Chase wild card? It's gotta be Dega
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Four laps remained, and Dale Earnhardt was buried in 18th place. Barring a miracle, his bid to win for the 10th time at Talladega Superspeedway was over.
Then it happened, one of the most spectacular moments -- maybe the most spectacular moment -- in NASCAR history.
Earnhardt got into the high lane and hooked up with several cars to form a zigzagging freight train to the front. The "Intimidator" passed Jeff Gordon, Joe Nemechek, Matt Kenseth and Ward Burton. When he got into Turn 3, Kenny Wallace slid behind the black No. 3 and joined the charge.
When the dust finally settled, Talladega's favorite son was holding the first-place trophy for what turned out to be the final time in his career.
Eighteenth to first in four laps.
It's as incredible to watch the replay today as it was to watch it live that day.
"He absolutely amazed me to this day that he did what he did," recalled Gordon, who finished fourth in that Winston 500 on Oct. 15, 2000.
That was 10 years ago. If Earnhardt were alive, could he repeat that feat as the series returns to Talladega on Sunday? Gordon believes he could find a way. Anybody else who saw Earnhardt master a restrictor-plate track believes he could, as well.
But he couldn't do it like he did that day.
The racing is different. Just ask his son Dale Earnhardt Jr. He used to maneuver the high banks of the 2.66-mile facility better than anyone else in the sport, winning four straight from the second race of 2001 through the first of 2003 and five in a seven-race stretch. He was second in the other two.
Now Earnhardt Jr. is just another driver in the show.
"Cars are all the same," Junior said this past weekend at Martinsville. "Everybody has the same s--- now."
This sounded way too simple. So the hypothesis was taken to Gordon, whose six Talladega wins rank first among active drivers, and Jamie McMurray, arguably the new king of restrictor-plate racing with two wins and a second in the past four events at Talladega and Daytona.
Both agreed the new car has leveled the playing field at Talladega, making it easier for more drivers than ever to find their way into Victory Lane. That might explain why there have been six different winners since the COT debuted at the Alabama track in October 2007.
Both also agreed that now, more than ever, luck probably plays more of a role in winning and that the wild-card factor adds greater stress, particularly if you're in the Chase.
"The car is different," said Gordon, who won the first Talladega COT race, then finished 19th, 38th, 37th, 20th and 22nd in the past five. "It just changes how you go about it -- getting yourself in position and drafting is so much different.
"With the old car, you really could put yourself in a position to win that race and work through it and think about it and plan it and know what your car is going to do. Nowadays, you just look for the revolving door; you just try to figure out who is going to get through it at the right time."
Nowadays, with the way the front and back bumpers of the cars match up, you can bump-draft your way completely around the track even though NASCAR sometimes frowns on it. Nowadays, there are two-car breakaways that were nearly impossible with the old cars.
It hasn't ruined racing at Talladega. It has just changed it, particularly for a driver like Earnhardt Jr.
"If you get two guys that get themselves into position and know how to do that well that's about the only skill set that has really set in over the last few races at Talladega," Gordon said. "It seems like we work on that more and more now in practice and more guys are able to figure it out.
"I don't think Junior has lost anything at the restrictor-plate tracks. I just think the style of racing is different."
In the early 2000s, the combination of Dale Earnhardt Inc. engine power and Earnhardt Jr.'s ability to see air in the draft, as his father did, was nearly unbeatable. No matter where he was in the field, NASCAR's most popular driver was considered a threat to win.
"When Dale Jr. won all those races, it also was the same time Michael Waltrip [also with DEI] was running well," said McMurray, who will honor Earnhardt Sr. this weekend by carrying the gold Bass Pro Shop paint scheme the Talladega favorite used in the 1998 All-Star Race. "I don't think there was any secret they had the best cars.
"DEI put a lot of focus on that and won a lot of races. The cars are a lot more even now than they used to be."
Gordon will argue that there isn't a lot of skill to plate racing today, saying it's easier to pass but harder to stay ahead long enough to win. That would go along with his theory of why Earnhardt Jr. hasn't been as successful with the new car.
"Under the old format or cars, you could plan it out lap after lap and you could use the car behind you, use the air in front of you, and all those things that Dale was so good at," Gordon explained. "To me, it is easier to pass today but harder to win.
"I don't know if that makes sense. But because it's so easy to pass, the shuffling goes around and around and around. It's really hard to put yourself in that position you need to be at to get that win."
McMurray will argue just the opposite, saying drivers have become so skilled at bump-drafting and blocking that it's harder than ever to win.
"Drivers are so much sharper now and so much better at playing defense and using mirrors to block," said the defending champion of this race.
Whoever is right, Earnhardt Jr. hasn't gotten the knack of it. His average finish has gone from 12.6 in the old car to 15.6 in the new car.
"Nobody is way better or really slow," said Junior, coming off a seventh-place finish at Martinsville in which he led a season-best 90 laps. "You've got to all get bumper-to-bumper and push each other around; that's a little trick that has come up. It's a whole different way of racing now. I've got to try to make that work."
Gordon feels the same way. His average Talladega finish in the new car is 22.8, compared with 15.3 in the old car. He has five straight finishes of 19th or worse after having only five finishes of 19th or worse in the previous 16 races in the old car.
Even McMurray's numbers were better in the old car, 15.9 compared with 21.8, but he still prefers the new car.
"The new cars suck up way better than the old cars did," he said. "NASCAR accomplished what they wanted letting us have more drag in the car. It's easier to pass with this car."
Old car or new, Talladega remains the biggest wild-card race on the circuit. That's why four-time defending Cup champion and points leader Jimmie Johnson, who has finished 30th and 31st in two of the past three Talladega races, has been talking anxiously about it since the Chase began.
It's why second-place Denny Hamlin, who has six finishes of 21st or worst in nine Talladega races, said he plans to stay behind Johnson as long as he can so that if one gets in the inevitable "big one," both likely will.
McMurray understands. He stresses over this race more the week before the race than any other.
That much hasn't changed between the new and old car.
"If I was racing for a championship, I would run in the back for the first half of the race without a doubt in my mind," said McMurray, who has used that strategy lately but plans to stay up front more Sunday. "To be able to be a plate racer, you have to not be selfish and content running second and just let the cars play out the last lap.
"You can't always be the guy who gets pushed to the front. The guys that are really good at plate racing are willing to shove somebody else through there and let the race come out however it comes out."
Earnhardt Jr. hasn't figured that out quite yet. He looks forward to going to Martinsville as much or maybe more these days than he does Talladega.
"I feel like, when I go to Talladega, I always have a shot to win," he said. "[But] the racing is different these days. Racin' is different, and I have to learn how to get it done."
Wonder whether his father would be on the same learning curve?
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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