Earnhardt eyes return to Talladega glory days

Reid Spencer - NASCAR Wire Service Friday, May 01 1345
For a period of time, the words “Dale Earnhardt Jr.,” “Talladega Superspeedway” and “Victory Lane” were synonymous.

The No. 88 Chevrolet driver set the record for most consecutive wins at the 2.66-mile track with four from Oct. 21, 2001 to April 6, 2003. He took a two-race sojourn from Victory Lane with runner-ups in both events until he won his fifth and latest Talladega race on Oct. 3, 2004.

That period of time was more than a decade ago - 10 years and seven months from Sunday’s GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway (1 p.m. ET on FOX) to be exact.

Over his 20-race winless drought at the behemoth track, Earnhardt owns a 19.7 average finish and has placed second twice (spring 2009 and fall 2013). In comparison, his average finish when he won five of seven races at Talladega was 1.3. Still, he ranks third in all-time Talladega wins, behind only his father Dale Earnhardt (10) and Jeff Gordon (6).  Earnhardt also claims the series-best average running position (14.5), the second-best driver rating (90.7) and the third-most quality passes (4,478) among active drivers there. And, he’s led laps in 27 of his 30 Talladega starts.

Earnhardt recently discussed the key to running well at Talladega. The Hendrick Motorsports driver prefers navigating the track up front throughout the race rather than sitting in the back of the field to avoid “The Big One” – Talladega’s trademark wreck involving numerous cars.  

“The guy that’s leading the race really is the guy controlling everything,” he said. “He can block and he can do whatever he needs to do as far as getting in front of the line that’s coming to be able to get the push to maintain his speed. He can do so much more than everyone else in the field. And that’s just the best place to be.”

Since Earnhardt’s last win at Talladega, Brad Keselowski and Gordon boast the most victories there with three. Keselowski took the checkered flag there in a win-or-go-home situation in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Contender 12 Round cutoff race last fall and is one of the favorites, if not the favorite, to win on Sunday. Other candidates to reach Victory Lane include defending spring winner Denny Hamlin, Daytona 500 champion Joey Logano, restrictor-plate ace Jamie McMurray and 2013 spring victor David Ragan.

“The Team Penske superspeedway program has historically been strong and Joey (Logano) won Daytona earlier this year so we are definitely well positioned going into this race,” Keselowski said. “I certainly appreciate the challenges that Talladega brings. It is nice having a win already but we’d like to get another one this weekend.”