Junior's triple-digit drought could reach its end at Talladega
Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s 100-race winless streak is the longest of his Cup career
Junior is favored to win at 'Dega given his string of strong performances
If he finds the right drafting partner, Trevor Bayne could be a contender at 'Dega
The streak is up to 100 now, stretching back to a steamy June day in 2008 in the Irish Hills of Michigan. Dale Earnhardt Jr. has come close to winning since that afternoon, finishing second in four different races, but his inability to close the deal has left him with the longest winless drought of his 12-year Cup career.
So why am I picking him to take the checkered flag on Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway, NASCAR's biggest track? Simple: Because right now he's performing like he did in 2004, when he won six races and finished fifth in the standings. "You can see Dale's confidence coming back," Rick Hendrick, the owner of Hendrick Motorsports, told me earlier this season. "He lost it there for a little bit, and when that happens you question everything you do at the track. But now he's working as hard as I've ever seen him. And I think he's going to have a big year."
It's certainly looking that way. Earnhardt has finished 12th or better in every race in 2011, except the season-opener at Daytona. After seven events, he's sixth in the standings and his average finish is 10.9, which would be the highest of his career if the season were to end today.
So what has triggered this mini-renaissance? The genesis can be traced to the offseason when Hendrick shook up his organization, assigning three of his four drivers to new teams. Earnhardt, who had been with crew chief Lance McGrew, moved to Jeff Gordon's old team and his crew chief Steve Letarte. Energetic and eternally upbeat, Letarte has proved to be the precise kind of crew chief Earnhardt needs.
One of Earnhardt's biggest weaknesses in recent years is that when he's struggled with the handling of his No. 88 Chevy he becomes frustrated and quiet over the radio, failing to communicate what he's sensing behind the wheel. This, to me, is the main reason Earnhardt often faded through the field late in races.
Letarte simply won't let Earnhardt stop communicating. Letarte is as talkative as anyone in the sport, and he constantly challenges Earnhardt to tell him precisely what he's thinking, feeling, sensing. Not surprisingly, Earnhardt has been as fast at the end of races this season as he has at the beginning.
Expect this trend to continue on Sunday at the 2.66-mile tri-oval. Earnhardt has won more at Talladega (five times) than at any other track on the circuit. He remains one of the best restrictor-plate racers in the sport, which will make him an attractive drafting partner to other drivers on Sunday. The two-car drafting technique like we saw at Daytona in February again will be used by the drivers at 'Dega, and I'm guessing that Earnhardt will team with Tony Stewart late in the race to charge to the front. Then, at just after 4 p.m. CT in central Alabama, the most famous winless streak in NASCAR will come to an end.
Here are four other drivers I'll be watching when the green flag flies:
1. Tony Stewart
Though his results don't show it, Stewart has been as consistently fast this season as anyone in NASCAR outside of Carl Edwards, who sits atop the point standings. Stewart has led laps in four of the seven races and could easily be sitting on three wins right now (Daytona, Phoenix and Las Vegas) with a little luck. But as it stands, he's yet to reach Victory Lane in 2011 and is 10th in points.
Like Earnhardt, Stewart is widely regarded as one of the top plate racers in NASCAR. He only has one career win at Talladega, but given the way he's been running this season, that total could very well double on Sunday.
2. Carl Edwards
It's starting to look like this could be a dream season for Edwards. He already has four top-5 finishes and has won two poles. Without question, week in and week out, he has emerged as the driver to beat in 2011.
In February Edwards came in second at Daytona, the other restrictor-plate track on the schedule. At Daytona, Edwards chose to sit back in the rear of the field for most of the race, deftly avoiding the wrecks that took place in front of him. Then, as the laps wound down, he wove his way through the field. Expect him to employ this same strategy on Sunday.
3. Kurt Busch
As I wrote in the magazine after the Daytona 500, Busch is the driver who essentially invented the two-car drafting concept during a test session at Talladega in 2007. This has radically changed the style of racing at Daytona and Talladega, and it won't be going away anytime soon.
Busch was the driver to beat for most of Speedweeks at Daytona. He won the Bud Shootout and won his qualifying race before finishing 18th in the Great American Race. If he can avoid the Big One on Sunday, he should be in contention late.
4. Trevor Bayne
Remember Trevor Bayne? Two months ago, on the day after his 20th birthday, he became the youngest driver in history to win the Daytona 500. Since then, though, life on the Sprint Cup circuit has been rough on the rookie driver. He hasn't led another lap and has yet to finish in the top-15.
Still, if Bayne is going to contend for another victory this season, it will happen at a restrictor-plate track. These venues tend to level the playing field between the have- and have-not teams in NASCAR. Driving for the underfunded Wood Brothers, Bayne can't run nose-to-nose with the drivers from the heavyweight teams like Hendrick Motorsports, Roush Fenway Racing and Joe Gibbs Racing. But if he gets hooked up with the right drafting partner late at Talladega, he could surprise again.
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