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Motorsports

Earnhardt at ease at Talladega

Dale Earnhardt Jr. finds success at superspeedway because of DEI's dedication to restrictor-plate racing.

By BRANT JAMES
Published September 28, 2003

TALLADEGA, Ala. - Dale Earnhardt Jr. grew accustomed to the mounting weight of expectation in the first few seasons of his NASCAR career. Blame that on a famous name.

Those expectations have increased. Blame that on success.

But in a season filled with uncharacteristically bad luck, including a crash last weekend at Dover that left him with a sprained foot and a mild concussion, Earnhardt said it may be time to pull back.

"I'm just trying to concentrate on the rest of the year," he said, staring vacuously from under the bent brim of his baseball cap. "This is the toughest part of the season, and I just want to concentrate on what I'm doing at the racetrack.

"Sometimes I feel there is just a little too much Dale Jr. out there, and you don't want to sell the story too much. I used to get excited when I saw my name in the paper, and the last two years I've just read the same story over and over."

There's one story line he doesn't mind, the one about Dale Earnhardt Inc. continuing his late father's legacy by dominating at the Daytona and Talladega superspeedways.

With a victory today in the EA Sports 500 at Talladega, Earnhardt can become the first NASCAR driver to win five straight races at the same superspeedway.

Oddly, Earnhardt said the pressure at Talladega finally is off.

"I feel real confident coming in we can get five in a row," he said. "The four in a row was the hardest, trying to break (Buddy Baker's) record. I didn't think we would get that."

That's surprising considering DEI's commitment to and success in restrictor-plate racing. It goes beyond technical expertise into a living memorial to Earnhardt's father, who died on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.

"I think Dale kind of left his footprint there," said Michael Waltrip, who drove DEI's No.15 Chevrolet to victory in that race. "He made people who worked there understand that you had to have the car and best engine to be successful at these places and to be prepared to be that way.

"I think everybody understood that, and we're carrying it on in his honor and because of the plans he had laid out for us."

They must have been well-laid plans. Seven of the past nine Winston Cup races at Talladega have been won by an Earnhardt. Junior's four have come in seven tries, and the record belongs to Senior with 10. DEI has combined to win eight of the 11 restrictor-plate races dating to February 2001.

It starts with the engine parts. Richie Gilmore came to DEI from Hendrick Motorsports in 1998 but got his first Daytona 500 win in 1990 as an engine tuner for Derrike Cope. On his team of 60, eight work exclusively on restrictor-plate packages - three on motors, four on fabrication and one on gears. It's allowed DEI to use tweaked engine packages at every restrictor-plate race since 2001.

"It seems to really pay off," Gilmore said. "It seems every time you go a plate race they change the rules, so if you have guys working just on the plate stuff you can really adapt faster."

It's been worth it.

"Over the last two years, with the car I've gotten, I've been a lot less likely to help people because if I want my car to go to the front, I can go to the front," Earnhardt said.

Success is self-perpetuating. In May, Waltrip's team began building a car to defend its Daytona 500 victory and was asked to participate in a Goodyear tire test at the track in early September. With the test not counting toward the five allowed per year at NASCAR tracks, Waltrip used the modified restrictor plate and spoiler NASCAR mandated for Talladega and banked information on the new tires Goodyear will issue for the Daytona 500.

"We take our restrictor-plate racing pretty seriously," said Slugger Labbe, Waltrip's crew chief.

So serious and successful is DEI, cynics would say, that it must be getting away with something. Earnhardt made a pass below the out-of-bounds line in the Talladega spring race but was cleared of wrongdoing and won. His No.8 Chevrolet and Jason Keller's No.1 DEI entry had qualifying times disallowed Friday because of illegally low quarter-panels, prompting Earnhardt crew chief Tony Eury Sr. to say, "This is restrictor-plate racing, and you have to get everything you can get."

Bending the rules almost is revered as a stock car racing tradition, but allowing Earnhardt such leeway for so long would have to be a NASCAR-wide conspiracy. Kevin Harvick is willing to give DEI credit.

"I don't know if (it's worth) risking it all on NASCAR'S part," said Harvick, who replaced Earnhardt Sr. at Richard Childress Racing. "I think if you look back ever since DEI started, they've had an awesome restrictor-plate program."

Earnhardt Jr. knows success has led to the evaporation of much of the goodwill most drivers are afforded, at least at Talladega.

"I haven't had many friends out the there the past couple of years," he said. "It's been in everyone's best interests to keep me out of the front or off the lead draft.

"There's one or two I can count. I guess I've dug a hole a little bit with friends."

They must think there's just a little too much Dale Jr. out there.

[Last modified September 28, 2003, 01:49:44]


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