TALLADEGA, Ala. — There was a time when every move Dale Earnhardt Jr. made in a restrictor-plate race was the right one. He could slice his way through the field, drive to the front whenever he wanted, and was always the guy to beat at Daytona and Talladega.
That four-year stretch netted Earnhardt seven victories at NASCAR’s two fastest tracks, and gave him a confidence and air of invincibility.
It’s been more than five years, though, since Earnhardt last won a plate race. And though he’s still considered a contender every time he climbs into his car, he’s rarely called the favorite anymore.
Then came the season-opening Daytona 500, when for at least two laps, the old Earnhardt was back. He steamrolled his way from 10th to second with a series of jaw-dropping moves, falling just short of running down winner Jamie McMurray.
Earnhardt understands why his Daytona drive received so much attention because just like his ardent fan base, he too saw a flash of how things used to be for NASCAR’s most popular driver.
“I did,’’ he nodded, “I did.’’
So he’s not surprised at the growing anticipation from a victory-starved Junior Nation that is desperately hoping today’s race at Talladega Superspeedway is going to be another display of, to borrow from Earnhardt’s personal vocabulary, “awesomeness.’’
Earnhardt, fresh off an eighth-place finish in Monday’s rain-rescheduled race at Texas, is tempering the expectations. Performance is as much about skill as it is the quality of racecar, and Earnhardt said the current rules package leaves him at the mercy of his No. 88 Chevrolet.
“It’s no disrespect to the cars that I’ve drove in the past, but even people close to me have said I need to be more aggressive,’’ Earnhardt said of the mantra after the Daytona 500 finish.
Earnhardt must rebound from last year’s embarrassing campaign, when he finished 25th in the final standings at the same time his Hendrick Motorsports teammates swept the top three spots. He was winless, had just five top-10s, and went into the offseason as the top priority for team owner Rick Hendrick.
Eight races into this year, he’s grabbed three top-10 finishes and is seventh in the standings.
“I don’t really put more emphasis over Daytona or Talladega or any other track,’’ he said. “Wherever we can pick up a win, it will be just as celebrated and appreciated as any other race.’’
NASCAR canceled track activity yesterday at Talladega because of severe weather. The Nationwide Series race was rescheduled today after the Sprint Cup race. It’s the second straight weekend NASCAR will attempt a doubleheader.