Jessica Ruffin, NASCAR.com
Welcome to Talladega Blvd, Where Everyone’s a Racing Fan
TALLADEGA, Ala. -- A man dangles a rubber chicken from a fishing pole in the middle of Talladega Superspeedway's famed Talladega Boulevard, trying to tap an empty can of Bud Light without knocking it over.
"He's been doing it all day," another tailgater informs me with a laugh.
Fishing for nothing more than attention and a good time, the man glances at me with a toothy grin and says:
"Welcome to Talladega Boulevard."
The Alabama temperatures are unseasonably cool and the damp air from the day's rain mixes with the smell of campfires. Different tunes -- from Luke Bryan's "Huntin', Fishin' and Lovin' Every Day" to J. Dash's "Wop" -- echo from the different tailgates set up on Talladega's most famous strip.
Friday's dreary weather has left many in the Heart of Dixie seeking comfort indoors, but the 5:30 p.m. infield already is stirring outside for an approaching party.
Some scenes are elaborate with real bars and bar stools set up. Some are makeshift, with chairs positioned comfortably around a campfire. And some are just downright crazy, like the one centered around an old school bus with "Nuthin' Fancy" printed in large letters on the window.
"We've been coming here for 15 years," a man named Brian says. Brian's an LSU fan, who offers me jambalaya many times throughout our conversation. He proudly shows off their new tailgating centerpiece: another old school bus with the seats torn out and beds installed for camping overnight.
I ask him and the lady standing with us -- who is excited both about the group of young men on a bachelor party camped next to them and the growing mud puddle behind the bus that she thinks could be fun later -- if they're married.
Almost choreographed, they immediately drape their arms around one another and say slyly, "We might."
Move over, Vegas -- Talladega Boulevard is swooping in.
The assortment of characters on The Boulevard is incredible. Think Halloween meets an Alabama football tailgate meets Bourbon Street.
There's the man clad in an American flag unitard -- and the man in the hotdog unitard.
There's the Golden Retriever perched on a golf cart and wearing a slew of Marti Gras beads around his furry neck.
There's camo everything. Oh, so much camo.
Not to mention it's Cinco de Mayo this year, so fake mustaches and sombreros are rampant along the flamboyant streets.
A man who calls himself "Benny" points at one particular Cinco de Mayo enthusiast, who is wearing a poncho and a sombrero while dancing.
"That guy used to be a rodeo star," he says.
Greeting me with a "Roll Tide," Benny is a happy-go-lucky fan who loves Dale Earnhardt Jr. and believes that any woman worthy of marriage needs to own a bass fishing boat.
Speaking of Earnhardt: They sure do love some Earnhardt here on Talladega Boulevard.
There's a guy dressed like the "Intimidator" from head to toe -- which matches the plethora of Earnhardt memorabilia and gear representing both Senior and Junior around the strip.
But what's interesting is that despite the majority of spots reflecting intense Earnhardt or Kyle Busch or Danica Patrick fandom, there are a few fans supporting the up-and-coming stars. I pass by a tent that’s decked out in Ryan Blaney and No. 21 Ford-themed merchandise. Nearby, a fan rocks a Chase Elliott sweatshirt.
Some of the drivers -- from Kyle Larson to Ricky Stenhouse Jr. to Clint Bowyer -- make appearances later for the annual "Big One on The Boulevard" parade. Typically when they do meander on down The Boulevard, one of their first stops will be Spot 249: The Dega Do Club.
One of the most polished looking setups on the Boulevard, the Dega Do Club looks like a real bar with music playing, and bartenders wearing DDC shirts while serving thirsty patrons. There's merchandise for sale, such as the black shirt emblazoned with "Unleash the Party" in bright pink letters.
Cory "Wally" Waldrop is one of the ringleaders behind the well-organized spot in the midst of the Talladega circus. A police officer and retired Marine Corps member, Waldrop has been tailgating at Talladega since 2005.
