Ten years ago, Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the October race at Talladega. No real surprise at the time, mind you, because he’d won four straight Talladegas from 2001 to 2003, then finished second in the next two before returning to victory lane for the fifth time in October 2004.
The place Dale Jr. once owned now is his last stand to make the Chase in 2014.
Talladega, surprisingly, has been a challenging track for Dale Jr. since his last win those 10 years ago. Since joining Hendrick Motorsports in 2008, he has only three top-five finishes (second in spring 2009, fourth in spring 2011 and second this race last year), while posting four finishes of 25th or worse in the same time frame.
He needs a win to advance, unless the drivers in front of him in points have issues to set them back.
Still, whether he advances or not won’t change what’s been a refreshing season overall for Jr. and the 88 team.
My colleague Jerry Bonkowski touched on this in the immediate aftermath of the Charlotte race last Saturday night, but what had been the “dream season” for Dale Jr. and the 88 crew is one race away from ending up no different than any other of Jr.’s seasons, dating to his rookie year in 2000: without a NASCAR Sprint Cup championship. So he’s used to that.
In a longer form piece for NBC’s SportsWorld by Joe Posnanski, he writes of a happier, more at piece Junior, now 40, and content with his circumstances. Older, wiser, yet driving better than he has in years, Junior isn’t at a make-or-break situation if he fails to win Sunday and thus, likely, fails to advance through to the Eliminator round of the new Chase format.
A win would be clutch, but it isn’t necessarily the be-all, end-all for his 2014 season. But a win would tie a nice bow on the ten-year mark since his last Talladega win in a season that’s featured so many dream moments.