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Junior attributes 'Dega success to father
The roar is unmistakable.
The moment the No. 88 Chevrolet of Dale Earnhardt Jr. rolls to the point at Talladega Superspeedway, the stands erupt.
NASCAR fans know all too well that Junior is a North Carolina native, but Alabamans have adopted the Intimidator's son as their own.
Junior humbly acknowledges the admiration of the fans stems from his father's success rather than his own. After all, not only did Earnhardt win a record 10 races at this track — he appeared invincible.
If there was a poster boy for "and they walked away," it was the seven-time champion here in the 1996 Die Hard 500. After contact with Sterling Marlin triggered by Ernie Irvan, the No. 3 Chevrolet plowed into the wall — long before there was a thought of a SAFER barrier in NASCAR — and Earnhardt suffered a broken collarbone and sternum.
"He did a lot of things in the sport that paved the road for me," Junior said. "When I was able to come in here and win some races, that just solidified my position and the Earnhardt family's legacy at this racetrack.
"I know deep down inside I owe a great debt and a lot of credit to him for where I am and who I am in the sport and how I am perceived, the path that I have been given and what I have done with it and what I have accomplished with it.
"I think he was a legend here and won a lot of races and was very good at plate racing. He was real easy to cheer for when you came here. No matter who you were a fan of, it was fun to watch him race. He always did a lot of great things, a lot of fun things for a fan as far as watching a race here. When I was able to come here and have some success, I think it sealed the deal for all the Earnhardt fans out there."
Yes, Junior learned to race at Talladega from the master. Not surprisingly, the 37-year-old has enjoyed tremendous success on the 2.66-mile speedway. In 23 starts, Earnhardt has five wins, nine top-five and 12 top-10 finishes. Among current drivers, only Jeff Gordon has captured more checkered flags (6).
But since the inception of tandem drafting — the practice of two cars hooking up bumper to bumper — Earnhardt has not experienced the thrill of blowing away from the pack and controlling his own destiny on the racetrack. Since teams discovered two years ago that tandem drafting could enable cars to pick up 4 seconds a lap with a partner, the thought of a driver making a move on his own is just a distant memory.
"We've got a lot of fans here," Earnhardt said. "And I miss the days of dropping the green flag and just driving my car wherever I want to go and trying to get to the lead and get the fans to their feet. Nowadays, you have to find your teammate, your partner, and do what is best for the both of you.
"So, you don't get to drive your car into the lead. You don't get to get up there and work and battle the way that you want. So, it's different. Over time, maybe one day we'll get to race around here like we used to. I think that's what the fans want. I look forward to that day. Hopefully I'm still driving when it happens."
Certainly racing is a team sport. But with tandem drafting, it's now become a sport of teammates — at least at Talladega and Daytona International Speedway. And these are two tracks where NASCAR's most popular driver has shone. But in April, Earnhardt surrendered his own opportunity for a victory to push his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson to the checkered flag.
On Sunday, the teammates will join forces again. Johnson rolls off second while Earnhardt will start sixth. While Johnson doesn't have a preference between leading laps early or waiting at the back of the pack until go time, the tempo of the race likely will dictate the game plan as the day unfolds.
Earnhardt says there will come a point in the race, however, where it will become clear which position — pusher or pushee — is preferable.
"It might be early or it might be late (in the race), where you get an idea of how things are more effective by whoever is pushing or leading," Earnhardt said. "For whatever reason, we are faster and do better and we are more successful in passing cars, staying in the pack, staying in the heat, doing what we need to do with me pushing and him leading.
"I am not sure if this is a true story, but I hear that there was a rag stuck in the water pump of the No. 48 car from Talladega and that would make it difficult for him to push anybody, so I told Chad (Knaus, No. 48 crew chief) to quit sticking that rag in there because I would not mind getting pushed every once in a while."
Considering that Earnhardt has run 124 races without a win, how charitable can his teammate expect him to be?
"I like Jimmie, we're great friends and he's a great teammate, but I can't do anything without relying on him and he can't do anything without relying on me," Earnhardt said. "That ain't the way it should be. I should be out there driving my own car. I should be out there driving my car to the front, however I can get it there, and try to do what I can to get the lead, 'cause I know a lot of people pay a lot of money to be here to see that.
"When me and Jimmie have to depend on each other — like everyone else in the field — the race ain't in your hands. You have such a partnership between the two of you that you make a lot of sacrifices for the betterment of both of you. You've got to give up a lot of stuff that you want personally on the racetrack."
Johnson describes the pairing with Junior as "good" and "a lot of fun." The El Cajon, Calif., native said he's still trying to "learn his voice and some of his sayings," but acknowledges that the teammates have a "great time together." Still, there's the matter of last spring when Knaus promised Junior that the No. 48 team owes him one.
Could this be the Sunday that Earnhardt finally collects?
"I do remember Chad saying it and, believe me, the JR Nation has not forgotten that statement that Chad made, and we have made as a group a huge effort at Daytona to get it to work," Johnson said. "But with his car up front, we did not have the luck that we needed to. And we noticed that in the April race here, that for whatever reason the things we do in the car, I mean the cars are equal, but whatever we do we were better off with the No. 48 leading and the No. 88 pushing.
"We worked (Friday) on both combinations, and we will just have to see how things unfold in the race and where we feel that we are the fastest. If we cannot win the race, we certainly want him to and will try to. The hard thing is to try to anticipate where is the ideal situation. If it is a big pack coming to the finish, the guy being pushed has the best shot at it. If it is a breakaway like we have seen in years' past, the guy pushing is in the catbird seat and can win. Of course, both of us want to win, and we will do all that we can."
Earnhardt does believe NASCAR is taking steps to return restrictor plate racing to "the way it used to be." Entering this weekend, NASCAR increased the size of the plates to 57/64ths of an inch in diameter from 56/64ths to slightly increase horsepower and destabilize the cars. But that didn't stop drivers from hooking up. During the EFI (electronic fuel injection) test, NASCAR then attempted to slow cars down by decreasing the size of the spoiler by a half-inch on the top and an inch off the sides. Earnhardt feels that is "a step in the right direction."
NASCAR vice president of competition Robin Pemberton says NASCAR is addressing the issue, but it will take a couple of more tests "to see where we're at." The Sprint Cup Series will have a four-day test with the teams in January before the Daytona 500 and "will continue to work on" the restrictor plate package until then.
For now, Earnhardt — and the other 42 drivers — have to race with the current package. He believes anyone can be a factor on Sunday. It doesn't matter the amount of power a driver has or how slick a body is on the car. The outcome will depend on the drivers.
"It really comes down to what a driver does in the draft and whether the moves help him or hurt him," Earnhardt said. "Then you have to be really, really brave, especially when you're the pusher and you can't see anything in front of you. You just kind of have to hold it on the mat, hope for the best and hope that you're doing the right thing.
"What racing do you like the best? That's what it comes down to. I like being able to drive my car the way I like to drive it, not really have so much of a dependency on everything else around me. I'm sure Jimmie would like that, too. But damn, man, that's a lot of responsibility to look out for somebody the entire race — every single corner, every single lap. There's a lot more going on out there than people understand. I miss how it used to be. Hopefully, we'll get that opportunity."
And maybe then NASCAR's favorite son can bring the house down again.
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