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.