Junior starting to roll again

April, 24, 2010

TALLADEGA, Ala. -- Low, gray clouds hung over Talladega Superspeedway with tornado warnings subduing the usual crazy activities in the infield camping area. Even most of the famed stripper poles were out of commission on this boulevard known for wild parties on a Sprint Cup weekend.

The track's most popular son also has a different look.

Before arriving at this 2.66-mile oasis in backwoods Alabama, Dale Earnhardt Jr. shaved his beard, which rivaled the one Joaquin Phoenix had while going through a bad style period.

Earnhardt would like to leave with a different feeling, too.

A winning one.

Outside of Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon with six, no active driver has more wins at Talladega than Earnhardt with five.

From the fall race of 2001 through the fall race of 2004 NASCAR's most popular driver owned this place, with five victories and two seconds. He was as much as a sure thing as there was at a track where seemingly anybody can visit Victory Lane if he gets the right break coming off the final turn.

Now, Earnhardt seemingly again has the car and confidence to resume that dominance Sunday.

"I'm anxious to win, wherever we can win," said Earnhardt, who has only 13 Cup wins outside of Talladega. "I really don't put more emphasis on Talladega or Daytona over any other track. Anywhere we can pick up a win it will be just as celebrated or appreciated than it is than any other race."

There's a bounce in Earnhardt's step and a tone in his voice that indicates he knows he's close to ending his 65-race losing streak.

Why not? He has six straight finishes of 16th or better and has been outside the top 16 only once, at California, where he was 32nd. He's seventh in points, quietly sneaking up on the competition in a way no one could imagine a person of his popularity could.

"I don't feel a lot of pressure from the public and the media that much right now," Earnhardt said. "I don't know that we are under the radar, but we are definitely not in the center of it."

For most of his career Earnhardt has been in the front, middle and center of the radar as fans yearned for him to follow in the footsteps of his seven-time champion father. Junior couldn't make a move without having it get analyzed and publicized, particularly at Talladega, where fans often responded violently when opposing drivers beat him.

But since he has missed the Chase in two of the past three years and finished a career-worst 25th in points a year ago, the intense scrutiny has somewhat died off and the volume of Junior Nation has toned down.

"It is nice to be able to not have that kind of pressure on you because people tend to make more mistakes when they feel like they are being watched all the time," Earnhardt said. "That is the same for the whole team. When we get to feeling like we are being studied and looked at very hard, it is easy to make mistakes under that kind of pressure.

"It is nice right now. It has really been pretty good."

Everything seems to be clicking for Earnhardt these days. He and crew chief Lance McGrew, who replaced longtime friend and cousin Tony Eury Jr. last season under a sea of controversy, have developed a relationship that allows the driver to vent in a constructive way.

They've found a rhythm that has allowed Earnhardt to turn what have been disastrous days into solid finishes.

But Earnhardt wants to win -- and Talladega just might be the place to do it.

Although the new car has changed the characteristics of drafting from the days he dominated at restrictor-plate tracks, he showed with an amazing second-place finish at Daytona earlier in the year that he still can use air with the best of them.

"It's much more of a level playing field," Earnhardt said. "Every car in the field can take the lead and drive to the front and draft to the front. There is not a whole lot different on any of the cars than any of the other cars in the garage.

"The rules are the rules and all the packages are the same and everybody has got the same stuff so the cars all drive the same. You really have got to have a little bit of luck but you also have to know what you are doing."

Earnhardt knows what he's doing here. Even better he has the car that can take him to the front.

When asked about his seemingly more aggressive style he gave the same answer that Jeff Gordon did when asked about how he was racing teammate Jimmie Johnson harder. It's all about having a car capable of racing hard and being aggressive.

"It's no disrespect to the cars that I have [driven] in the past, but people, even people close to me, have said that I need to be more aggressive," Earnhardt said. "You can't be aggressive when you are going backwards. … You can't be aggressive when you are sitting there trying to hang on to your ass all day long running 25th.

"When the car is good I can do that and I will. I am willing to do that. I get fired up and see the opportunities … see the win standing there in front of me and I can get aggressive. Every driver is that way when they smell it."

Earnhardt smells victory. He can almost taste it.

This could be the weekend when he experiences it.

That might create another storm -- at least among the fans who have been waiting a long time for this moment.

David Newton | email

ESPN Staff Writer



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