TALLADEGA, Ala. _ Dale Earnhardt Jr.
has been ridiculed for his lousy
2009 season, but there is still one place that treats him like a hero - Talladega, Ala. I saw, heard and felt the power of Junior Nation
firsthand during this Sunday's Amp Energy 500
As I walked among the throngs of race fans this weekend, Junior's colors were most prevalent, followed by Jeff Gordon and Kasey Kahne. Under closer inspection, however, most of those Kahne colors turned out to be Junior's old colors.
The real strength of Junior's following showed itself during driver introductions. Most of the drivers outside of the top 10 qualifying spots received only a polite smattering of applause, with three notable exceptions. The crowd erupted when Junior took the stage, shaking the grandstands and drowning out the drone of the helicopter tours that buzzed relentlessly over the speedway. Kyle Busch received an even more enthusiastic chorus of boos and hisses, and Kasey Kahne earned a falsetto round of appreciation.
None of this could match the explosion of noise from the fans when Junior took the lead on lap 166 -- even the roar of the engines was buried under the enthusiasm. After being shuffled back to eighth on lap 169, Junior rallied back to second on lap 171 and Junior Nation was on its feet again. It was not to last long, as Junior found himself out of the top five, where he eventually finished 11th.
Despite Junior's lukewarm finish, I don't think Junior Nation left the track completely disappointed because it caught a glimpse of its driver giving the performance to which they are accustomed. In fact, Junior ran well most of the day, hanging around in the top five early in the race after starting 24th.
The devotion that Junior inspires in his fans mystifies a lot of his critics. If you read our driver profile on Earnhardt, it offers some possible explanations, but the reason Junior inspires such a following in Alabama requires a little more background story.
Up until 1993, Alabama was Allison Nation. Davey Allison, like his father Bobby before him, was a born winner. When Bobby Allison received his career-ending head injury in 1988, most of his fans rallied behind his son. (I know I did.) Davey Allison died July 13th, 1993, after a helicopter crash in Talladega's infield. The racing world, and the state of Alabama especially, was dealt a stunning blow.
Dale Earnhardt came to our rescue just a few days later with his stirring tribute to Allison after winning the Miller Genuine Draft 500 at Pocono. Earnhardt circled the track flying the No. 28 flag, then later wiped away tears in victory lane and said: "I'd run second to him just to have him back." Legions of Davey Allison fans began following the senior Earnhardt as a result of his tribute. I was one of them.
I first witnessed Alabama's enthusiasm for Earnhardt after an ARCA race in 1994. I stayed around for Winston Cup practice (yes, I just said Winston Cup, because that's what they called it in 1994) because it was to be my first time seeing the big stars live. The small crowd went bananas when the black No. 3 roared onto the track, and did so every time the car passed by. The next year, I attended the Die Hard 500 and once again saw, heard and felt the power of Earnhardt's following.
I believe that when Dale Earnhardt Sr. died in 2001, many Alabama fans automatically took up with Junior because he is the closest thing we have to a hometown hero in NASCAR today.
Earnhardt is having a bad year. He's not the first driver to ever go through a bad year or two, and his loyal fans will be there waiting for him. Unless he slams into a school bus full of third graders or sets fire to an orphanage, he will also remain one of the sport's most popular drivers.
Many believed that Talladega was Junior's last chance to score a win in 2009. I don't buy that. The Sprint Cup Series is heading to Texas Motor Speedway this weekend, site of Junior's first win nine years ago. Junior doesn't have to coast around and take it easy like some Chase contenders did at Talladega, he can head flat-out for the win.
Hey, it could happen.