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CUP: Intimidator On Prowl Tops ‘Dega Memories

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Article by Jeff Hood, RacinToday.com

Sunday’s Amp Energy Juice 500 at Talladega Superspeedway will mark a personal milestone during my time as a NASCAR fan and journalist.

In 1980, I made my first visit to the 2.66-mile tri-oval that was billed in those days as Alabama International Motor Speedway. On a blistering hot Sunday in early August, I witnessed Neil Bonnett pilot the Wood Brothers’ famous No. 21 Purolator Mercury to victory.

That afternoon, I watched as the stars whom I grew up idolizing through racing publications, newspaper clippings and television and radio broadcasts circled the mammoth facility in tight, two-and-three wide packs.

I marveled at how the drivers masterfully ducked onto-and-off of pit road at breakneck speed.

I fed off the emotion of the crowd as they cheered on Bonnett, one of their home state heroes, during the final laps.

I was hooked.

I’ve rarely missed attending a Sprint Cup race at Talladega during the past 30 years. I’ve seldom walked away disappointed with the quality of the racing at ‘Dega.

I realize many folks were critical of the the racing there during the past few fall events. But I’ll take 30 cars in a single file at Talladega any day over just about any speedway on the circuit where the cars get spread out during lengthy green flag runs and could easily be mistaken from a blimp as horses on a carousel.

I’m going to estimate that I’ve attended nearly 400 Cup races in my lifetime. Throw in the Nationwide Series, Camping World Truck Series, ARCA, regional touring series, Late Models, Legends, Bandoleros, etc. and I’ve witnessed more than 3,000 races in person over the past three decades.

But ask me to come up with a top-10 list of the most-memorable races I’ve attended and half of the bunch will include events at Talladega.

I’ll always remember standing on pit road in 1985 and watching in disbelief as Bill Elliott made up two laps under green to win in his No. 9 Coor’s Ford.

I watched in horror in 1987 as Bobby Allison’s Buick cut a tire in the dogleg, became airborne and threatened to sail into the grandstands. His son, Davey Allison, went on to record his first career win. But Allison’s wreck that afternoon forever changed racing at Talladega and sister track Daytona and led to the introduction of restrictor plates.

Talladega has always smiled on the underdog. I was there when darkhorse drivers Ron Bouchard, Bobby Hillin Jr., Phil Parsons and Jimmy Spencer stunned the crowd with improbable victories.

While many of my friends in Georgia were focused on the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, I was more interested in seeing who would conquer Talladega that summer.

Following a lengthy rain delay, I can still picture Dale Earnhardt’s horrific crash in the tri-oval with darkness setting in. Folks watching the event on TV never saw the 13-car pileup or conclusion of the shortened race, won by Jeff Gordon, after CBS bailed on the telecast.

But my greatest Talladega memory might just be this event in 2000.

With our favorite driver, Earnhardt, mired in 18th with just four laps remaining, my best buddy and I, who had sat in the grandstands that afternoon, agreed that it was time to do some racing of our own and dash to the parking lot to beat some of the traffic out of the joint.

But leave it to Earnhardt to delay our exit.

Just as we went into a full sprint, the roar of the crowd became deafening and could only mean one thing: the No. 3 Goodwrench Chevrolet was on the prowl.

We wedged our way into a walkway in the grandstands near the exit of Turn 4 just in time to see Earnhardt’s historic charge to the front of the field.

It would turn out to be Dale’s final career victory.

It was surreal.

It was magical.

It was remarkable.

It was unforgettable.

It was Talladega.