Earnhardt Jr. comfortable at Talladega

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, April 22, 2008

By Jenna Fryer
Associated Press
CHARLOTTE ó Itís been 70 long races ó almost two full years ó since Dale Earnhardt Jr. won a race that mattered.
Thatís very likely about to change.
As NASCARís biggest star quietly puts together a solid start to his first season at Hendrick Motorsports, he heads into a strong stretch of scheduling that has him in prime position to end his drought.
First up is Talladega Superspeedway, the place he dominated from 2001 through 2004. Earnhardt didnít finish lower than second in a span of seven consecutive races there, and that included five victories ó four straight.
But heís not won there since October 2004, the same day he vaulted to the top of the point standings only to lose his traction in the race for his first Cup title when, in his excitement following the victory, he uttered a profanity on live TV. It led to a 25-point penalty that knocked him out of the lead. He finished fifth in the standings that season.
It was also the last time Earnhardt was a legitimate player at Talladega. Heís had just one top-10 finish in the six races since, and that includes a pair of 40th-place finishes.
So as he heads back to Talladega this weekend, where heíll make his 300th career start on Sunday, Earnhardt could use his past mastery of the track to make a long-awaited return to Victory Lane.
iItís a fitting race track to have a 300th start,î he said. iI love going to Talladega strictly because of my fan base there ó there are so many people telling you all weekend good things to help you be pumped up. We try to run up front as much as possible at that track because the fans just go wild when I take the lead.
Itís amazing to see as a driver. I find myself being a little more pesky at that track as far as give-and-take because I want to lead as much as possible and get up there for my fans to get them on their feet.î
And should his win not come Sunday in front of that pro-Earnhardt crowd, heíll head back to the drawing board on May 3 at Richmond International Raceway. Itís not lost on anyone, especially Earnhardt, that Richmond is the site of his last victory ó way back on May 6, 2006.
The win that evening snapped a 27-race winless streak for Earnhardt, who didnít exactly run away with the race. In fact, he almost inherited the win when leader Kevin Harvick made a late-race tactical error in pit strategy that allowed Earnhardt to pass him with 45 laps to go and pull away for the win.
It didnít much matter to Earnhardt how he got to Victory Lane. What was important was that he was there.
A mortifying 2005 season that saw him shut out of the championship race had led many to wonder if Earnhardt wasnít just a wee bit overrated.
iIíll be the first to admit that we had a lot more exposure over the last five or six years given to us thatís sort of out of line compared to what weíve won and how weíve run,î he said after the Richmond victory. iIím obvious to that. Iím not an idiot. So itís good to get into Victory Lane every once in a while to back up the exposure and the hype.î
Problem is, he hasnít made it back since ó and the criticism only grew when he decided last May to leave his late fatherís race team. It sparked the most frenzied free agency in NASCAR history, with every top team jockeying to sign Earnhardt.
Was he worth it?
Rick Hendrick thought so, dumping the enormously talented Kyle Busch to make room for Earnhardt in his four-car fleet.
The early returns indicate Hendrick might have made a mistake: Busch scored his sixth win of the season spanning all three of NASCARís top series with a victory Sunday on the road course in Mexico City.
Earnhardt, meanwhile, has only a pair of wins that didnít count from two exhibition races at Daytona.
But a closer look at his overall body of work shows that Earnhardt is actually the best of the four Hendrick drivers this season. If he keeps it up, he could have a career year.
Through eight races this season, heís notched six top-10 finishes and is third in the standings. Throw out the debacle in California, when NASCAR started the race on a wet track and Earnhardt was one of a handful of drivers caught in a slippery early accident that caused him to finish 40th, and Junior might be leading the points right now.
That still might come, though, as Earnhardt has approached his new job at Hendrick as a second chance of sorts. The consummate party boy has taken on a much more serious approach to this season and is unwilling to wait to make a charge toward a first Cup title.
Heís acknowledged being a bit lackadaisical in years past, cruising through the early part of the season confident he and his old Dale Earnhardt Inc. team would turn it up with enough time to make the Chase field. But after being shut out of title contention in two of the four Chase years, Earnhardt learned itís much harder than he originally thought.
So heís taking nothing for granted right now, intent on locking down his spot in the 12-man field as soon as possible.
That focus builds confidence that often leads to victories, and he and his crew now head to Talladega confident their time is about to come.
iDale Jr.ís the man at Talladega,î crew chief Tony Eury Jr. said, iso we really hope to get it done there.î