In Junior's words
Maybe the bullet train of race cars on Talladega Superspeedway's 2.66-mile expanse with high-banked corners create some kind of vortex that pulls a fissure in space and time.
By BRANT JAMES
Published April 28, 2007
Maybe the bullet train of race cars on Talladega Superspeedway's 2.66-mile expanse with high-banked corners create some kind of vortex that pulls a fissure in space and time. Maybe it's because the track is purportedly built atop an ancient Indian burial ground and the place seems to ooze a sense of morbid forboding. (In 1973, former series champion Bobby Isaac alledgedly heard voices telling him to get out of his car or die in the Talladega 500. He got out. And retired.) Whatever the reason, Talladega has a way of drawing NASCAR's news cycle down inside the depth of its roaring cauldron.
And as usual, the big event of this news cycle involves an Earnhardt.
Dale Earnhardt had 10 wins at the place, including his final one at NASCAR's top level on Oct. 15, 2000. On Sunday, which would have been Earnhardt's 56th birthday, Jeff Gordon can pass him for sole possession of sixth on the all-time wins list with 77 and tie his 11 wins at restrictor plate tracks.
Earnhardt's son and namesake, who took his father's faithful Alabama fans as inheritance, has won five times - four in a row at one point - at Talladega and had a phenomenal shot at another in the fall, leading in the final two turns before Brian Vickers wrecked him and Jimmie Johnson for the win.
News swirls around Earnhardt Jr. again at NASCAR's first of two trips to Talladega.
Here's Earnhardt Jr., in brief.
Do you think you'll remain at DEI?
I'm pretty excited that things are going to be fine, things are going to work out with our negotiations.
What about going five races without winning at Talladega, startling considering previous success there?
When we were winning earlier, won the (four) in a row, whatnot, Talladega, we had such a dominant car. That car would go to the lead whenever I wanted to lead. Nobody could pass me. If I wanted to be arrogant about it, I could have held the lead the entire time. For some reason, we just had a package that was dynamite.
The cars have changed, aerodynamic package has changed, (the restrictor) plate has changed, our engine package has changed, torque range, power ranges. A lot of things have changed. When that happens, you don't take the same thing back and you don't run the same. Other people have learned more.
What do you say to fans who detest the fact Jeff Gordon tied your father's win total?
For the fans who don't want to see that, it's going to happen regardless, whether they like it or not, whether I like it or who likes it. ... I can appreciate a guy winning 76 races. It's a heck of a feat. Congratulations to however many more he wins. If he gets up there and ties Bobby (Allison, with 84 wins), pulls into third place, who knows what he can do? I definitely see him getting more wins. That's just a product of his success and his ability.
What if he wins on Sunday and fans chuck beer cans in protest, like in 2004, when Gordon beat you under caution? (At the time, Earnhardt found the aerial assault amusing, saying "each one of those cans had a little message on it.")
I'd consider it nasty. I think I just don't feel comfortable with beer cans flying onto the racetrack. ... It's a dangerous business. I don't think it's cool. It ain't cool at all. Go out in the parking lot and wail a couple beers at your car. Don't throw them at my car or anybody else's, for that matter. Take a couple shots at your own. I think it's ridiculous, to be honest with you. The first time it happened between me and Jeff, it was funny. Then I heard later that people got hit in the head. You could see it on TV, beer cans, full beer cans, were being thrown onto the track. ... Once I found that out I realized the seriousness of that situation.
How can those passionate fans express all that pent-up anger?
Maybe get some toilet paper. If you're unhappy with it, throw some toilet paper. It's hell to clean up, but it won't hurt anybody.
Too many drivers get a flight out of Talladega before they're supposed to get a flight out of Talladega. Elliott Sadler, Michael Waltrip and Scott Riggs are among those whose cars have gone airborne at Talladega in the past few years. Vastly improved in-car safety measures make the tumult survivable but Sadler's 2003 tumble resulted in several 20-G impacts, he said, leaving him feeling like he'd been "in a boxing match."
The sensation I'd say is pretty eerie because it goes so quiet. We're used to motor noises and sometimes when you spin out (you hear) the screeching noises a tire has rubbing across the asphalt. But when you go up in the air it's dead silence. The motor cuts off and you're flying through the air and there's no screeching of the tires. Everything gets kind of dark when you start flipping like that. It's a pretty scary feeling. You feel like if you're a racecar driver spinning out, you can do different things in the car to kind of control which side of the car you're going to hit on, kind of manipulate it a little bit, but when you're up in the air and kind of flipping, you're really just a passenger. It's pretty scary. It's a lot worse than hitting the wall. I'd lots rather keep my stuff on the ground and leave it like that."
Dale Earnhart needed 676 races and was 49 when he won his 76th race. Jeff Gordon needed just 481 and is 35.
"I wish (Earnhardt) was still here, because he'd be very proud of Jeff, that's he accomplished what he's accomplished. Of course, if he was here, Jeff probably wouldn't be at 76. The goal would have been a little harder to reach."
John Bickford, Gordon's stepfather and business manager