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Earnhardt win a Talladega tradition

12m - NASCAR
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Earnhardt Jr. missing his dad after win at Talledega

Dale Earnhardt Jr. talks to Mary Smith after the victory at Talladega, overcome by emotion because his father, Dale Earnhardt Sr., won 10 races on the same track.

TALLADEGA Ala. -- "Hey man. I'll give you five dollars for a lugnut."

The fans, like the racecars they'd just spent the day watching, were stacked three-wide and three-deep, pressed against the fence that separated them from the not-quite-yet-abandoned pit stall of the team that had just won Sunday's Geico 500 at Talladega Superspeedway.

Not just the team, but the team. Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s team. Every NASCAR racer has fans. But, despite the sanctioning body's best marketing efforts, the truth is that only one of those racers has his own nation, and the capital of Junior Nation is Talladega, Alabama.

"Seriously, bro, just one of those hats y'all got in Victory Lane."

Earnhardt's first win at the track since Oct. 3, 2004 was also his first win of the 2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup season, essentially clinching a Chase berth, his sixth consecutive postseason appearance after double-digit points finishes in five of the previous six years.

The Talladega drought-ender was his sixth win at NASCAR's longest and largest speedway, pulling him alongside teammate Jeff Gordon for the most among active drivers. The track's all-time winner is his father, Dale Earnhardt, with 10.

That's why the campgrounds around the track are perpetually draped in GM Goodwrench black, Nationwide blue, and even plenty of old Budweiser red. And that's why the victory, despite coming at the end of a somewhat bewildering single-file final stanza, triggered so much emotion.

From the grandstands that erupted at the checkered flag to Earnhardt Jr. himself fighting back tears in Victory Lane to those treasure hunters hovering around the Hendrick Motorsports crew a full half-hour after the race had ended.

Redneck Jesus was once again standing at the pulpit of the Church of Earnhardt. His parishioners wanted a piece of the moment.

"C'mon, dude, you don't need that empty champagne bottle. Let me have it."

"I love winning here because I feel like I add to the legacy," he said of his father, whose 64th birthday would have been last week, on April 29. "I don't really get to think about him that much. His birthday kind of came and went.

"But when we won today, it made me think about his birthday, how much I miss him, and how much he meant to me and so many more people. I can't even think about the number of folks that he had a relationship with, and all his fans out there and who really enjoyed seeing him compete there."

Earnhardt led six times, tied for the most (with Gordon). He led 67 laps, 17 more than anyone else (another teammate, Jimmie Johnson), including the final 27, the lead car of a single-file pack of cars who seemingly couldn't get on the same strategic page.

That was certainly part of the reason they weren't able to mount a serious charge … but only part. The other part of the equation was a driver who was supremely confident in his car and his crew, particularly new crew chief Greg Ives and longtime spotter T.J. Majors. However, above all, he was powered by a returned confidence in a place that, long ago, was his playground.

It's the kind of confidence that makes a man believe he can not only control his own car, but the cars of everyone trying to beat him. Just like his Dad.

"To be leading at the end, it's real hard to pass the leader, so I felt like I was in a good position being in the lead. I just needed to run the line that I felt like could sustain and calm everything behind me … sometimes if you run up against the wall, everyone sort of lulls into this pattern and it's difficult for those guy to put together anything underneath that high line."

The kind of confidence that feels like the old days, no matter how old those days have become.

"Coming here and not knowing what to do here after winning five races and having so much success, to come here and not know what the hell to do … . That felt so foreign after being so confident for so many years … I know what I need to do now, and that's run hard."

The kind of confidence that lets one believe that his engine will hold together, even when the instruments in one's face are all screaming otherwise.

"With 10 [laps] to go it was 285 [degrees] and the water pressure was pegged. It started pushing water the last couple of laps. The oil got over 300. The oil cooled back down, which scared me a bit. That is usually not a good sign. I had the fan on, doing everything I could just hoping it would last. The boys in the engine shop, I have to go see them and shake all their hands because they did a good job."

The kind of confidence that allows a man to talk openly and publicly about being happier at home, how he loves his girlfriend, missed her all day Sunday, and how much he adores his mother and sister. ("Everybody's happy. It's nice.") And the confidence of a boy-turned-man who is willing to embrace the biggest truth -- and during his struggles of just five seasons ago, his most common criticism -- of his life and career.

That he wouldn't be anywhere, let alone Victory Lane at Talladega, if not for his last name.

"I feel like that if my name wasn't Earnhardt I wouldn't have had a second chance," he said . "I feel like I owe my second chance to my dad and his legacy. Because the way I ran from '09 through 2012 or so (one win in five seasons), I didn't deserve to be kept around or hung on to … . All I ever want to do is make him proud. When I come to Talladega I'm reminded of that. Everywhere."

On Sunday evening, he spent his race winner's press conference getting downright sentimental.

He reminisced about coming to Talladega as a kid to watch his father compete. Little Dale Junior would race three-wheelers at a friend's farm all week.

He'd play in the motel swimming pool. He and his best buddy, the son of fellow racer Jimmy "Smut" Means, would climb all over the wrecked racecars that were rolled back into the garage during Talladega races and stuff their pocket with whatever mementos they could snatch .

"You wouldn't believe the stuff the teams would leave sitting around," he said. "Goggles and spark plugs. Everything. We would gather all that stuff up and put it on the truck to take home."

On Sunday afternoon, in that same garage, it was the stuff off of Earnhardt's car that was being scavenged.

"C'mon, boss, just one lugnut … "