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Is This The Day And Place For Junior Achievement?

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Sunday, May 6 2012

Dale Earnhardt Jr. waits as his team preps his car for the track at Talladega. Some think Junior's wait to get to Victory Lane ends this afternoon. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Brian Lawdermilk)

Be it because of circumstances, or gut feelings or the cosmic vibes created by the “super moon”, there is a feeling going around that this could be the day that Dale Earnhardt  Jr. busts out of his long, long victory drought.

It’s a drought that has been going on now for almost four years. It’s a drought that may be having an effect on ticket sales and TV numbers – the guy is that popular. It’s a drought that even many of Earnhardt’s peers have been mourning.

Bu there could be relief in the forecast.

Earnhardt has won five times on the high banks of the 2.66-mile Talladega oval. And he did finish fourth a year ago. And he is running so well this season that he is second in series points; a mere five behind leader Greg Biffle.

Hence the feeling.

It was a big topic in internet chat rooms and it was a big topic in the garages at Talladega, site of today’s Aaron’s 499 Sprint Cup race.

Several drivers were asked their thoughts about the driver, the place, the possibility over the weekend and here is what they had to say:

Denny Hamlin, driver of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota: “If he (Earnhardt) backed up to me at Daytona, he would have won. He didn’t – he linked up to those other cars. Really, I felt like that was our only shot, or his shot to win the race at Daytona, was to backup to us to try to get around the Roush cars

Dale Earnhardt Jr. at Talladega. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Alan Marler)

because they were so strong. I think he’s obviously got a ton of experience and a ton of wins on this track. When you look at this schedule and you look at opportunities to win, I would say that this is one of his best shots at it.”

Martin Truex Jr., driver of the No. 56 Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota, when asked what would happen if Earnhardt were to win today? “They’d probably tear it down. They’d probably tear the stands down. It would be crazy, for sure.”

Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, when asked if Talladega offers him a good shot: “I think that is probably true. When we go to Talladega or Daytona, I do feel like those races are…I feel like I have a good chance of winning every time I go because there are less variables. The cars don’t handle; you just hold it on the mat. You just have to make good decisions. You really don’t have to count on the other important things that you do at other tracks; like is the car going to roll in the center? Is the car going to handle good? Be fast? Those things are big variables at Richmond or somewhere else. You don’t have to deal with those here. I feel like my confidence goes up when I come here.”

Trivia time

When was the last time that Dale Earnhardt Jr. failed to lead a lap in a race at Talladega Superspeedway?

Fast facts

The race: The Aaron’s 499

The Place: Talladega Superspeedway, Talladega, Ala.

Racing at your big boy track. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Alan Marler)

Track configuration: 2.66-mile tri-oval

Banking: 33 degrees in corners

Grandstand seating capacity: 108,000

Race distance: 500 miles (188 laps)

Most victories: 10, by Dale Earnhardt Sr.

Most poles: 8, by Bill Elliott

Most lead-lap finishes: 29 ,by Bill Elliott and Mark Martin

Most races without a DNF: 0, by Kevin Harvick in 22 starts

Highest average finish in today’s field  (in five starts or more): 14.5, by Joey Logano

Last five winners at Talladega: Clint Bowyer, Jimmie Johnson, Clint Bowyer, Kevin Harvick and Jamie McMurray.

First winner: Richard Brickhouse, 1969

First pole-winner: Bobby Isaac

The keys

Offering the keys to today’s race is Howard Comstock, SRT Motorsports Engineering:

Pack vs. Tandem Racing: “It’s going to be a hot day. There’s no reason to burn your stuff up early trying to get away, because you can’t get away. I think drivers are going to be satisfied to ride along in the pack, make a few moves here and there just to see what they can do and think about how they’re going to get to the front later in the race. Save your car for that last move and find a partner that you think that you can work with. Those last two laps are going to be something.”

Selecting A Partner: “A lot of times, we see drivers make deals before the race and say how they’re going

A Big One at Talladega. (File photo by John Harrelson/Getty Images for NASCAR)

to do this or that. The race is a dynamic thing. That’s the great thing about racing. Plans are good, but you can’t make a plan and stick to it. You make a plan early and then you’re making another plan a lap later. It’s good to have a buddy, but if he gets knocked out, where do you go? I think you have to be buddies with a lot of drivers. The last couple of times we’ve come to Talladega, drivers have shown a lot of respect during practice. We used to see big crashes here during practice. We haven’t seen that for a while. I think that’s because drivers are showing the proper amount of respect for the track, the cars and each other and understand you have to wait, wait, wait to make it to the end and have a chance at victory.”

(Pit Strategy: Running in the pack is a double-edge sword. There’s safety that you’re not going to lose the draft, but when the pack pits under green, you have to do the same. That puts a lot of cars on pit road at the same time and we’ve seen plenty of trouble in the past as drivers maneuver to get into their pits. We’ve seen crashes, spins, drivers missing their pit. The pit road speed here is 55 mph. Think about going from 55 to a stop in just a few feet. Also, you certainly don’t want to run the car out of fuel, especially with the new fuel injection system. I don’t think there’s any reason to stretch it.”

Two-Tire vs. Four-Tire Stops: “Tires should not be an issue. It’s the same tire we used here last year, the same tire we used at Daytona. Last year, we saw cars that could go 100 laps on the left-side tires. I think you will see more two-tire stops.

Hot Temperature: “I think the hot temperature will favor the Dodge and Ford brands. Our engines handle the heat more efficiently, so I think the Dodges will tolerate the warmer weather better.”

The Right Move: “I think three laps would be too early; two laps may be too early. We’ve seen a lot of races here where the driver leading in the tri-oval didn’t win the race. With the unique start-finish line well past the tri-oval, it builds a lot of drama at this track. This is a great race track.”

Big thoughts

With a return to pack racing possible today, talk about The Big One wreck is also returning. Roush Fenway Racing driver Carl Edwards was asked if it bothers him that such talk is making the rounds.

“No it doesn’t bug me,” Edwards said. “It just is what it is. This type of racing, as a driver you are less in control of whether or not you will be involved in a wreck. That is just a part of this style of racing. Nobody forced us to get in these race cars. I will be out there racing as hard as I can those last five laps and if there is a wreck, there is a wreck. I know what it is like as a fan to watch these races. You just can’t help but watch because it is just spectacular to watch. Unlike some folks, I do not wish and hope that there is a wreck but I know that it is a possibility.”

Show me

The finish of last week’s race at Richmond was still a hot topic this week at Talladega.

That was the race where a late caution for debris helped Kyle Busch get his first win of the year. Tony Stewart, who may have had victory snatched away from him by the call, was asked Friday if he thinks NASCAR owes it to fans to show the debris that brings out the yellow.

No,” Stewart aid. “I think NASCAR has done a really good job in the last year or so of making sure if there is a debris caution, it’s not a just mystery caution. There is something out there that they are picking up. I’ve got the trust in them that when they through the debris caution that there is something out there. The big thing is you don’t want something to be out there and it get hit by a race car and it goes in the stands and hit somebody or hurt somebody. They have pretty good eyes around the race track to make sure that there’s not stuff laying out there.”

Trivia answer

October 2, 2005 was the last time that Dale Earnhardt Jr. raced at Talladega and did not lead at least one lap. In fact, it was one of only two times that Earnhardt has not led a lap in a Talladega Cup race. The other race was his very first race at the place; April 16, 2000.

Next up

The Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway. It’s a Saturday night race.

Kasey Kahne won the pole and Regan Smith won the race a year ago.

– Jim Pedley can be reached at jpedley@racintoday.com

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Sunday, May 6 2012
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