How do you see the Earnhardt legacy at Talladega, where you've won six Cup races and your father won 10?
Earnhardt Jr.: “Between Talladega and Daytona, Dad won a lot of races at both of those racetracks – and I’ve enjoyed a lot of success at those tracks, too, which has made me feel good to add to the Earnhardt legacy. We’ve always had so many race fans that support us, particularly at Talladega. You like to get ‘em excited and give them something to cheer about, so you’re always trying to get into the lead and trying to make a race out of it.
“You know, I think the fact that there are so many people there pulling for you and there to see your team do well, it really motivates you to be proactive and be on the offensive all day long. You’re trying to move forward and get into the lead and lead as many laps as you can, because you know the people love it.”
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Do you feel a special bond with race fans at Talladega?
Earnhardt Jr.: “At a plate race like Talladega, they just want reasons to get on their feet. They want reasons to scream and high-five and yell. It’s so much different viewing the race at Talladega than it is anywhere else – because the driver can literally take the lead at any moment.
“The anticipation of that and when that actually happens, there is a celebration involved. It’s so much different than anywhere else. You try to give them that opportunity to enjoy themselves – because that’s what they come out here to do. They want to come out here and cheer you on – and if you’re not doing well and not delivering and running around the back, they don’t really have that good of a time.”
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Can you sometimes really hear them cheer while you're inside the car?
Earnhardt Jr.: “Only when my spotter’s got the mic keyed and he’s talking to me. Then I can hear the fans react.
“You can certainly see it visually down the front straightaway when you come off Turn 4. If you take the lead anywhere on the racetrack, when you come off Turn 4 you can see all their arms in the air. It’s visually different than the last trip through. You can tell a big difference.”
John K. Harrelson
And that gets you pumped inside the car?
Earnhardt Jr.: “It sure does. It reminds you of what you’re trying to do. You race for yourself, trying to accomplish things for yourself. But that reminds you that the fans are there to see this happen, and that they play a big role in motivating you.”
, LAT Images www.latphoto.co.ukRusty Jarrett
Of your six 'Dega wins, do you have a favorite?
Earnhardt Jr.: “They were all pretty cool. And a lot of things happened in each of those races. We had a couple of races where it didn’t look like we could win. We got a lap down, made it up; had to make a lot of pit stops to repair damage in a bunch of races.
“But I think when we won four in a row. We won three in a row, which tied Buddy Baker’s record that he set in the ‘70s. To win four in a row (beginning with the fall race in 2001 and ending with the spring race in 2003 after sweeping both races in 2002), anytime you can break a cool record like that in NASCAR, it’s pretty fun. That was a very proud moment.”
photo by Robt.LeSieur
Has anything been said or done to you since your recent retirement announcement that has surprised you?
Earnhardt Jr.: “I was just telling (wife) Amy how everybody is making up all this stuff about how nice I am and how much I talk, how much I’ve helped them. That’s been pretty wild to hear – because you don’t ever really hear that stuff that much, whether it’s true or not.
“I think just the positive things that my peers have said, and folks in the industry have said, have been incredible. Really, really touching. The fans over the last hour walking in and out of the garage before the rain got here (Friday at Talladega), telling me they’re going to miss me and all that, all that stuff really means something to me to hear. It really matters.”
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A simple moment with a fan or a bit of advice to a young driver can have quite an impact, can't it?
Earnhardt Jr.: “It does. You do those things to pay your dues, and hopefully at the end someone says something about it and pats you on the back for it.
“But this has been overwhelming – way more than I anticipated in terms of how positive it’s been. It’s been rewarding for me, actually, to be honest.”
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How has married life been treating you?
Earnhardt Jr.: “Yeah, it’s going great. We’re having a lot of fun, she’s amazing. It’s going really, really good.
“We’ve been super-busy with the announcement and everything else that’s going on with this year to the finish, and trying to figure out what I’m going to do after that. She’s a big part of all that. She’s in all those conversations. So it’s great to have somebody to bounce things off of and lean on.”
Jasen VinloveJasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports
Now everybody is probably starting to ask when you're going to have kids, right?
Earnhardt Jr.: “It’s something we’ve both talked about. We know the time is short, but we both definitely have hope for that in our future.”
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So the Earnhardt legacy could continue at Talladega in 20 years or so?
Earnhardt Jr.: “Yeah, maybe in 19 or 20 years you might see another one out there.”