NASCAR Talladega Preview: Dale Earnhardt Jr. Eyes Return To Talladega Glory Days

(NASCAR Wire Service)

Staff Report ~ NASCAR Wire Service

Dale Earnhardt Jr. (Photo:  Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images for NASCAR)

Dale Earnhardt Jr. (Photo: Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images for NASCAR)

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.”

Elliott Climbs XFINITY Series Standings

Much of the attention given to Chase Elliott lately has centered around his five scheduled NASCAR Sprint Cup Series starts as he readies to replace Jeff Gordon in the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet next season. Elliott performed well at Richmond Sunday, finishing 16th in just his second NSCS start.

Quietly, the 19-year-old Georgia native has climbed to second in the NASCAR XFINITY Series standings, eight points behind leader Ty Dillon. Elliott posted a fifth-place showing in last Friday’s ToyotaCare 250 at Richmond, jumping Chris Buescher in the standings as he tries to defend his XFINITY Series championship.

Since his 28th-place finish in the season-opener at Daytona, Elliott has produced seven consecutive top-10 finishes, including four top fives. The NASCAR Next alum will put his streak on the line in Saturday’s Winn Dixie 300 at Talladega Superspeedway (3 p.m. ET on FOX).

Restrictor-plate tracks have proven to be Elliot’s kryptonite in his young career. He has only finished outside of the top 10 in eight of his XFINITY Series races (19.5%), including all four of his restrictor-plate contests. His best restrictor-plate finish was 15th at Daytona in his XFINITY Series debut last year. Elliott placed 19th at Talladega last spring.

Elliott feels his experience at the Alabama track from last season has prepared him for Saturday’s showdown.

“It’s really tough to plan for a race like this, since there’s so much uncertainty that can happen,” he said. “We were in contention last year late in the race, but got caught up in a wreck, which eventually killed our day. Going into this Saturday’s race, I have more confidence knowing I’ve been in a late-race situation there.”

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