- Mark Ashenfelter, NASCAR
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Dale Earnhardt Jr. long will remember this weekend no matter what happens in the Aaron's 499 at Talladega Superspeedway. That was assured before his team ever reached the track.
On Tuesday, it was announced that Earnhardt Jr. and Dale Earnhardt Inc. teammates Martin Truex Jr. and Paul Menard would be running special paint schemes for the weekend. And not just any special paint schemes, mind you.
No, all three of their Chevrolet Monte Carlo SS's will bear uncanny resemblance to the No. 3 Chevrolet of the man whose name is on the company. All three cars will be painted black with a silver strip at the bottom and the car's number in white.
Considering the elder Earnhardt was inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame -- which is on the grounds of Talladega Superspeedway -- on Thursday, and Earnhardt would have turned 55 on Saturday, it was a fitting tribute to the man who lost his life on the final lap of the Daytona 500 in 2001.
Especially since Talladega was one of The Intimidator's best tracks, a place where he won 10 times. A place where his son has won five times.
"I think the car looks good, and I think it's a cool way to honor my dad," Earnhardt Jr. said. "It's going to be a lot of fun to be behind the wheel of that car, and sort of see the reaction that it gets from the other drivers on the racetrack. Hopefully, I can get a little more help on draft than we've been getting in the last couple of races on the [restrictor] plate tracks. It's going to be neat. I think the fans will enjoy it."
Considering Earnhardt Jr. might have more fans at Talladega than anywhere else, it's a safe bet the fans will be appreciative. What they'd really appreciate is Earnhardt Jr. spending the day at the front of the field as he has done in years past at Daytona and Talladega, the sport's two longest tracks.
DEI in general, and Earnhardt Jr. in particular, dominated the two restrictor-plate tracks for several years. Now, though, Hendrick Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing have clearly caught up or pulled ahead of DEI.
There arguably would be no better weekend for Earnhardt Jr. to be back at the front than when he's carrying his father's paint scheme. And if his car's that good, he'll once again have people lining up to help him draft -- if he even needs such assistance, that is.
"Over the last four [Talladega] races, we've obviously not had the dominance that we've had in the past, not since '01 to '04, [when] we were pretty strong," Junior said. "In the last several races, we have not been that good. I always tell guys that have trouble finding drafting partners, a lot of the rookies especially, that if they have got a good car, they need to go out and practice and show it. You have to be respectful and not do anything ridiculous, especially if you're a rookie, but you need to go out there and show everybody how strong your car is because that's when people decide who they are looking for [to draft with] on Sunday.
"If I can go out there and take the lead and pass a lot of cars and just draft by people effortlessly, I'm probably going to see a lot of help on Sunday. And if my car is not that strong, I can just try to pull out on the racetrack, waiting on the draft to come by, and practice and just try to get in the lead and hold it and maybe fool everybody into thinking I've got a really good car. Those are some of the tricks and the things that you've got to be thinking about when you're practicing to try to get yourself as much help as you can on Sunday."
Winless since Chicago in July, Earnhardt Jr. nevertheless sits seventh in points. There's a long way to go yet before the field is set for the Chase for the Nextel Cup, but at least he seemingly is showing signs of improvement that were missing a year ago.
Thinking about how long it has been since he last visited Victory Lane hasn't been a priority for Earnhardt Jr., who has won at least once a season since joining NASCAR's top series in 2000. With the exception of a six-win season in '04, he never has won more than three times in a year.
That's why winning just once last year wasn't all that shocking to him.
"It wasn't like I got used to winning on a regular pace there. I haven't really thought about it being that long since I won," he said. "But I know that I wanted -- coming into the season -- I wanted to get into Victory Lane as fast as I could and sort of get that little speed bump behind us and get over that fence to where we can start trying to click off some more [wins] and get that confidence.
"It's all about the confidence, you know. You've got to get all that confidence built up, and once you get a full tank of confidence, man, you're hard to stop and it's hard to beat you. If we can get us a win early, we can go into the rest of the season with a little bit more confidence to those Poconos and the Sonomas and those Michigans and those places where I haven't had a whole lot of success in the past. That's what we're going to need to go in there with, a lot of confidence, to be able to try to do better."
Happy to be reunited with crew chief and cousin Tony Eury Jr., Earnhardt Jr. said he believes things are heading in the right direction with his team. Still, he knows there's a long way to go.
"Right now, I feel like we're one rung low on the ladder as far as [being a] championship contender goes," Earnhardt Jr. said. "We're right there. We've just got to get a little better footing. But I feel like we're right there. I made a real bad mistake getting into Kyle [Petty, leading to a wreck at Phoenix and a 23rd-place finish]. We didn't have a good car. We were going to have a good enough car to finish somewhere around the top 10, and that would have been a great salvage compared to where it did end up.
"So, as a driver, that costs us a lot of points right there and cost Kyle a body on his race car. When you go there and expect to win, expect to run the top 5, and it's not happening, you sort of have to take what you can get, and that's what I didn't do. I sort of pressed the issue and put myself in a compromising position and wrecked Kyle and myself and a couple other people. So, I just made myself look foolish.
"I've got to use my head and take what I can get in those situations. I think the cars and the team and everything is there for me; when I'm ready to mash the gas, it's all there. I don't know, winning races is going to be -- always is going to be -- a challenge, especially as the competition level in this sport sort of increases across the board."
At Talladega, Earnhardt Jr. often has been better than most of the competition. If that happens again, it'll cap a weekend that was destined to be memorable before he even reached the track.
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at NASCAR Scene magazine, which has a Web site at www.scenedaily.com