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Earnhardt does best to ignore restrictor-plate talk

May 05, 2012, Joe Menzer, NASCAR.com



Earnhardt does best to ignore restrictor-plate talk
Earnhardt weighs differing opinions on whether 'Dega offers best chance to win

TALLADEGA, Ala. -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. hears it every time he runs at Daytona International Speedway or Talladega Superspeedway.

This is his best chance to win again.

"I never felt I lost my savvy here, or my mojo. I feel like we'll have a good race and if we make the right moves, we'll be up there again, trying to win."

--DALE EARNHARDT JR.

That hasn't happened in a Sprint Cup race since June 2008 at Michigan, 138 races and nearly four years ago. He did win a Nationwide Series race at Daytona in 2010, only further reinforcing the opinion that his best opportunities to revisit Victory Lane come at such restrictor-plate venues.

Earnhardt has heard it all -- again and again and again. He said Saturday that he tries to mostly ignore it.

"I never really took anything for granted. A lot of people have said that this weekend at the race track, but I don't pay much attention to it," Earnhardt said. "I know how this sport can be brutal and great all at the same time. You just hope you're prepared and try to run a smart race. Hopefully then you can make the right moves and beat the odds and win the race."

As he prepared to run in Sunday's Aaron's 499 at Talladega, though, there was mounting evidence that this indeed may be his best opportunity in some time to put the talk about the winless streak to rest for a while.

The current restrictor-plate race rules appear to be in his favor. The hot Talladega weather should play to his favor. Plus, he's coming in full of momentum and confidence.

Earnhardt enters this one second in the Cup point standings, fresh off a second-place finish last week at Richmond. He also drove the No. 88 Chevrolet to second in the season-opening Daytona 500 and has five consecutive top-10 finishes overall, including third-place efforts at Fontana and Martinsville in addition to the Richmond finish.

In a twist of irony, that's why Jimmie Johnson begs to differ with all those who say the restrictor-plate races are Earnhardt's best chances to win these days. The five-time Cup champion and Earnhardt's current Hendrick Motorsports teammate offers a dissenting opinion on the matter.

"I think his best chance to win is on non-plate tracks, to be honest with you," Johnson said. "Here, there are so many circumstances to deal with. We don't know if you're going to overheat, get the push at the right time, whatever it may be. What I've seen out of him, if you just look at this year alone and where he is in points and how fast his cars have been and how great he's been driving, I put this lower on the list of where I would expect him to win."

Johnson is in the minority on that, of course, even in the Sprint Cup garage.

"If he had backed up to me at Daytona, he would have won the 500. He didn't," Denny Hamlin said of Earnhardt. "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 to do it."

Earnhardt seemed to sit on the fence on the subject. On one hand, he admitted that Hamlin and the majority of folks likely are right.

"This is probably one of our better shots," Earnhardt said. "How the drafting and everything was changed before Daytona [this year], that suits me better. And it's hotter, and I think that leans toward favoring pack racing over tandem racing, too. That's kind of in my favor, so I'm looking forward to the race. I just don't think our odds have necessarily increased because I've run so well this year."

He said there are other circumstances that he figures will work in his favor, such as more big-pack racing and less tandem racing where drivers have to rely more heavily on a single drafting partner.

"I feel like I'm in the best equipment that's out there, and that gives you a lot of confidence. I feel like I know what I'm doing when I come here," Earnhardt said. "I feel like if I could create the best scenario for me to come to Talladega and win a race, this is it. I've got the best car and I know how to get around the race track.

"When we started tandem racing, I really didn't understand that. I really didn't like it; I really didn't want to do it. I sort of didn't wrap my brain around it and learn how to do it as quickly as some. I almost just wished it away -- and it wasn't going away."

It still hasn't completely vanished. But new rules have limited the ability of the cars to do it for long, and the hotter temperatures expected on Sunday will make it even more tricky and difficult for drivers to hook up in two-car tandems for long without risking overheating.

If it comes to the end, though, and Earnhardt is looking for a tandem dance partner, Johnson certainly would be a willing one.

"I think the chemistry Junior and I both have, that our shop has, it was just another example of how strong that chemistry is and how much it continues to grow," Johnson said. "I'm very happy to see how fast the No. 88 car has been week in and week out. Naturally, you think of him as a favorite here at this race track -- but that No. 88 has been pretty strong everywhere. He is rising to be a favorite everywhere we go."

That favorable opinion of Johnson's also got Earnhardt thinking.

"I maybe feel the same way because when you come to Daytona and Talladega, the cars are so equal," Earnhardt said. "And even though pack racing definitely puts more in your hands and you definitely control your own destiny more when you're just dealing with yourself and looking for No. 1 and being greedy and selfish, there still are so many things that can happen.

"Somebody could get the right push and do the right thing at the right time and win the race, and there's nothing you can do about it. It's a lottery, really. I've said that before, but it really is when you come to Daytona and Talladega, trying to win these races.

It's a lottery Earnhardt hasn't won on the Cup side since 2004, even though he still carries the stout restrictor-plate reputation. He's well aware of that statistic, as well.

"We've always at some point been up front and running well. I haven't had a race since 2004 where I didn't feel like I knew what I was doing or I was making bad decisions or I was completely lost," Earnhardt said. "I never felt I lost my savvy here, or my mojo. I feel like we'll have a good race and if we make the right moves, we'll be up there again, trying to win."

But then, he's starting to feel that confident every week -- no matter what the type of track.

"I just feel like were really consistent every week, and have been at several different styles of race tracks," Earnhardt said. "I would love to win this race on Sunday. But if our next win happens to come at a track where you really have to wheel on it, get it around the corners and hustle the car, that would probably, personally, mean a little more to me because of the circumstances where we haven't won in a long time and what the critics might be thinking. If we win here, they might say, 'Go win somewhere else and really prove to us that you've got it turned around.' I don't know. That is kind of in the back of your mind a little bit."