TALLADEGA, Ala. (AP) – Dale Earnhardt Jr. cruised to his first win of the season at an old familiar place that has always been good to his family.
Earnhardt won Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway in front of an adoring crowd that gave him a rousing ovation as he pumped his fist outside the car window during a slow victory lap.
NASCAR’s most popular driver picked up the checkered flag and waived as he savored his trip around the track and into victory lane.
It is Earnhardt’s sixth victory at Talladega – but first since 2004 – and he choked back tears after he climbed from his No. 88 Chevrolet.
“It’s just real emotional. I haven’t won here in a long time. It was my daddy’s birthday a couple of days ago, and I’m just real emotional, man,” he said.
The late Dale Earnhardt, a first ballot Hall of Fame inductee, won 10 times at the Alabama track. He would have celebrated his 64th birthday Wednesday.
Earnhardt Jr. won four consecutive races at Talladega from 2001, after his father’s death in the season-opening Daytona 500, through 2003. He then finished second in back-to-back Talladega races before grabbing his fifth victory in 2004.
But his dominance ended that season, then came several years of slumping results on the track. He finally turned it around last year with a victory in the season-opening Daytona 500, but poor strategy in this race last year cost him any shot at the victory.
His fan base was livid over Earnhardt’s decision to lay back in the field last May, and he vowed to not do it again.
Earnhardt delivered Sunday, leading a race-high 67 laps and easily winning when no one from a single-file line of cars behind him could challenge him.
The win almost certainly put him in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, and was Earnhardt’s first with new crew chief Greg Ives.
“Everything is just so good for me right now, my personal life, my racing, the team I’m with, I don’t know why,” Earnhardt said. “I don’t feel like I deserve it. I just feel overcome, you know, with a lot of emotion.”
Jimmie Johnson finished second as Hendrick Motorsports dominated the race. Paul Menard was third and Ryan Blaney was a surprising fourth in the only Ford that could challenge the horsepower from the Hendrick Chevrolets.
Martin Truex Jr. was fifth and followed by Sam Hornish Jr. in another Ford, then Ryan Newman and Kevin Harvick as Chevy drivers took six of the first eight spots.
Denny Hamlin was ninth in the highest-finishing Toyota and Josh Wise rounded out the top 10.
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