Everyone chasing DEI's program

Updated: April 25, 2004, 8:24 PM ET
By Rupen Fofaria | Special to ESPN.com

Looking for the secret to Dale Earnhardt Inc.'s success at superspeedways? The other Nextel Cup Series teams have found it. And it turns out there was no vaulted formula.

"I think everybody wants to see what they've got," Dodge driver Sterling Marlin said. "They put a lot of emphasis on speedway stuff. I hear they've got four guys that don't do nothing but work on motors. No other team has that that I know of. They spend a lot of time in the wind tunnel. Their cars run good and drive really good. They've got two good drivers in them, so they've got the whole combination covered."

Plain and simple.

Just about every team in the Cup Series has a talented and capable driver behind the wheel. What DEI has had that no other team can claim is years of dedicated personnel and time spent focusing on superspeedway racing.

As much as the late Dale Earnhardt hated restrictor plate racing, he was the master at it -- and the mark he's left on his team is indelible. It's a superspeedway powerhouse; and that is so because Earnhardt was committed to that being the case, and dedicated whatever it took to make that goal come true.

"We want to be the best at the superspeedways," Dale Earnhardt Jr. said. "We spend a lot of resources focusing on it."

And it's paid off. DEI teammates Junior and Michael Waltrip had won 10 of 13 superspeedway events heading into Sunday's Aaron's 499, won by Jeff Gordon. Earnhardt Jr. finished second.

"I have a lot of confidence (when I come to the superspeedways)," Waltrip said. "Not only do I know how to win, but I also know I'll have a car capable of doing so. When you go to a racetrack, that's a reassuring feeling. It makes you appreciate all the hard work that the crew does and all the resources that DEI has for us to build those types of race cars."

But the competition is closing in. Richard Childress Racing, Hendrick Motorsports, Roush Racing and others have significantly stepped up their plate programs to catch up. And the investments they made over the last couple of years are beginning to pay off.

The question that remains is whether DEI got such a big headstart that it's too late to catch up.

"DEI has hit on something in their restrictor-plate program and we're all playing catch up," Gordon said before Sunday's win. "But I have a lot of confidence in Hendrick Motorsports and we are continually making strides to improve our plate program as well."

"I think our restrictor plate program has come a long way since even last year and we kind of showed that at Daytona during Speedweeks earlier this year," Roush Racing and Ford driver Matt Kenseth said.

With that said, no matter how many resources a team throws at bolstering a superspeedway program, the stars have to align to produce a victory. Teams headed to Talladega hoping to beat DEI and holding a list of things they hope go right.

"You're up against the usual suspects when you're running at Talladega, and the DEI cars are always (the ones) to beat," Dodge driver Jeremy Mayfield said. "It takes a lot of things to add up to a good day there.

"If you don't have a good car and good equipment then you're in for a long, boring ride. But even if you've got the best car on the track you've got to be able to put yourself in the right position at the right time to keep your fenders on and finish strong. Everyone knows you can go from last to first or the other way around in no time."

How do you come up with the best car?

Some, such as Kevin Harvick's crew chief, say it's horsepower you need.

"Talladega is all about pure speed," Todd Berrier said. "You don't have to worry about the handling much at all, just stick on the body you got. It's more about the horsepower. That will make the biggest difference."

Some, such as Talladega pole-sitter Ricky Rudd, say the opposite.

"Believe it or not, all the teams are probably within five horsepower of one another on the motor," Rudd said. "When the smoke clears and it's time to go run, you're talking about maybe five horsepower separating the whole field. So, the big gains are made in the body. That's the probably the biggest thing that everybody works on the hardest is the body."

Though drivers may debate horsepower vs. body, everyone agrees those two aren't all that's needed. A driver needs to get past "The Big One." And a driver's got to be able to feel and use the draft.

"I know people have heard me say this before but I learned that by paying attention to a guy that I considered the best at using the draft and that was Dale Earnhardt," Ford driver Dale Jarrett said. "He was really able to figure the draft out before anyone else would and if you just paid attention to what Dale was doing, then you could learn a lot in a short period of time.

"Dale Jr. is a lot like his dad in that respect, because he is one of the guys that I would consider to know what to look for and to do in the draft."

Rupen Fofaria is a freelance writer living in Chicago and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at rfofaria@espnspecial.com.

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