TALLADEGA, Ala. — Dale Earnhardt Jr. loves Talladega.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. hates Talladega.
An epic relationship, with defining moments of hugs and slugs, will be rekindled this weekend when NASCAR’s favorite son tangles with the Sprint Cup’s infamous queen of super-speedways.
Earnhardt has won five Cup races here. The only active driver with more Cup triumphs at Talladega is 4-time series champion Jeff Gordon, who has captured six top-tier races at the track.
But Junior’s success has come at a price, etched in emotional meltdowns, groggy recollections and the fiery infernos that capture the random madness of Talladega.
He called the racing “bloodthirsty” after a multi-car crash here last October, an incident that crushed any shot at his first Cup championship. The bumpy ride left Earnhardt with a concussion and forced him to miss two races. The sting went even deeper than that: That was the first time in Earnhardt’s 13-year Cup career that he had to miss any races because of an injury.
He’s in the Chase in 2013 but mathematically out of the mix, 66 points behind leader Matt Kenseth.
Still, Talladega beckons again Sunday afternoon when Earnhardt enters the field of 43 drivers hoping to win the lottery. That’s the deal here. You hope for the best. You pray for it, too, if you are spiritual. The Big One always looms.
“I just want to have a shot at it,” Earnhardt said Friday.
Although he has not won here since 2004, Earnhardt and Talladega have been a good mix. Has led in all but three of the 27 Sprint Cup races he has entered at Talladega (a total of 737 laps). He has led a lap in 10 of his 11 starts driving his No. 88 Chevy for Hendrick Motorsports.
And at the risk of belaboring the obvious, a win for Earnhardt Sunday would give NASCAR a nice pop in its coolness factor. Earnhardt has been the sport’s most popular driver for a decade, a bit of an anomaly because he’s been competitive but not championship caliber.
If he had won five consecutive championships like his teammate Jimmie Johnson, heads might have exploded in NASCAR headquarters, just out of sheer joy.
“I feel like I’m waiting on something good to happen,” Earnhardt said, “every time you show up here thinking that this might be the weekend that you get it kind of turned around and put things back in the right direction. It hasn’t been going great here — as great as I want it to go here lately. We have torn up a lot of cars and been frustrated most times when we leave here. I still come back as confident and excited about the opportunities as ever. That is the way we feel this weekend.”
Despite the bumpy ride last year, Earnhardt goes through the infield tunnel with wonderful memories about this place. He first raced here in the mid-’90s while he was still racing street stocks at Concord.
His late father — the all-time leader in Cup victories at Talladega with 10 — told him to get his helmet and his suit and meet him at the airport, no questions asked. He knew he was going to Talladega but he didn’t know why.
When he finally got into the stock car, his father told him to drive it wide-open, and trust that it would stick to the track.
Earnhardt has followed his father’s advice all these years.
Drive it wide open, eyes wide open too, and hope that somebody doesn’t throw a body block at you at nearly 200 mph.
“This is a real special place,” Junior said. “My dad won a lot of races here and I’ve had the fortune of being able to get to Victory Lane several times. I think this place will just continue to deliver, year after year, long after I’m gone.”