TALLADEGA, Ala. (AP) — At each of his final stops on the #Appreci88ion tour, Dale Earnhardt Jr. receives a retirement gift from the track. They are supposed to be designed to create an impact in the local community because, after all, there's nothing NASCAR's most popular driver actually needs. Then Talladega Superspeedway discovered it had something Earnhardt wanted.
TALLADEGA, Ala. (AP) — At each of his final stops on the #Appreci88ion tour, Dale Earnhardt Jr. receives a retirement gift from the track. They are supposed to be designed to create an impact in the local community because, after all, there's nothing NASCAR's most popular driver actually needs.
Then Talladega Superspeedway discovered it had something Earnhardt wanted.
Talladega officials presented Earnhardt with the Chevrolet Monte Carlo that his father raced during his 1979 rookie season, as well as some races during his 1980 championship season. The gift was to mark Earnhardt Jr.'s final scheduled Cup race Sunday at Talladega, the track where his fans are as rabid as anywhere on the circuit.
Earnhardt asked if the brakes worked, climbed inside and eventually got it to start. Then he took his late father's car for a spin around Talladega.
"I love being able to sit in the car just to see the perspective of what the view is like," Earnhardt said. "It's so different than our cars today. No headrest or nothing like that. You kind of see everything. There's a lot of wind moving around."
Earnhardt is a racing historian, as well as a car collector. The gift, which included bottles of champagne from the cases he celebrated with in victory lane during his first Talladega win in 2001 and his father's final Talladega win in 2000, was a touching reminder of how much the Earnhardt family and this Alabama track mean to each other.
Dale Earnhardt won 10 races on this high-banked superspeedway. Earnhardt Jr. has six wins, including a streak of four-straight from 2001-03. He's not been very reflective just yet of his Talladega memories, and remember, he's had his fair share of frights at this track. He was left dazed after a 2012 crash, and doctors later found he'd suffered one of the many concussions that have played into his decision to retire at the end of the season.
Earnhardt doesn't dwell on those bad days, just the many outstanding memories at Talladega and that sensation when he charges to the lead and the roar from the crowd is deafening. He wanted to wear a camera on his helmet Sunday to give fans a birds-eye view of how he handles the draft, but he couldn't get comfortable with it during Friday practices and scrapped the idea.
"When we come here for example, people want to see us go to the front. Our fans want to see us take the lead as fast as we can possibly take it," he said. "They want to see us in the lead every lap. And, I can see in the grandstands the reaction when we have taken the lead and come around Turn 4 on the front straightaway. That pushes me all day at these plate tracks to do as much as I can to get into the lead and stay there."
He's always driven plate races that way, learned it from watching his daddy, and has been a factor if not the favorite nearly every time NASCAR races at Talladega or Daytona. So in this time of reflection, Earnhardt has not been looking back at his time at Talladega of late, but rather his 2001 victory at Daytona that came nearly five months after his father died in a crash on the last lap of the Daytona 500.
Immediately after crossing the finish line on an emotional victory that is stamped in NASCAR history, fellow competitor Jimmy Spencer openly wondered if Earnhardt's car was legal. It may have been the starting point of a conspiracy theory that lingers to this day about the legitimacy of Earnhardt's car.
Earnhardt was angered days after the race by the comments, calling them "a slap in my face, a slap in my father's face," and 16 years later he's still bothered.
He told a story Friday at Talladega about a longtime employee and friend of Earnhardt's who has two of Spencer's diecasts in his office.
"I see those diecasts, that's the only thing that I think about," Earnhardt said. "So it bothers me today. A lot of times, myself included, you don't think before you speak, but that was an incredible night for us in 2001 when we won that race. I just felt like even if he did feel that way, I was disappointed that he would do that and say that."
Earnhardt believes the strength of his race team and its alliance for plate tracks proves his 2001 victory was clean. It came during a three-plus season stretch of dominance by Dale Earnhardt Inc. in which it won 10 of 13 restrictor-plate races.
But, that's the memory Earnhardt has right now as he heads into what could be his final plate race.
"Of course, you know it's Jimmy Spencer, it's the kind of thing he does," said Earnhardt.
"I never really liked that too much and haven't forgotten about. It's hard to forget something like that. It was nice to keep winning and show people that that was legit. That was like for me, that's the stuff movies are made of, to come back after you dad passes away and win that race was the greatest thing that I could imagine happening for me or anyone else, all his fans, all our family."
More AP Auto Racing: www.racing.ap.org
Follow JENNA FRYER on Twitter @JennaFryer