"In 2005, my dad brought me and my brothers and a couple of cousins and he was diagnosed with cancer not long after that so he wasn't able to come back," Waldrop says. "So, I decided to take it and me and my buddy Cole (Henry "Cole" Forrest), we turned it into -- at the beginning, (a tailgate with) all of our Marine Corps buddies … it was kind of like our little Marine Corps reunion.
"Then it started getting bigger and bigger. I'm a police officer, so a bunch of our police officer buddies that of course like to party (came) and it started getting bigger and bigger after that and turned into this."
The Dega Do Club members have served anyone from Earnhardt to Patrick to Jeff Gordon to Tony Stewart over the years since they began their stint on the Boulevard in 2014. They earned "best tailgating awards" from Patrick and Casey Mears during their first year on The Boulevard.
But they have even bigger plans for their already famous hangout: Waldrop says they want to take it to other tracks in the future.
"If we can take it to Daytona or I'd love to go out west to Fontana, take it somewhere like that, that'd be pretty cool," Waldrop says.
But for now -- and for this weekend's GEICO 500 -- it remains a staple on Talladega Boulevard.
Talladega Boulevard is home to anyone and everything: Young and old, male and female, corporate man who's clad in a suit Monday through Friday, and rugged farmer who wears overalls regularly.
But this weekend in the heart of rural Alabama, everyone's a racing fan. There's no hierarchy, no social rules, no classes. Tailgates are open, mingling is common and the beer is flowing.
For these diehard fans, the two weekends at Talladega are chances for them to let loose and let their NASCAR fandom flag fly.
Welcome to Talladega Boulevard. Just grab a beer – everyone’s welcome.
Edwards’ Class Post - Miami Wreck Lets Him Leave Sport a Winner
"If you're looking for a driver you're looking for me."
That's what was written on young Carl Edwards' business cards nearly 20 years ago, cards he used to hand out at the race track while trying to transition from his day job as a substitute teacher in Columbia, Missouri, to a racer.
But even as he stood on the stage in front of the press corps at Joe Gibbs Racing Wednesday to announcing his departure from full-time racing after 12 seasons in NASCAR's premier series, his humble, Midwestern roots were apparent.
They'd never left.
They were there even at Homestead-Miami Speedway, when a crash with Joey Logano in the final 10 laps took Edwards from Victory Lane to the garage, his dreams of winning the 2016 title were crushed as his No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota.
Instead of reacting with anger, Edwards went to the No. 22 pit box, shook crew chief Todd Gordon's hand and wished the team the best of luck the rest of the race.
That act spoke volumes about Edwards' character, both as a person and a race car driver.
"In pro sports, you're going to get the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat," JGR owner Joe Gibbs said. "And I think for all of us, everybody's going to handle a victory pretty good … but that adversity, when you hit that … I think you guys have all seen (Edwards) go through some tough stuff and really handle himself extremely well."
No one knew it, but that race, that night, would serve as the closing act in Edwards' full-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series career finale.
With the exception of winning the title, Edwards' night in South Florida couldn't have served as a better curtain call for the 37-year-old driver.
"Let me tell you about Homestead, though. With 30 laps to go, 40 laps to go, 30 laps to go, 20 laps to go, that's what I live for," Edwards said. "…That is racing to me. I mean, (crew chief) Dave (Rogers) and I had worked all year to be in that moment, to pass that battle with Jimmie (Johnson), and then to be able to pass Joey and Kyle (Busch) for the ultimate prize, driving just as hard as I could, and to be in that position and to know that day we were getting it done.
"...That part of Homestead, for me personally, I won."
And really, he's won again in a way as he steps away from premier series racing. Edwards is walking away from a career that he can be proud of, a stint across parts of 13 years in NASCAR's premier series that boasts 28 victories, 22 poles and two runner-up finishes in the championship standings to Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart in 2008 and 2011, respectively.
And he did it right: He did it with class, humility and the Midwestern demeanor that has followed him from Colombia, Missouri, to North Carolina and to race tracks across the country.
