Junior could salvage season with 'Dega win
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 Talladega events.
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.
"Talladega is a special place to me, always has been, always will be," Earnhardt said. "I love racing here. I love winning here.
"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 better."
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 faster.
"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.
Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press
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