NASCAR

Junior eyes Talladega turnaround

Right moves: Careful timing is everything at Talladega.
Right moves: Careful timing is everything at Talladega.
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Lee Spencer

Lee Spencer is the Senior NASCAR Writer for FOXSports.com. She has provided award-winning coverage of auto racing over the last 15 years. Spencer has lent her expertise to both television and radio and is a regular contributor to SiriusXM Radio and the Performance Racing Network. Follow her on Twitter.

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TALLADEGA, ALA.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. believes it’s “about time for us to win one here at Talladega.”

He’s right.

BOOGITY! BOOGITY! BOOGITY!

NASCAR on FOX brings live coverage of the Sprint Cup race at Dover International Speedway on Sunday. The green flag drops at 1 p.m. ET, with coverage on FOX beginning at 12:30 p.m. ET.

With the strength of Hendrick Motorsports behind him — and a history of five wins and half his 26 career starts here resulting in top 10 finishes — it’s understandable that Earnhardt is brimming with confidence at Talladega Superspeedway.

“Really have had a lot of success here, a lot of great runs,” said Earnhardt, who rolls off 12th on Sunday.

“Always feel confident when we come here that we are going to have a good car, going to know how to use it, and I think we feel that way coming in this weekend. We had a great run at Daytona (where he finished second in February).

“Our confidence level is real good, real high. Just looking forward to getting a little practice in, make sure everything is working the way it is supposed to. Probably won’t run a whole lot, but the weather here is going to be odd all weekend. Hopefully, we get an opportunity to race on Sunday and go to Victory Lane. We really feel like we have a good shot at it.”

An Earnhardt victory would go a long way to jumpstart his championship hopes. After a stellar start to the season, when Junior led the point standings and was the only driver with five top 10 finishes in the first five events, he posted three finishes outside of the top 15.

IT ADDS UP

Where did your favorite driver finish in the 2013 final standings?

The No. 88 team jumped back on the top 10 train last weekend at Richmond International Raceway and moved up to fourth in the point standings.

Still, if Earnhardt has a weakness in his arsenal, it’s the inability to lead laps for a contending team. This season Earnhardt has been to the point in just two events — Phoenix and Kansas for a total of 48 laps. But Earnhardt’s performance at Talladega has been magical in past. He’s led 737 laps on the 2.66-mile track — the third-most of any venue for the 38-year-old driver.

Another factor that will weigh heavily in Earnhardt’s favor is his comfort level with the new Generation 6 car. After six seasons of suffering with the Car of Tomorrow, the driver is “enjoying the (new) car,” but acknowledges his team still is “learning as we go.”

“It’s hard to have a real good idea of what to expect every week,” Earnhardt said.

“There is still so much to learn with this car that the competitive line is a moving target. Someone will find speed and really force the rest of the sport to chase that mark down. Then the ante just keeps getting raised, it seems, week after week. So it’s still a lot of questions and stuff about the new car.

“I really enjoy it. I think it’s been good for me, and we have run well pretty much everywhere we have been. I think that I’m not sure exactly what to expect on Sunday as far as a style of event we are going to have, style of drafting we will have and the way that the race will play itself out.

“I think the asphalt has aged a little bit. Hopefully, it is getting slicker and slicker. Makes actually racing around each other a lot more challenging than it has been lately at the plate tracks. That should really separate the men from the boys.”

Despite a wreck in last fall’s race at Talladega that collected Earnhardt — along with 24 other drivers on the final lap — and left him sidelined with a concussion for the next two events, he recanted his comment of the racing not being “safe” at the track.

He believes that if a driver enters the race with that philosophy, he or she will be defeated from the start.

“You go in still with this mentality,  ‘I’m going to put it together, I’m going to make the moves, the car is going to be there and we are going to make great pit stops,’ Earnhardt said.

"You still go in with the mentality that you are going to put together this formula that is going to win the race. You are going to do all these things that equal victory. Even though you know it’s really a lottery in some aspects. You still go in there kind of turning a blind eye to that part of it.

“Restrictor-plate racing is a race where you can get swept up in something that is totally out of your control and totally random and at times ridiculous. You can be so frustrated by how out of your hands that happens. How there was nothing you could do to avoid that fate. You’ve really got to be able to put that behind you fast. You’ve got to be able to know that is a possibility, a real possibility much more than any other track.

