was also his first race win of the season. Earnhardt had shown speed several times in the first nine, so it seemed only to be a matter of when (not if) the No. 88 would be in Victory Lane in 2015.
The win gives Earnhardt a virtual lock in the postseason Chase. Combine that with a return to Victory Lane at one of Earnhardt’s best track and, needless to say, he was pretty excited.
“It’s just real emotional,” said Earnhardt in Victory Lane, sounding a bit choked up. “I haven’t won here in a long time. It was my daddy’s birthday a couple of days ago and… just real emotional, man.”
The late Dale Earnhardt Sr. would have been 64 on April 29th. His death on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500 still draws emotion for many people, none moreso than Earnhardt Jr.
On Saturday, former driver and current FOX Sports analyst Darrell Waltrip interviewed Earnhardt and the interview aired in the FOX pre-race show on Sunday. Over the course of that interview, Earnhardt expressed the struggle of always being in his successful father’s shadow. At one point, he even acknowledged that he never thought he would become a racecar driver because the odds were too steep and the comparisons between his father and him would be too great for him to be able to have a successful career. “Even if I had talent, I’d never really get the credit for it,” he said.
But then he said something that would later shed some light on the emotion expressed in Victory Lane.
“[I’ll] never be him, and that’s fine,” said Earnhardt.
“I kinda like who I am,” he continued. “I like where I’m at and not having those responsibilities that he had, to live up to being a seven-time champion.”
So as Earnhardt celebrated his victory and fought back the emotion, it became clear that the emotion wasn’t just a result of sadness and nostalgia.
Much of it resulted from positive emotions, too.
“Everything’s just so good for me right now in my personal life, my racing, the team I’m with,” he continued in victory lane. “I don’t know why. I don’t feel like I deserve it.”
Why doesn’t he thinks he deserves these things?
“I think the part I feel I don’t think I deserve is the racing side of it,” Earnhardt later said in the media center. “There’s just not many second chances. I feel like if my name wasn’t Earnhardt that I wouldn’t have had the second chance. I feel like I owe my second chance to my dad, his legacy, because the way I ran from ’09 through those years till 2011 or so, I feel I didn’t deserve to be kept around or hung onto.”
That’s quite an admission from a guy like Earnhardt, and there may be some truth to what he said. That brutal honestly and humble demeanor, though, is what so many fans like so much about him. With that in mind, it feels like Earnhardt may have outgrown his father’s shadow somewhat. Could it be perhaps that those fans — while initially his fans because of his father — have grown to like “Junior” just for himself?
“I feel like the fans want to see us up front,” said Earnhardt. “They love to see us win the race, but they want to see us lead every lap. They get excited when we take the lead. They’re happy when we’re up front. They want us up front every lap. I mean, I feel that.”
Yeah and everyone else notices too.
Besides that, though, Earnhardt seems to be in a good place in regards to his career, his ability, and, yes, he is doing alright personally too. There was a time in the not-so-distant past when all of those things were in question.
“I mean, I definitely feel fortunate in my personal life,” he continued. “Amy (Reimann, girlfriend) and I have gotten so close. It sounded like a great idea at the time, but earlier this week we decided she would do some work on the house and stay home. About 9:00 this morning, it was the worst idea. I was miserable that she wasn’t here.
“It just proves to me how much she means to me and how important she is to me,” he continued. “She’s been a big help in getting me out of my shell. We were joking about it with Darrell Waltrip, that I just never come out of the bus all weekend. When I go home, I’d sit on the computer and race online. My buddies would call and text me, we’re going here, going there. I would never go, I’ll see you guys next time. I thought I was having fun, but I was really miserable. She’s made my life a whole lot more enjoyable and showed me how to have fun and showed me there’s a lot more to life.”
And it’s not just a significant other that is generating the positivity.
“My sister and I are getting along great,” said Earnhardt. “My mother and I are getting along great. Everything is in the right direction. Everybody is happy. I guess that’s the way it’s supposed to be, but I feel real lucky because that’s the case. I know a lot of people aren’t that fortunate. Hopefully it just keeps getting better.”
As a racecar driver, well, he’s doing just fine there too.
“I got my confidence back now,” Earnhardt said, specifically about Talladega. “I know what I need to do, and that’s run hard, not lay back, not worry about crashing out, bad points. I’d rather crash and not finish well trying than to be riding around in the back. Certainly hard lesson to learn, but I learned it.”
And don’t forget, the season is still early. With Earnhardt all but guaranteed a position in the Chase for the Sprint Cup later this season, both Earnhardt and crew chief Greg Ives agreed that they can now switch their focus towards that end of the season run. Of course they want to continue winning races and making strides over the course of the summer, but there is still a lot of racing to be had between now and September.
As Earnhardt said in Victory Lane, “Maybe more wins are on the way.”