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Gordon nearing intimidating mark
A win Sunday will tie the Hendrick Motorsports star with the late Dale Earnhardt in restrictor-plate race wins.
By ASSOCIATED PRESS
Published April 28, 2006
Jeff Gordon always had a lot of respect for Dale Earnhardt, and he was particularly admiring of The Intimidator's uncanny ability on NASCAR's restrictor plate tracks.
Earnhardt won 10 plate races at Daytona and Talladega in NASCAR's top series and it often seemed that, with the cars slowed by the horsepower-sapping plates and running in huge packs, two- and three-wide, Earnhardt could find the holes and use the turbulent air better than anyone.
In his last race on the 2.66-mile Talladega Superspeedway oval, in October 2000, Earnhardt charged from 18th place to a victory in the last five laps. It was the last of his 76 career wins.
After Earnhardt's death in a crash during the 2001 Daytona 500, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his then-teammate Michael Waltrip took up where the seven-time champion left off, dominating at the plate tracks for the next few years. Dale Earnhardt Inc. has won six of the past nine races at Talladega - five by Earnhardt Jr.
But Gordon and his Hendrick Motorsports team apparently have caught up with DEI on the big tracks, with Gordon winning four of the past eight plate races - including the last two spring events at Talladega - and teammate Jimmie Johnson winning this year's Daytona 500.
A victory by Gordon in Sunday's Aaron's 499 at Talladega would match the elder Earnhardt's plate-race total, a number not lost on the four-time Cup champion.
"We were getting beat by the DEI cars pretty regularly, so we focused on improving our restrictor-plate program," said Gordon, who has four wins, 11 top fives and 14 top 10s in 26 starts at Talladega.
As for the elder Earnhardt, Gordon said, "Senior was the man when it came to these type of races. I got schooled by him many times in the draft, but so did a lot of drivers. Some of the moves he made were incredible.
"While it was frustrating at times, I learned a lot just by watching him."
If recent history has anything to do with it, Gordon will win Sunday.
In addition to his success at Talladega, Gordon has not gone later than the ninth race of the season without a win since 2002, when it took him until the 24th race of the season to score that first win.
Last year, Gordon won three of the first nine, including the Aaron's 499. In 2004, his first win came at Talladega in the ninth race of the year. In 2003, Gordon's first win was also in the ninth race, but it was on the half-mile oval at Martinsville that season.
A victory Sunday would make Gordon the first driver to win an event three straight times at Talladega since Hall of Famer David Pearson did it each spring from 1972 to 1974.
"David Pearson is one of the true legends of our sport and it's an honor just to be mentioned with him," said Gordon, who has four of his 73 career Cup victories at Talladega. "It's a tribute to the consistency of our restrictor-plate program at Hendrick Motorsports. The effort has been incredible and just continues to improve with each race."