NASCAR Racing Fan
SI.com's Mark Beech offers the most intriguing news, notes and analysis fans need to know heading into each week's race.
Sooner Or Later
There's little doubt that Dale Earnhardt Jr. is a good bet to win this Sunday at Talladega. Little E has, after all, won there five times before. Indeed, 'Dega was the sight of one of his last Cup victories, on Oct. 3, 2004. And that's just the trouble with picking him for Victory Lane this time-recent history is not on Junior's side. Besides the fact that he's got only one top-10 finish on the track since his win, picking anybody to win at Talladega, where every race seems to feature at least one accident that involves a third of the field, is tricky business. Let's just say if he does win, I won't be surprised. And if he doesn't, I won't be surprised, either.
Wishy-washy enough for you?
That said, I think it's a near certainty that Earnhardt is going to get back to his winning ways before this season is out. Though his winless streak has reached 70 races, nearly two full years, Junior and crew chief Tony Eury Jr. seem energized by their offseason move to Hendrick Motorsports. Through the season's first eight races, he has been the most consistent driver in one of NASCAR's most glamorous garages. He's third in the points standings, with three top-five and six top-10 finishes. Even more encouraging is the fact that he's been doing most of his driving up front, as evidenced by his 355 laps led (he led only 433 in 36 races last year).
If he doesn't win this weekend, there's a good chance he'll be able to do it at Richmond on May 3. That was the sight of his last Cup victory, in the spring of '06. He's come a long way since then, a long way on a crooked road. But that road might finally be straightening out for him.
Are We In For Some Paint-Tradin'?
Last year's October race at Talladega, which marked the debut of restrictor-plate racing with the Car of Tomorrow, was much maligned for being boring. But if you listen to Jimmie Johnson (see How To Drive, below), there's reason to believe that Sunday will be significantly different. Nobody was sure how the CoT (now the CoToday) was going to behave at Talladega, and so most drivers seemed to take it easy, playing it safe with their cars. But now that more about the CoToday is known-that is, how big a hole it punches in the air, as well as the fact that it seems to be quite durable-we may get to see some rubbin' and racin' this weekend. Let's hope. A 499-mile parade of the kind we saw at Texas earlier this month would be a major disappointment.
How to Drive
Jimmie Johnson talks about what he expects this weekend: "I think Talladega is going to be an exciting race. Being in the [Chase last fall], we held back and really tried to stay out of harms way. I think it led to a not-so-exciting race. I remember some criticism for it. I would expect this race to be completely out of control and wild. The points are always important, but without the Chase format, I think you will see a much more competitive race-a lot more guys taking risks and getting in the middle of things and racing four-wide. I am predicting a great race in Talladega. I think that the Car of Tomorrow and the new pavement that [they] have down give more opportunities to different cars and drivers in the closing laps. The track is racier now because of the whole package. With the Car of Tomorrow, there is enough room now where it's not like Daytona where you need to handle as much. So with the big hole that this car punches in the air, you can take advantage of that."
5: Number of wins at Talladega for Dale Earnhardt Jr.
1: Number of combined wins at Talladega for the other drivers in the top 12 of the point standings.
98.5: Driver rating for Jeff Gordon at Talladega, where he has a series-best six wins.
March 24, 1970: During a test run at six-month-old Alabama Superspeedway (now Talladega Superspeedway), Buddy Baker stamps the track as NASCAR's fastest by becoming the first driver to surpass 200 miles per hour in a stock car.