Commentary

Something about Talladega gets Junior's blood flowing

If Cup drivers need advice on how to attack Talladega Superspeedway, they ought to give Dale Earnhardt Jr. a call. Few have mastered Dega like Junior has, writes David Newton.

Updated: October 2, 2008, 5:09 PM ET
By David Newton | ESPN.com

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Need help in the stock market? Call a broker. Need help designing a new house? Call an architect. Need help getting around Talladega Superspeedway? Call Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Lots of drivers can get around the 2.66-mile track.

Few have mastered it as well as Earnhardt.

He won four Sprint Cup races in a row there from 2001-2003 and five of seven from 2001-2004. He's led laps in 15 of the 17 races entered, and of the two races he didn't lead laps, one ended with an engine failure and the other with a crash.

In the 12 races in which he hasn't had engine problems or crashed, his average finish is 5.25, with only two finishes outside the top 10 and none outside of the top 15.

If there's an authority on how to maneuver NASCAR's longest track it's the son of the seven-time champion by the same name, who was the expert with 10 Dega wins before his tragic death in 2001.

So without further ado, let's turn to our resident expert for advice on what it takes to win the race that scares more competitors than any in the 10-race Chase.

"Well, the most important thing is coming out of that last pit stop you need to be in the lead," Earnhardt said. "If not, you need to find yourself into the top two or three in that first lap after the restart.

"You're not going to pit for tires. You're not going to go to pit road any more the rest of the day. You normally see a little bit of a jumbling up in the first two or three laps after a restart, then guys kind of settle in and protect their position, especially the guys that are in the top five."

At that point, NASCAR's most popular driver says those in the top five will be content riding single file until the last lap or two for fear of getting shuffled too far back to win.

"It becomes nearly impossible to breach into that top five that late in the race," he said. "So you need to be there coming off of pit road for that final restart. That's one of the most important things."

[+] EnlargeDale Earnhardt Jr
AP Photo/Dave MartinDale Earnhardt Jr. ruled Talladega between 2001 and 2004, winning five times in seven starts.

The strategy to get into that position varies. Some will stay up front all day, in part to avoid being in the so-called "big one" and in part because that's where they're most comfortable. Others will lay back and seemingly come out of nowhere as Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson have done on occasion.

"You don't realize what you do leading up to that throughout the entire race makes that happen, determines whether you're going to be there or not," Earnhardt said. "Say I'm in the lead, running second, and say we get three-wide or something and I back out because it's too early in the race to take a risk like that.

"Well, that might have been that decision that cost me the opportunity to be toward the front of the pack when the race ends. It's hard not to get too protective of the situation. You've got to race really hard all day long, 'cause when it comes down to that last stop, man, it's so hard to breach into that top five once everybody gets going."

Once you're in the top five, the next big decision is when to make a move to the front, and that largely depends on who's behind you.

"Is the guy behind you a teammate of the guy in front of you?" Earnhardt asked. "If you pull out, he's going to go with the teammate. Is he a friend of yours that's been helping you all day? Has he either given you reason on the racetrack or through his spotter to let you know he's going to help you when you go? How good is the run? How fast is the run?

"If you're coming up on a guy, making a real strong run, yeah, you can pull out and probably get beside this guy, but where is the guy behind you? Is he tucked in behind you? Have you pulled away from him? If you pull out and you're by yourself, he just might close the gap, 'cause he knows if he pulls out to help you, the next guy's going to fill the slot on the inside of him."

In other words, it's somewhat of a crapshoot.

"It's pretty tough really to know this is the right moment, this is the time I need to go," Earnhardt said. "It's really hard to know exactly if it's correct or not. You just constantly put runs together, lap after lap after lap, and eventually one's gonna feel right to you.

"If you've got some trusty guys behind you, and they're tucked up on you hard when you're making that run, man, it's a good opportunity to pull out."

Much of this really is like pulling the winning number in the lottery. Simulating race conditions in practice is nearly impossible.

"The only thing I'm paying attention to [in practice] ... the only thing I'm watching is how well does my car pull up, how well does it push other people, and how well does it do out front getting pushed," Earnhardt said. "You change the air intake, a lot of things to make the cars surge better, pull up on people, draft up on people, push people.

There's literally no room for any error whatsoever. It's just really, really exciting. It's an amazing adrenaline rush for four straight hours.

-- Dale Earnhardt Jr.

"You change things to make it lead better. That's all that matters."

Planning a "slide" move a half-lap or lap ahead -- as Carl Edwards attempted to do last week at Kansas -- is nearly impossible at Talladega.

"A lot of times it's split second, here we go," Earnhardt said.

Maybe that's why so many drivers fear this place. It's a mental grind, one that requires nerves of steel driving 200 mph in packs of 15 to 25 or more.

"It's not really who has the best car," Earnhardt said. "It's the guy who makes the best moves and makes the right decisions there at the end of the race."

Earnhardt loves this place just as his dad did. He wouldn't care if he were in first place, in eighth place -- as he is now, 190 points behind Johnson -- or not in the Chase at all, this is a race he'd want to win.

This is where Junior Nation is the strongest, where the 33-year-old driver is as comfortable in a pickup on the so-called "Redneck Riviera" that leads to the track as he is in a stock car on the track.

He relishes the challenges, the uncertainty that comes at seemingly every turn, the fun of figuring out bump drafting and side drafting. At times he believes, just as his dad did, that he can see the air.

He's already lobbying the governing body to allow cars to push each other around the track, reminding it can be done safely because the nose and fenders of the new car match up so well.

You'd never hear him utter the words "I'm not looking forward to Talladega" as Johnson did after Sunday's win at Kansas.

"It really created the 'big one' before Daytona did, the big wrecks that you guys like to talk about," said Earnhardt, passion dripping from his voice like a hungry man at a buffet. "It's sort of always been in the shadow of Daytona.

"But to me, I don't know, it's just impressive, the size of the track, the speed, how close we run together. I mean, we're running 190 miles an hour in the draft, tight door-to-door, bumper-to-bumper. There's literally no room for any error whatsoever. It's just really, really exciting. It's an amazing adrenaline rush for four straight hours."

Need more proof? Call Earnhardt.

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.

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ESPN Carolina Panthers reporter