TALLADEGA, Ala. — There’s something about Talladega Superspeedway — its ardent Earnhardt fans, the success his family has had at the track — that makes Dale Earnhardt Jr. feel a responsibility to put on a show.
He failed to deliver last year, using a strategy that took him out of contention for the win, admitting he was “just really, really ashamed of that” decision.
Earnhardt vowed to never again be cautious at the Alabama track, to always race aggressively for the win.
It paid off Sunday with an emotional first win of the season.
“Even if I wreck ... we’re going to be racing for the lead or trying to anyways,” Earnhardt said. “That’s my mentality till I don’t race anymore.”
NASCAR’s most popular driver received a thunderous ovation as he pumped his fist outside the car window during a slow victory lap. He stopped at the flag stand to grab the checkered flag and flew it out his car window as he savored his trip around the track and into victory lane.
It was Earnhardt’s sixth victory at Talladega — but first since 2004 — and he choked back tears after he climbed from his No. 88 Chevrolet.
“It’s just real emotional. I haven’t won here in a long time. It was my daddy’s birthday a couple of days ago, and I’m just real emotional, man,” he said.
The late Dale Earnhardt, a first ballot Hall of Fame inductee, won 10 times at the Alabama track. He would have celebrated his 64th birthday Wednesday.
“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,” he said. “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.
“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.”
Earnhardt Jr. won four consecutive races at Talladega from 2001, after his father’s death in the season-opening Daytona 500, through 2003. He then finished second in back-to-back Talladega races before grabbing his fifth victory in 2004.
But his dominance ended that season, then came several years of slumping results on the track. He finally turned it around last year with a victory in the season-opening Daytona 500, but poor strategy in this race last year cost him any shot at the victory.
So he was aggressive Sunday, leading a race-high 67 laps and easily winning when no one from a single-file line of cars behind him could challenge him.
The win almost certainly put him in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, and was Earnhardt’s first with Greg Ives, the new crew chief who stayed for the race at 8-year-old daughter Payton’s insistence after she broke her arm.
“The emotion of making the Chase — I don’t think that people really appreciate the pressure that’s on these teams to get into the Chase and get these wins,” Earnhardt said.
Jimmie Johnson finished second as Hendrick Motorsports dominated the race. But Johnson couldn’t pull out of line to attempt a pass on Earnhardt, who was watching his mirror carefully to see who from the line would make a move.
Paul Menard was third and Ryan Blaney was a surprising fourth in the only Ford that could challenge the horsepower from the Hendrick Chevrolets.
Martin Truex Jr. was fifth and followed by Sam Hornish Jr. in another Ford, then Ryan Newman and Kevin Harvick as Chevy drivers took six of the first eight spots.
Denny Hamlin was ninth in the highest-finishing Toyota and Josh Wise rounded out the top 10.
Pole-sitter Jeff Gordon was a disappointing 31st despite a strong race car. He was penalized for speeding on pit road during the final pit stops, and the infraction dropped him to 30th on the restart with 26 laps remaining.
He was unable to work his way through the field as Earnhardt led a 10-car breakaway, and the second line of traffic struggled to catch the leaders. He was collected in a last-lap crash that began when Carl Edwards spun.
As the laps wound down, nobody seemed to want to make a move to challenge Earnhardt until finally Tony Stewart, the leader of the second line of cars, dropped to the bottom of the track in an effort to make something happen.
Only no one would work with Stewart, and he was shuffled back to a 19th-place finish after leading laps and challenging for the win.