Favorites this week aren't named Roush
You never need to give Dale Earnhardt Inc. any extra confidence heading into a restrictor-plate race. Still, there it is in the finishing order from Saturday night's Nextel Cup race in Phoenix: Michael Waltrip, second; Dale Earnhardt Jr., fourth.
For the DEI teammates who have long been successful at superspeedway tracks such as this weekend's venue, Talladega Superspeedway, the top-five finishes come on the heels of a solid showing at Texas Motor Speedway which broke the two out of a funk.
Both are threatening to crack the top 10 now and head to Talladega without being saddled with the 'top restrictor-plate team' tag. That title must now at least be shared with the Hendrick Motorsports duo of Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson.
Particularly because both Junior and Waltrip love it when the pressure is off, sharing next weekend's spotlight with the Hendrick boys is a welcome change.
"It's a great way to set up next weekend," Junior said.
For that same reason, though, both Gordon and Johnson can't wait to get back into their cars and continue to assert their prowess at superspeedways. The fact that they're coming off subpar performances in Phoenix only drives the team harder.
"You just want to get right back out there," Johnson said of his emotions after a disappointing run.
It's hard to say which of these two organizations has the most momentum going into Talladega, but it's easy to say that both are likely to put on a heck of a show.
Junior says his team's turnaround is a product of tireless effort, and he's hoping that it continues to pay off this weekend.
"It's working, you know," he said. "I just can't believe how hard of work it is. Things have become a lot easier, but man, we're all working really, really hard. There ain't nobody in that shop that ain't putting forth the hardest effort. It's amazing."
Waltrip said he's licking his chops mainly because he still has the taste of defeat from Daytona lingering.
"I thought I was going to win the Daytona 500," Waltrip said. "I mean, I can't explain to you how good my car was. I decided that I didn't see any of Dale Jr. that race and I was going to glue myself to Tony Stewart and we just became partners and we ran 1-2 the whole race. Our car was perfect and I was going to have fun at the end.
"So, we'll go to Talladega and see what happens. Restrictor-plate races -- it's harder to win those than people think. I think people have said, 'Well, Michael won it, so anybody must be able to.' They're really hard to win, so you can't really predict what will happen there."
These days, though, you can at least predict a strong run by Gordon. And with Johnson having learned the finer points of the craft pretty well, he makes for a perfect drafting partner and provides Hendrick with that second car to rival DEI's duo.
"We've put a lot of effort in our restrictor-plate program," Gordon said. "I think these last few races we've shown that [Hendrick] is every bit as good at restrictor-plate racing [as DEI] and so we're going there thinking we can win."
Rupen Fofaria is a freelance writer living in Chicago and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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