Editor’s Note: This is the fifth of a six-part series chronicling Talladega Superspeedway, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2019, featuring highlights from springtime racing events through the decades.
In the 2000s at Talladega Superspeedway’s springtime classic Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race, there was a new sheriff in town named Gordon, as well as another driver with the last name of Earnhardt, who dominated the world’s largest race track that celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.
The track, which will host its tripleheader weekend featuring the GEICO 500 on April 26-28, gave way to two of the most popular drivers to ever strap into the cockpit — Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. The duo would win six of the first eight races in the decade, with Gordon claiming four – 2000, 2004, 2005, 2007 – while Earnhardt won two straight in 2002-03, and then added triumphs in the track’s fall race (2001, 2002) for a Talladega record four straight.
Earnhardt added four more top-10 results, including a heartbreaking runner-up finish to Gordon in ’04, much to the chagrin of the fans in the grandstands. With just over four laps to go, Earnhardt, running second at the time, went to pass Gordon and nosed in front of his Chevrolet, but the caution for an accident behind them came out just inches before the pass. The field was frozen, and the race ended under caution. Gordon added two other top-10 efforts.
Other drivers to claim the top prize in the spring Monster Series event at ‘Dega were Bobby Hamilton, Kyle Busch, Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski, who notched his first career triumph in NASCAR’s premier series. Nine different drivers captured pole positions during the 10-year stretch, with Jeremy Mayfield the lone driver with two.
Below are quick recaps of each springtime race at the 2.66-mile venue during the 2000s:
- 2000: Gordon, in his famous No. 24 for Hendrick Motorsports, holds off Mike Skinner by .189 second to claim his career milestone 50th win. Dale Earnhardt Sr. competes in his final Talladega race and finishes third.
- 2001: In a caution-free race, Hamilton, in his No. 55 Chevy for Andy Petree Racing, passes Tony Stewart in the tri-oval coming to the white flag and holds on by .163 second. The average speed of the race, which saw Kurt Busch, Mark Martin and Bobby Labonte complete the top five, was a sizzling 184.003 mph.
- 2002: Dale Jr. holds off a last-ditch effort for a pass through the tri-oval by teammate Michael Waltrip by just inches (0.060 second).
- 2003: Dale Jr. makes it two straight in the spring, and this time the runner-up victim is Kevin Harvick, trailing the driver of the No. 8 Chevrolet by .125 second.
2004: In one of the most memorable events ever at Talladega, Dale Jr.’s pass on Gordon is one second too late before the caution comes out as the leaders are in Turn 4. Dale Jr. beats Gordon to the finish line, but when the caution comes out in the fourth turn, Gordon is inches ahead.
- 2005: It was Gordon’s turn at back-to-back victories, handing Tony Stewart his second bridesmaid result in the spring event by .193 second.
- 2006: Stewart is runner-up for the second straight year, this time to Johnson by .120 second with Brian Vickers third, followed by Jeff Burton and Jamie McMurray.
- 2007: Johnson’s bid in his No. 48 Chevrolet for another win comes up short to teammate Gordon, who puts an exclamation point on his fourth and final spring win of the decade.
- 2008: Busch captures his first – and only, to this point – Cup victory at Talladega. He fends off the challenge of Juan Pablo Montoya and Denny Hamlin. Busch, however, has had wins since in the other two NASCAR Series that compete at the 33-degree banked track – the NASCAR Xfinity and Gander Outdoors Truck Series.
- 2009: In a remarkable finish, Keselowski, driving for independent car owner James Finch, taps Carl Edwards out of the lead coming through the tri-oval to the checkered flag to notch his initial win in the premier series. Edwards, who crashed with his car coming up 100 yards short of the finish line, jumps out and runs across the line “Ricky Bobby” style to complete the race on foot. The victory helps Keselowski land a full-time ride with Team Penske in 2010. He is now the active Talladega win leader with five.
The upcoming GEICO 500 will be the track’s 100th race in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. The weekend kicks off a motorsports tripleheader with the General Tire 200 for the ARCA Menards Series (which has been a staple of Talladega Superspeedway since October 1969) on Friday, April 26, and the MoneyLion 300 for the NASCAR Xfinity Series on Saturday, April 27. The GEICO 500 gets a 1 p.m. start on Sunday, April 28. For ticket information, log onto www.talladegasuperspeedway.com or call 855-518-RACE (7223).