May 04, 2012 | By Bruce Martin
Dale Jr. Hopes To Be No. 1 Draft Pick Sunday At Talladega
From 2001 to 2004, nobody could touch Dale Earnhardt Jr. when racing on NASCAR’s two restrictor-plate superspeedways at Daytona and Talladega. And during that time, Earnhardt’s popularity soared as he became the most followed driver in the sport.
From 2001-2004, Earnhardt scored two victories at Daytona, including the 2004 Daytona 500. His record at Talladega was even more impressive – four-straight victories from the fall race in 2001 through the spring race in 2003. He scored a fifth Talladega win in fall 2004.
More importantly, Earnhardt set the mark that every driver in the field aimed at when it came to restrictor-plate racing. But since that time, Earnhardt’s dominance has diminished on the tracks that require a different style of racing because of the restrictor plates that are used to block air flow to the engine and reduce power. From 2005 to 2011, Earnhardt has finished 40th twice, 39th once, 31st one time, 28th once and 25th last October.
But Earnhardt served notice at this year’s Daytona 500 that he is ready to regain his title as “King of the Restrictor Plate Tracks” when he finished second to Matt Kenseth. Although Earnhardt never got the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet to the front of the field at any point in the race, he was a leading challenger for the victory and hopes to put what he learned at Daytona into use this Sunday, May 6 during the Aaron’s 499 at Talladega.
With a variety of rules changes implemented before this year’s Daytona 500, the “two-car tandem” style of racing was diminished, creating larger packs of cars racing in the draft.
Earnhardt hopes to be the No. 1 draft pick Sunday.
“I feel like the style of racing we had in the Daytona 500 this year suits me better,” Earnhardt said. “I feel more confident in that style than I do the tandem. With the tandem, it is difficult to commit to someone all day long. The way we did it in the (2012 Daytona) 500 was nice, but the tandem is going to win the race, which is fine with me. I do like having more control of my destiny and making my own decisions for myself. I want to look out for No. 1 and my team all day long and try to do whatever I can to put myself in position to win the race. That is really what I feel like I have been doing all my life. To do anything different, just doesn’t feel comfortable. It feels odd to me.”
Earnhardt admittedly was not a fan of the two-car tandems because he couldn’t win the race on his own. Any successful driver depended on another pushing them to the lead. Tandem racing still will be important Sunday, but it can’t be used for a long time or engine temperatures will soar.
“I think to win the plate races you are still going to tandem at the end,” Earnhardt said. “We can still tandem, and we will develop and work on our cooling systems. Every team in the garage will work toward the same goal and that is to get it back to the tandem, because that is the fastest way to go. Even though I don’t like the tandem, it is the fastest way to run around the track. Every team in the garage is thinking, working and engineering toward ‘how can we get to where we can tandem the whole race?’ NASCAR will have to continue to do whatever they need to do within the rule book and what have you to keep eliminating that or keep that to a minimum like we had at the (Daytona) 500.”
So far this season, Earnhardt has raced with the confidence he displayed earlier in his career. Just a few seasons ago, Earnhardt was filled with self-doubt as he was in the depths of a winless streak that is currently at 138 races. While other drivers raced to make NASCAR’s “Chase for the Championship,” Earnhardt wasn’t a serious contender to battle over the final 10 races of the season in NASCAR’s version of the playoffs. Despite joining Hendrick Motorsports in 2008, Earnhardt finished 12th in the standings that year and faded to 25th in 2009 and 21st in 2010.
But Earnhardt made the Chase last year and finished seventh in the standings.
He arrives at Talladega second in points to Greg Biffle and is only five out of the lead. A victory at Talladega would be huge for Earnhardt, for NASCAR and for the Kroger Super Weekend at the Brickyard because Earnhardt is very popular among the fans at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
A victory Sunday would silence the critics and give Earnhardt’s fans cause for massive celebration. Nobody knows that better than Earnhardt, but it isn’t going to increase his determination.
“I can’t race any harder than I’ve been running,” Earnhardt said. “There isn’t a lap that I have run to this point this year that wasn’t run as hard as it could have been run as far, as I’m concerned.
“The cars get pretty tight in that dirty air. I think everybody runs as hard as they can, and everybody is as aggressive as they want to be. I don’t think we are all out there being overly nice about it. Everybody is running pretty hard and pretty aggressive for positions, and it’s the way the racing is right now. It is how it is, and I don’t think there is much that can be done to alter it. I really don’t see a problem with it, but I know I’m not watching the races – I’m driving in them.”
A victory by Earnhardt on Sunday would be huge because Talladega is the capital of “Junior Nation.” The cheers would reverberate all the way to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and prove quite popular to the same fans that will watch NASCAR at the Brickyard in July.
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