"It's very flattering," Edwards said of the public's positive, always-do-the-right-thing perception of him. "Yeah, I just …"
He stopped, turned away from the audience, visibly wiping away tears.
When he spoke again, his voice quivered a bit.
"I just want to be a good person, you know. Sorry, guys. Damn camera shutters are killing me there. It's the lighting, it's awful," he joked, trying to make light of his emotion.
It’s great to go out with a championship. But sometimes, it's not always about the trips to Victory Lane. It usually wasn't for Cousin Carl, even when he was handing out business cards in the beginning.
"You guys know that I don't race just for the trophies," Edwards said. "This has always been a really this has been a neat journey for me and it's always been something that I've been rewarded by the challenges … So you go from that to working up the courage to ask people to drive a car to being put in situations where you know if you drive well and you win, you get sponsorship and everything works.
"Going through that whole process and becoming a better person, a stronger person, a better competitor, a better teammate, a better friend to people, that's a big deal to me, and I feel accomplished.
"And I know when I sit in that race car that I am the best race car driver I can be. So whether or not I have a championship, I'm really satisfied with that."
Truex, Larson Locked in Tight Battle for Top Spot in Monster Energy Series
Kentucky race winner Martin Truex Jr. and runner-up Kyle Larson have been quite the duo this NASCAR season.
Saturday night’s race at Kentucky Speedway saw a seemingly unflappable Truex drive away with the win on old tires and a powerful Larson make 90 green flag passes after starting from the rear of the field.
They’ve both been dominant and blistering fast — but not too long ago, the scenery looked very different for both drivers.
Larson was the young racer from California who possessed plenty of potential, but seemed to be in a sophomore slump after his promising premier series rookie season in 2014. New Jersey native Truex was starting to make a bigger splash in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series after five winless seasons, then became the dark horse in a championship battle after his 2015 win at Pocono.
Forget “plenty of potential” and “dark horse” today.
These two are the front-running drivers here-and-now, consistently running up front and fighting for wins. Larson leads Truex by a single point in the driver standings.
“It’s been fun to race with Kyle,” Truex said on Saturday night after the race. “He’s very talented, he’s up front every single week, he’s fast everywhere we go and I expect he’ll be a challenge throughout the rest of the year.”
Statistically, they’re both at the top of the charts; the two have been trading the first- and second-place rankings in the driver standings since Richmond, with Larson on top for seven weeks and Truex atop for three weeks.
The same goes for the race track; In March, Larson finished second to race-winner Truex after Brad Keselowski faded in the Kobalt 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Three months later, the Larson-Truex duo was back battling for the victory throughout the afternoon at Dover International Speedway, a race won ultimately by Jimmie Johnson.
While they may not win every weekend, their 1-2 rankings in the stage points tally indicate that the two consistently run up front throughout the races.
And true to form, they were back in the 1-2 positions under the lights Saturday in the Bluegrass State.
Truex jokingly took partial credit for Larson’s move from potential superstar to full-blown superstar.
“He still hasn’t thanked me for making Chad Johnston a crew chief in the (Monster Energy NASCAR) Cup Series,” Truex said with a smile about Larson’s crew chief for the past two seasons. “He was my crew chief at MWR (Michael Waltrip Racing) a couple years ago. … But I think Chad has just brought a lot to the table for that team and for Kyle and now Kyle is able to show his talent.”
As the season crosses the halfway point with eight races remaining until the playoffs begin, the stars align for a continued Truex-Larson show in the 10-race battle for the championship.
And just maybe, if their momentum continues, one of them will win their first premier series title.
“I think we’re just the two best teams,” Larson said after the race Saturday night. “I would say he’s probably the best team by far right now and we’re definitely second-best, second to third-best.
“It’s been cool, it’s been a fun battle throughout the regular season. I hope we can continue to run up front with him — he’s going to be fast everywhere, so we’ve got to continue to work hard and try and be the regular season points leader in a couple months.”