One of the last times Dale Earnhardt visited the International Motorsports Hall of Fame at Talladega Superspeedway, he was treated like royalty, like the god of stock car racing and king of the wicked-fast track at Talladega.
He was all of the above.
When Earnhardt walked into the IMHF facility in April 1999, he was greeted by the screams of hundreds of die-hard Earnhardt fans, most decked out in black.
|Dale Earnhardt's memory lives on with his many fans. (Getty Images)|
His fans didn't care. They still followed him everywhere he went.
He was at the Hall of Fame that night to unveil a special Wrangler paint scheme for the upcoming all-star race. His fans were there waiting. Not necessarily to see the new car, and not necessarily to visit the Hall.
They were there to see the man, the man in black.
"You're still the man, Dale!" they screamed.
Earnhardt responded with his typical sly grin. He knew they were right.
The next day, at Talladega Superspeedway, he proved it, outrunning all of his challengers to win for the eighth time there.
"Trying to pass Dale Earnhardt at one of these restrictor-plate tracks with two or three laps to go is a pretty tall order," Dale Jarrett said after finishing second to Earnhardt that day.
"He's sort of the master of restrictor-plate racing," third-place Mark Martin said.
The master indeed.
Earnhardt won at Talladega again in October that year, sweeping the races at NASCAR's most thrilling and most dangerous track.
He had been injured and burned in spectacular crashes there in 1996 and '98. Yet that didn't stem any of the daring determination he carried to Talladega.
After sweeping in 1999, he won perhaps the most spectacular race of his career there in 2000, charging from 18th to first in the final thrilling laps there in October.
His victory that day was the last of his career -- he died on the final lap of the season-opening Daytona 500 the following year -- and will be recalled for decades as one of the most exhilarating performances in NASCAR history.
It is only fitting that Earnhardt will be inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame on Thursday night and honored this weekend on what would have been his 55th birthday.
His son, Dale Earnhardt Jr., has become the new master of Talladega, winning five races there, second only to his father.
And in one of the most fitting tributes since Earnhardt's death, Junior will drive a black Chevrolet similar to his father's this weekend in what he calls "a cool way to honor my dad."
Fans at Talladega will, no doubt, greet Junior with the type of reaction his father was used to.
"I think the fans will enjoy it," he said. "I hope the fans appreciate it."
Earnhardt Jr. is looking forward to the Hall of Fame ceremony, watching his dad enshrined at the track where he enjoyed some of his greatest triumphs.
"I'm looking forward to being there and watching my family up on stage and see what they have got to say," he said. "He would have been real happy about that. That would have been a big deal to him. I think that's a great shrine that they have over there and as a kid I could not wait to go to the race track so I could go through it every year. I think it's just a huge honor. It's one of the biggest honors in the sport. I'll be one of the first ones through the gate."
Don't be surprised if Earnhardt Jr. duplicates some of his father's heroics at the track Sunday. He has proved to be nearly as talented at working the mysterious draft and pulling off some of the thrilling moves that always seemed to put his father at the front.
Earnhardt Jr. won four consecutive races there from 2001-2003, dominating the track like his father.
Though he and his team have lost some of their mastery at restrictor-plate tracks in the past two years, this could be the weekend they recapture it.
In a black, Earnhardt-like car, possibly stirring up their own brand of black magic.
This week's prediction: Dale Earnhardt Jr. The stars seem to be lining up for a breakout by Junior this weekend. His team is running better, he's at his favorite track and he's driving that special black paint scheme. Earnhardt Jr. has been known to win restrictor-plate races at the most fitting and opportune times. This could be another one.
Keep an eye on: Jeff Gordon. He, too, is looking to bounce back and win his first race after a dreadful 2005 season, and this could be the place. Gordon and his Hendrick Motorsports team have dominated restrictor-plate tracks the past two years, with Gordon winning at Talladega last April. He could be the man to spoil Junior's party.
Also keep an eye on: Tony Stewart. Stewart always seems to be a contender in restrictor-plate races and finally broke through with a win at Daytona last year. He was a factor again in this year's Daytona 500 and finished second in both Talladega races last year. He will be in the hunt again.
Dark horse: Dale Jarrett. How can the guy who won the last race at Talladega be considered a dark horse? Talladega seemed like the only race in which Jarrett was a real factor last year and he is off to a slow start again this season. But Jarrett is as good as anybody on restrictor-plate tracks and typically has a car at the big tracks that makes him equal to the competition. He has two wins at Talladega. Another one is not out of the question.
Jeff Owens is executive editor of NASCAR Scene and a columnist for CBS SportsLine.