Byline: Jenna Fryer
TALLADEGA, Ala. -- At a track that has always been good to his family, in front of an adoring crowd that so clearly favors him over everyone else in the field, Dale Earnhardt Jr. cruised to an emotional first win of the season.
NASCAR's most popular driver won Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway, where he received a thunderous ovation as he pumped his fist outside the car window during a slow victory lap.
He stopped at the flag stand to grab the checkered flag and flew it out his car window 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. On Saturday, he admitted he feels a sense of responsibility to his fans to perform well at Talladega.
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. But Johnson couldn't pull out of line to attempt a pass on Earnhardt, who was watching his mirror carefully to see who from the line would make a move.