“At the same time, you’ve got to feel like you are going to do everything right. You have to have confidence in what you are doing. If you are not making confident choices or not having confidence in what you are doing on the race track, sometimes that type of mentality and just driving with caution or driving without confidence sends you backwards or puts you in a mess that tends to be the one that takes you out.

"So you have got to make confident moves, make moves with assertiveness and conviction. That sort of has a better result more times than not.”

LOOKING AHEAD

Once time trials were rained out on Saturday, Carl Edwards appeared more concerned with whether he would be awarded the pole for Aaron’s 499 and a berth in the 2014 Sprint Unlimited, rather than just starting Sunday from P1.

Edwards felt hosed two weeks ago at Kansas Speedway after he qualified second but didn’t earn the pole once Matt Kenseth was stripped of the pole and penalized for having an engine that didn’t meet NASCAR specifications.

Edwards recounted his exchange via text with NASCAR president Mike Helton.

“I qualified second at Kansas,” Edwards said. “Matt had the pole, but then he didn’t get the pole, so it didn’t count for him. I texted Mike Helton and said, ‘Hey, what do you think? Do we get the pole award?’ And he said, ‘LOL.’

“I didn’t think it was that funny (laughing) and then this.”

Edwards acknowledged that the Sprint Cup drivers ran at a frenetic pace on Friday with the expectation of the field being set by according to first practice speeds. Consequently, Edwards topped the chart, followed by Martin Truex Jr., Marcos Ambrose, Joey Logano and Ryan Newman in the top five.

“It was like a heat race out there,” Edwards said. “Everyone was doing everything they could to lag back and partner up and get the fastest lap times they could, and it was pretty exciting. We got the fastest lap with about one minute to go, and it was really exciting, so that was our whole mission yesterday, and I’m pretty proud of the fact that we ended up with the fastest time.

“Now the race, from that practice, I learned that these cars — I mean, we were four-wide in practice once. That’s what my spotter told me. The cars seem to do a really good job of pulling up and actually passing other cars here. Our car was very fast. I don’t know if it’s just that our car is real fast or if everyone is like that, but it looks like it’s going to be a pretty crazy race. … It was a pretty wide-open practice session, so I think tomorrow could be any type of race, but I can guarantee you the final couple of laps are going to be insane.”

BACK IN THE SADDLE

Veteran crew chief Mike Ford returns to the pit box next week at Darlington Raceway.

Although Ford holds the title of director of competition for BK Racing, he will join the No. 93 team in what has been termed a “training exercise” to improve the systems on that squad and assist current crew chief Todd Anderson get up to speed with driver Travis Kvapil.

WINNING WAYS

Check out all the 2013 Sprint Cup race winners. SEE THEM ALL

Ford, who started as a crew chief with Bill Elliott in 2000, had his most success run guiding Denny Hamlin to six consecutive Chase for the Sprint Cup appearances including a career-high second-place in 2010.

NUMBERS GAME

12.2 – Brad Keselowski’s average finish at Talladega — tops among Sprint Cup drivers.

6 — Active Cup drivers with two or more wins at Talladega: Gordon (6), Dale Earnhardt Jr. (5), Clint Bowyer (2), Jimmie Johnson (2), Brad Keselowski (2) and Terry Labonte (2).

1 — Regan Smith's win on Saturday marked the first time JR Motorsports has led the Nationwide Series point standings.

SAY WHAT?

Johanna Long is coming off of her best finish of the season last week at Richmond, where she was 15th in the Nationwide Series race.

This Sunday, her former beau and University of Alabama quarterback A.J. McCarron will serve as the honorary pace car driver for Sunday’s Aaron’s 499 at Talladega Superspeedway.

Despite the BCS champion’s proficiency on the football field, has McCarron asked Long for any pointers in getting around the 2.66-mile track?

“No, he hasn’t,” Long said with a laugh. “I do know that he asked for an automatic, so he should be good. It’s really cool. He loves racing, and I think it’s really cool for him to be able to come out here with his family and do this because he’s accomplished so much in Alabama over the years.”

Tagged: Dale Earnhardt Jr., Martin Truex Jr., Carl Edwards, Brad Keselowski

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