TALLADEGA — Dale Earnhardt Jr. loves racing at Talladega, but the track hasn’t always loved him back.
Early in his career, he was virtually unbeatable here, winning five of his first 10 starts at the track. But he hasn’t won here in nearly 10 years, not since the fall race of 2004.
But the restrictor plate seems to be turning. He was second here in last fall — his best finish since 2009 — and he’s confident in his car and comfortable with the plate-racing package his team has put together. This season, he won at Daytona and has five finishes in the top five in nine starts.
It all seems to be lining up for Junior to find Victory Lane here again in Sunday’s Aaron’s 499 at Talladega Superspeedway.
Sure, he feels good about the way things are going, but he isn’t bold enough to predict the drought will end here this weekend.
‘’Nobody would be that profound,” he said Friday as he walked toward the Sprint Cup garage. “I felt (confident) about the car we ran in Daytona. This is a brand new car, but I know we’ve put everything we can into it to make it as good or better than the car that’s sitting in the museum in Daytona. If we get out there and are able to practice and see just how offensive the car can be, it’s definitely going to boost our confidence throughout the weekend.
“I definitely like the package and the way the car races now compared to last year and even several years ago with the COT (car of tomorrow). This is a lot more my style — it suits my style — so confidence is building for sure at plate tracks again.”
When it comes to Talladega, the acorn didn’t fall far from the tree — at least early on. Dale Sr. won more races here than any driver, and Junior was following in his footsteps. He won five times — four in a row — in a seven-race stretch between 2001 and 2004 (six if you count the Nationwide win in 2003) and was second the two others.
But he hasn’t won at Talladega since Oct. 3, 2004. A dozen different drivers have taken the checkered flag in the races at the track since then. Five of those have won multiple times.
Last year’s second-place finish to Jamie McMurray in the fall was the closest Earnhardt has come to winning here since 2009.
As the poor finishes mounted — there were eight 20th or worse — he grew increasingly frustrated with his plate racing performance, wondering if he would ever find the right line. But since the start of the 2012 season he was second at either Daytona or Talladega three times, and when he won the Daytona 500 for the second time in his career in February, things were starting to look up again.
“It’s pretty confident,” he said. “We as a team improved our emphasis on our plate cars to be able to improve their performance; I think that started to show in the last 12-16 months. When me and (crew chief) Steve (Letarte) first started working together … our focus was more on improving ourselves as a whole, and we really didn’t focus on the plate stuff as much as we needed to improve everywhere.
“We had to kind of put our emphasis on the plate tracks on hold for a while to try to get our team in the right direction, and we started running well enough everywhere where we could put a little more care and preparation into our plate track cars, and that definitely showed in the results. … It all starts with preparation at the shop, and I think we’ve done a really good job of that lately.”
And when the car responds, it begets confidence that any move made at the end — where all these Talladega races are decided — will be the correct one.
Car and driver worked well together Friday. Junior turned the ninth-fastest lap in practice (197.480) and had the fast average among drivers who ran 10 straight laps (195.920).
“When you’re thinking more positively, you tend to see positive results,” Earnhardt said. “If you’re thinking, ‘I need to make this move, but I don’t believe in the car,’ then the result is typically not what you’re wanting and more of what you expect.
“So, when the cars do very good and you appreciate what it’s doing throughout the day, you tend to expect it to make the moves you want to make and accomplish what you want to accomplish in the draft late in the race.”
You can’t argue with the results.
In addition to the win at Daytona, he has been second back-to-back at Phoenix and Las Vegas, third in Martinsville, and second in Darlington. It all added up to him being named Driver of the Year for the first quarter of the season.
He collected seven first-place votes from the award’s 17-member media panel and — interestingly, given his car number — 88 points. His father won the annual award in 1987 and 1994.
“Obviously, we would be really happy to win the award outright,” he said. “To get it quarterly is sort of a nod to how we have performed.”
Al Muskewitz is a sports writer for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3577.