Bristol a special place for Earnhardt

Dale Earnhardt Jr. has an affinity for Bristol Motor Speedway.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. cherishes the hardware from his Bristol Motor Speedway victories.

Earnhardt, a historian of the sport, gained an appreciation for Thunder Valley while watching his late father collect nine Cup wins on the half-mile track.

So Junior took great delight in 2004 when he won the first Cup trophy of his career at Bristol while driving the No. 8 Budweiser Chevrolet.

“That was a big deal to me because I had seen those trophies in my house all my life,” Earnhardt said. “They were the biggest trophies you could bring home. They were bigger than even the championship trophy.”

He was just as happy to have tamed Bristol.

“I admired the track for how tough it was,” he said, “ and how tenacious the races were and how hard the driving was — how difficult it was on drivers. It is just such a unique race track. One of a kind.”

While Earnhardt is known for his restrictor-plate prowess, he ranks third among active drivers for best career average finishes at Bristol (11.7). Only Kyle Busch (9.1) and Jeff Gordon (11.5) top Earnhardt on the half-mile track.

“I think (Bristol) has proven its popularity through ticket sales over the years, and its ability to grow and become what it is today,” Earnhardt said. “When you look at pictures of it when it was first built — and all through the ’70s and ’80s even — then see what it is today. It is really amazing the progress and expansion that this little track in Tennessee has had."

Perhaps his love for the track led to Earnhardt’s success at Bristol early in his NASCAR career. He put his Busch (now Nationwide) Series car in the No. 2 position on the front row for the 1997 night race, his first start at the track. The following spring, Earnhardt started from the pole and finished second in Dale Earnhardt Inc. equipment.

And then came the 2004 season, when he became the first person to sweep both weekend night races at Bristol. He won from the Busch pole — the night before his Cup win — and led 125 laps on his way to the checkered flag.

“I just wanted one of those trophies, really. I was really glad to get one,” Earnhardt said. “It is right there in my living room. I don’t have many trophies in my house, but that’s one of them that is there. It was really even sweeter to have the opportunity to sweep the weekend like we did with the Nationwide win the day before.”

Entering this weekend’s Nationwide Series race, Junior had an average finish of 6.5 in 10 starts in that series. On Saturday he posted his seventh top-five finish behind the wheel of the No. 5 TaxSlayer.com Chevrolet, which is fielded by his own organization, JR Motorsports.

The previous day, Earnhardt qualified his Cup car 18th for Sunday's Food City 500. The team made significant changes throughout practice Saturday, and by Happy Hour, the No. 88 Chevrolet was 10th on the speed chart.

In his second season with crew chief Steve Letarte, Earnhardt has exhibited more consistency in the No. 88 car than he’s had since his first year with Hendrick Motorsports in 2008, when he posted five top-10 finishes in his six races. Then, he was sixth in the standings after the first four races. Currently, Earnhardt is fourth in points after three races with one top-five and two top-10 finishes. Earnhardt trails leader Greg Biffle by 18 points.

“The season has started off really good,” Earnhardt said. “We had a good run at Daytona. Struggled a little bit at Phoenix, but we still got a decent finish out of it. Had a pretty good car last week (at Las Vegas Motor Speedway). We just stayed out of trouble.

“Some other guys have had some difficulties; we’ve been able to capitalize on that and get a pretty good spot in the point standings after three weeks. This (Bristol) is a good track for me. I’ve done pretty well here and been pretty consistent at Bristol. I look forward to continuing that this weekend.”

MORE EYES ON DANICA

Add a third spotter to Danica Patrick’s list of go-to guys.

Former NASCAR driver Rick Carelli provided a guiding voice for Patrick over the radio for Saturday’s Ford EcoBoost 300. Carelli joins a list that includes T.J. Majors, who spots full time for Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Mark Robertson, her Sprint Cup spotter.

Crew chief Tony Eury Jr. says Carelli will spot for Patrick in Nationwide Series races in which Earnhardt competes. The remaining races include Talladega and Texas.

NUMBERS GAME

4: Races won by Nationwide Series-only drivers this season, which hadn’t happened since 1995.

64: Laps led Saturday by Trevor Bayne, who finished eighth. Those are the most laps Bayne has led in a single race.

102: Laps run by Jimmie Johnson in Happy Hour. He was 10th fastest on the speed chart Saturday.

SAY WHAT?

Elliott Sadler after winning his second Nationwide Series race of the season and retaining the points lead by 25 markers over Ricky Stenhouse Jr.: "This feels good. This is a great way to start the season. This has been a team effort — both races that we've won have come on pit strategy, the two tires at Phoenix and staying out here at Bristol. So we're showing how to do it with a great team effort."

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