Dale Earnhardt Jr. is winding down a difficult final season as NASCAR's Most Popular Driver. He’s had a miserable year on-track, failing to make the postseason while earning just one top-5 finish in 30 starts.
But there’s still one skill set age, handling, and poor luck hasn’t broken from Earnhardt’s grasp. He remains the sport’s most effective plate racer.
It’s a genetic trait inherited from Dad, the Intimidator who made mincemeat of opponents on the big tracks of Daytona and Talladega. The 1998 Daytona 500 winner, Earnhardt Sr. also captured two more wins there along with a series high 10 at Talladega Superspeedway. It was the site of his final win, in the fall of 2000 where he capped off a masterful performance with a run from 18th to first in the final five laps of the race.
It was one of the great performances in NASCAR history, lending credence to the theory drivers joked about where Earnhardt could “see” the air in front of him.
Earnhardt died the following February, the great Daytona 500 tragedy of 2001, but his talent passed from father to son. Earnhardt Jr. earned his first Cup Series plate win in July of that year, returning to Daytona for some healing after his father’s crash shook the sport.
From there, the younger Earnhardt was in a league of his own. Four straight wins at Talladega came from fall 2001 through spring '03. In all, he’s earned six career victories at the track which is a total only bested by his father. Despite a decade-long drought, from 2004-14 he also owns two Daytona 500 trophies and two plate race wins overall.
It all adds up to make Sunday’s Talladega race a career finale of sorts. Even in difficult final seasons, retiring icons have had their NASCAR moments in the sun. Richard Petty, despite recording no top-10 finishes in 1992’s retirement tour, rose to the occasion and led five laps at Daytona. Darrell Waltrip, eight years later, qualified on the outside pole for the Brickyard 400 in his final year.
History tells us, then, Earnhardt will rise to the occasion at Talladega, a big event and make it to the lead in front of a screaming sellout crowd. What he does from there is anyone’s guess.
All we know for sure is, come 2018, those plate races will be missing an Earnhardt family who saw the air like no one else.
Time: Sunday, Oct. 15 at 2 p.m. ET
Track: Talladega Superspeedway (Talladega, Ala.)
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who’s at the Front: Martin Truex Jr.
It’s a familiar theme at this point: Truex finds his way to the front, stays there, and dominates a Cup race’s final stage. Charlotte was his sixth win this season, a career high, and vaulted him into NASCAR’s Round of 8. He’ll start there with a distinct edge in playoff points over his opponents, a heavy favorite to make Homestead-Miami and contend for his first career title. Most importantly? He has the monkey of a “Talladega Big One” off his back.
Who’s at the Back: Joey Logano
Logano, out to lunch at Charlotte, has continued to struggle after missing the playoffs with Team Penske. A title contender earlier in the season, he has led just 7 laps over the last 20 races while going winless and tumbling down to 18th in points. You wonder now, if things don’t get better during the homestretch whether Penske will consider making a change internally during the offseason. Crew chief Todd Gordon is beloved by Logano but their marriage is approaching five years old. Can this duo bounce back together or does Penske need to break them apart?
Changes are coming to at least one of the cars at Front Row Motorsports next season. While David Raganconfirmed this week he’s close to returning, the team announced Landon Cassill will not be retained for the organization for 2018. Cassill was released despite posting the best average finishes (26.3, 26.9) for a season in his Cup Series career with the underfunded program. Journeyman Michael McDowell is among those rumored to be in contention for the ride next year.
Rumors are flying about the fate of the few remaining rides left in Silly Season. Conflicting reports surfaced this week about the future of XFINITY Series regular Brennan Poole. Some say he’s leaving Chip Ganassi Racing, perhaps for a Cup ride next season with Richard Childress Racing while the driver himself appears noncommittal. Meanwhile, owner Barney Visser maintains the No. 77 Furniture Row Racing Toyota will be shut down for 2018 but there are still driver/sponsor combinations hoping to revive that program prior to February’s Daytona 500. Among those drivers closing in on the type of sponsor package they could sell to a team? The two diversity magnets NASCAR desperately wants on-track: Danica Patrick and Darrell Wallace Jr.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Career laps led for Dale Earnhardt Jr.at Talladega in 34 Cup starts.
Career laps led for Dale Earnhardt Sr.at Talladega in 44 Cup starts. Combined, the duo’s numbers at ‘Dega are staggering: 16 victories, 35 top-5 finishes, and three poles.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
It’s hard to predict the Russian Roulette parity that is restrictor plate racing at Talladega. That said, expect a guy like Kyle Busch to run up front. He led 48 laps in the spring at ‘Dega, finishing third and will be gunning for stage point bonuses. A wreck at Charlotte left one of this year’s title contenders too close to the cutline for comfort.
Another solid pick at this level is Brad Keselowski. Despite struggling during the playoffs, Keselowski has led 167 laps in the last three ‘Dega events. After blowing his engine in this race last year, maybe Lady Luck will be back on the No. 2 team’s good side?
Do you want to be the guy who leaves Dale Earnhardt Jr. off your roster in his final race at Talladega? I didn’t think so, either.
Spring winner Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who has completed every lap in his first eight Talladega starts, also will be at or near the front. Stenhouse knows his only chance of advancing into the Round of 8 will be winning on Sunday afternoon. He’ll try and collect every point possible and won’t fall victim to shuffling back in the pack or “stroking it” at any point.
Choices, choices, choices. Drivers you won’t consider starting any other place should be at or near the top of your list here. ‘Dega has a habit of making heroes out of last-place runners virtually anywhere else.
This time, I’m going for Landon Cassill, who’s run fourth here with a severely underfunded program and is running with a team that’s had a win here before (Front Row). Michael McDowell, fourth at Daytona in July should also be a factor in the No. 95 car. Remember, he doesn’t have a ride for 2018 and Victory Lane is the perfect place to make your audition.
Other dark horses on your radar should be Brendan Gaughan (yes, him; that car was a top-15 contender at other plate races this year), Danica Patrick (see: 2018 audition) and Matt DiBenedetto for Go FAS Racing.
What Vegas Thinks
Brad Keselowski, Kyle Busch, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. are on the top of the Vegas charts depending on where you look. As of Saturday morning, they varied from 7/1 to 11/1.
What I Think
Earnhardt would be the storybook ending. Busch would be the bounce-back performance. But I’m going with Ricky Stenhouse Jr. pushing through in a bit of a shocker as he earns a third restrictor plate win this season.
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and the Majority Owner of NASCAR Web site Frontstretch.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.
(Top photo courtesy of ASP Inc.)