The two shout-outs that will incite a crowd in Alabama are “Roll Tide” and “Earnhardt!”
Dale Earnhardt was legendary at ‘Dega. He scored 10 wins in 44 starts — including the 2000 Winston 500, which would be his last Cup victory anywhere. Earnhardt was still beaming days later after schooling his competitors.
After Earnhardt died the following February, Junior defended his father’s honor in the fall brawl and brought home the trophy. It appeared the torch was indeed passed to Little E. As Earnhardt Jr. strung together four consecutive victories the talk was he had inherited the ability to “see the air.”
In Crimson Tide territory, Earnhardt Jr. also inherited most of his father’s legions of fans. For seven years, the stands of Talladega were a different shade of red — Budweiser red.
Over the last two seasons, the color scheme has changed but the fans have remained loyal — even during Junior’s slump. The track has changed with Talladega Superspeedway officials raising the frontstretch fence from 14 to 22 feet in response to Carl Edwards’ horrifying crash in the spring which held the car inside the track but spewed debris into the stands.
And last month NASCAR changed the size of the restrictor plate holes from 60/64ths of an inch in diameter to 59/64ths which will slow the cars by 12-15 horsepower.
Earnhardt feels depleting the horsepower of the engine also removes control of the race car from the driver’s hands. Earnhardt, who has earned eight top fives and 11 top-10 finishes in 19 starts, admits the air of confidence he once carried into Talladega isn’t the same.
Does he still feel he can smoke the field on Sunday?
“Not as much as I used to,” Earnhardt said. “We used to dominate that place. But when the plate gets smaller all the cars are basically the same. You just have to get lucky I guess.
“I did run second last time I was there but with less control over what you can do. The cars are easier to drive, but you have less to do with what’s happening around you when the car doesn’t respond when you mash the gas.”
Earnhardt Jr. supports raising the fences, but changing the size of the plates is not a decision that he advocates. The driver, who holds five wins at Talladega, insists “every time that plate gets smaller, it gets more dangerous.”
“I’d make the fences taller like they’re doing,” Earnhardt said. “I would double the fences up, make them stronger. You have to keep stuff out of there. But there has to be a way to race where the cars aren’t running on top of each other — three and four wide.
“When you’re running second, no matter what line you’re in, you’re boxed in. You can get runs on guys but you can’t go anywhere because you have cars all around you. You’re stuck there for laps and laps and laps. It just makes no sense that the racing is that way.”
As the plates have decreased, so has the racing. Drivers are less apt to go balls out for 500 miles knowing one slip could end their day. With the cars so bunched together, it’s not just one car that’s eliminated when a driver makes a mistake; there are usually five or six casualties.
In April’s Aaron’s 499 at Talladega there were 12 cars eliminated from the race not from mechanical failure, but from crashing out. That’s more than one-fourth of the field.
“That’s why in the middle of the race when we’re running at the top — and the whole field is single file — it’s ’cause we’re all kind of like, ‘OK, running three wide for 500 miles is getting no one nowhere,'” Earnhardt said.
“So then we just sort of get up at the top in a line and decide to wait there ’til the end. We just go like, ‘Let’s run until there’s 20 to go.’ That’s not a race. What the hell?”
While the new car has had its detractors, NASCAR has stood firm on not modifying the bodies despite an inability to turn in the corners. As speeds rose with the car, particularly at Daytona and Talladega, the sanctioning body relied solely on plates to slow the cars rather than aerodynamic alterations. Officials will look at different shock packages next week during the Goodyear tire test at Daytona to assist with the handling of the cars, but there’s been no public discussion of any changes that would alter the current templates.
“They need to take the plates and make them bigger and put a ton more of drag on the car — slow the cars down with drag and aero,” Earnhardt suggested. “They have that big, ridiculous wing on the back of the car that they can make the car a whole lot slower by changing that around and use the splitter on the front.
“Once they slow down the car aerodynamically, then they could open the motor back up so we can actually race around each other and pass each other and move around each other, draft away and work together with three or four cars in a row so you can have some involvement in what happens in your day.”