TALLADEGA, Ala. -- Chase or no Chase, Dale Earnhardt Jr.
still might be the guy to watch at Talladega Superspeedway.
To the regret of his millions of fans, Junior failed to make it
into the 10-man, 10-race NASCAR playoff, but that won't slow him
down in Sunday's UAW-Ford 500 at the big Alabama track that he
virtually has owned since the spring of 2001.
The late Dale Earnhardt was the all-time master of the
2.66-mile, high-banked Talladega oval, winning 10 times. His son
has carried on the family tradition, winning five times -- all since
his father's death in the 2001 Daytona 500.
Since finishing eighth at Talladega later that spring, Junior
has finished first or second in seven of eight races here,
including a victory last October. The only slip came in May of this
year when Earnhardt got caught up in a six-car crash one lap from
the scheduled end of the race and wound up 15th.
Jeff Gordon, who has been Earnhardt's major competition here,
went on to win that race, his third victory in the last four
At the end of that race, in which he led only three laps,
Earnhardt shrugged off the disappointing finish, saying, "It's
good, but it ain't the best. We used to have the best."
At least part of the reason for his struggles this season were
an ill-advised offseason swap with Dale Earnhardt Inc. teammate
Michael Waltrip, with the two virtually switching teams -- including
cars and crew.
Since then, Earnhardt has reunited with cousin Tony Eury Jr.,
now his crew chief, and taken back some of the cars that originally
were built for him. That has made him a threat again, especially at
"Talladega is a special place to me, always has been, always
will be," Earnhardt said. "I love racing here. I love winning
"Tony Jr. has had Talladega marked on his calendar for a while,
and he's been putting in overtime to get this car ready. I feel we
need to redeem ourselves after our last race. The wreck was a bad
deal, but we weren't that good to begin with. This is the same car
we raced in May, and we've done a lot of work on it to make it
One of the things that sets Junior apart at Talladega, where
NASCAR uses horsepower-sapping carburetor restrictor plates to slow
the cars, is his expert use of an art called bump drafting --
thumping the rear of the car in front of you to propel both cars
"I love doing it, but today's bump-drafting ain't like it used
to be," Earnhardt said. "It ain't your daddy's bump-drafting. You
used to give a bump here, give a bump there, and push the guy in
front of you past another car.
"Now, it's more like slam-drafting. At Talladega we hit each
other hard. It feels like being hit by a sledgehammer. This car had
to have a whole new rear clip put on it because it was so banged up
from the last plate race. Some guys don't like it, but I think it's
fun. If you do it right, it can be a big advantage, but if you
don't, it isn't pretty."
Wheeling and dealing
When Bobby Hamilton Jr. failed to qualify for
Sunday's race, it set in motion a series of deals.
Cal Wells III, who owns Hamilton's Tide-sponsored No. 32 PPI
Motorsports Chevrolet, made a deal to move the driver, the sponsor
and the car number to the No. 00 Chevy, owned by Michael Waltrip
and qualified Friday by former Nextel Cup regular Mike Skinner.
Skinner and his Aaron's Rents sponsorship will move to Hermie
Sadler's No. 34 for the race and Sadler, with some extra cash in
his pocket, will sit out the race.
With the driver changes, both cars will have to start from the
rear of the 43-car field, along with Joe Nemechek, who qualified
fifth but had to change the engine in his No. 01 Chevrolet.
Fans spotting a race car Saturday at Talladega with
a silly date-wanted ad emblazoned on the back probably wondered
what was going on.
Turns out, the car is being used in the shooting of a
NASCAR-themed movie, starring Saturday Night Live alum Will
Ferrell. Several scenes were filmed before the Food World 300 ARCA
race and more filing was scheduled Sunday.
Over the past six Nextel Cup races, Chevrolet, Ford
and Dodge have each won twice. The race record of 188.354 mph
at Talladega was set by Mark Martin in May 1997. Nine of the
last 13 Talladega races have been won by drivers starting 11th or
worse. Jeff Gordon won from 36th in April 2000, the farthest
back a winner has started. Eight of the last 13 races here have
been won by an Earnhardt.