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Junior hopes to crack struggles at the Rock

By Wire services
Published February 20, 2004

ROCKINGHAM, N.C. - Daytona 500 champion Dale Earnhardt Jr. is close to unbeatable inrestrictor-plate races.

He'll get a chance to show whether he's truly a contender to win the Nextel Cup title as NASCAR shifts to North Carolina Speedway, a difficult track on which Junior has struggled often.

In eight career top-series starts at the 1.017-mile oval, Earnhardt's best finish was 13th, in November.

His Dale Earnhardt Inc. team has spent a considerable amount of time testing in preparation for the Subway 400, hoping the extra work will propel him to another victory.

"In the past, it was a track we struggled at," he said. "It may be the only place we haven't really conquered yet."

Junior has proven to be a master at Daytona and Talladega Superspeedway - two tracks that require horsepower-sapping restrictor plates - partly because of the time and energy DEI devotes to those facilities.

He won all three races he entered at Daytona last week and has nine career victories there. But if he wants to be taken seriously as a title contender, he needs to improve at the tracks for which he has never masked his disdain.

That includes Rockingham, where the rough surface eats away at tires and puts driver ability and handling at a premium.

"Even though we devote a lot of effort and time to restrictor-plate tracks, Rockingham is a track we've emphasized as a place where we need to improve if we're going to win a championship," he said. "I used to come here with a bad attitude, and it seemed to set the tone for the whole team.

"I think it's different now. If anything, winning the Daytona 500 gave us more confidence than we already had as a team."

The complexion of Sunday's race should be different from past years because of new, NASCAR-implemented aerodynamic rules that revolve around smaller rear spoilers and less downforce.

Goodyear also has produced a softer tire, and combined with the new rules, the cars should be more difficult to drive beginning with today's qualifying session.

The new tweaks are expected to favor veteran drivers, who have experience with different setups.

NHRA: Tony Schumacher covered the quarter-mile strip in 4.514 seconds at 326.32 mph to lead the Top Fuel category in the K&N Filters Winternationals at Pomona (Calif.) Raceway. Eric Medlen led Funny Car (4.840 at 319.07 mph) and Greg Anderson led Pro Stock (6.743 at 205.19 mph).

[Last modified February 20, 2004, 01:31:57]


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