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Saturday, October 20
Junior aims to back up Daytona win
Associated Press

Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Earnhardt Jr.
TALLADEGA, Ala. -- A victory Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway would go a long way toward validating Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s win at Daytona in July.

That triumph was a fairy-tale ending to a story that began in tragedy five months earlier, when Dale Earnhardt was killed in the season-opening Daytona 500.

The outcome of the Pepsi 400 -- the first race at Daytona since the death of the seven-time Winston Cup champion -- led to talk that Earnhardt Jr. had been given some sort of engine advantage by NASCAR.

Both NASCAR and Little E have denied collusion, and the evidence from the three restrictor-plate races run this season supports the driver's contention that he simply has a strong car at the two tracks where horsepower is limited by the rules.

He finished second in the race in which his father died, and was sixth in the spring at Talladega.

"I'm looking forward to the race," Earnhardt said Saturday before the final practice.

An eight-car wreck, which didn't involve Earnhardt, marred that session. Jeff Purvis bumped Ward Burton to start the melee. Terry Labonte, John Andretti, Rusty Wallace and Ken Schrader were forced into backup cars for the EA Sports 500, and will have to go to rear of a field.

What might happen at the front is of more interest to Earnhardt, however.

"I feel like we've got just as good a car as at Daytona," he said. "But they're two different tracks. At Daytona, I had the car really freed up and I could beat the guys through the corners. Here, you can't really do that.

"If I do have a car as good as Daytona, it might not be as evident, but we're going to see if it will be strong enough to keep it up front all day long."

Not everybody wants to stay up front at Talladega, where racing has become an exercise in trepidation, thanks to the aerodynamic package NASCAR came up with a year ago.

The addition of a small metal strip across the tops of the cars and a short extension on the top of the rear spoilers has made it easier to drive in traffic.

The changes also have bunched the 43-car lineup even tighter because drivers find it easier to use the draft to move forward. But racing in packs leads to multicar crashes such as that of Saturday.

It also has lead to a cavalry-charge mentality in the races.

"Before the rules changed, you had to think through your strategy," said points leader Jeff Gordon. "Now, what you knew about the draft is out the window.

"You just put your nose in there and push, and you either crash or go to the front. I think you have to either be up front or all the way in back. Guys are absolutely out of control in the middle of the pack."

Dale Jarrett echoed the three-time series champion, saying the latest rules have made what was tense racing at Talladega far worse.

"Tenfold more," he said. "Before, three-wide was about the most that you would get yourself into. You just kind of held on until you could get yourself out of it."

Because the draft is an equalizer, many drivers in NASCAR history have won at Talladega and nowhere else. Jarrett says it's the only chance some have to win, and that drivers late in the season often are going hard in hopes of landing a ride for the next year.

"People put themselves four-wide and in the middle of that," he said. "You have no time to relax whatsoever and you're closing up quicker on cars so you really have to pay attention."

Earnhardt also isn't happy with the rules.

"I think we need to find something different," he said.

Like most, he wants NASCAR make the draft a little less effective. He admits to being nervous at the start of races on the 2.66-mile track -- the world's biggest and fastest oval.

"Eventually, everybody chills out and realizes they've got a long time to get things done," Earnhardt said. "Then, the last 50 laps, after the last pit stop, it's pretty cutthroat out there."

The race will be the first in which all drivers must wear some form of head and neck restraint. This week, NASCAR mandated use of either the HANS or Hutchens device, a response to the death of the elder Earnhardt and three other drivers in the last 17 months.

The last holdout was Tony Stewart, who balked at using a restraint system, but went to a Hutchens device after venting his anger Friday at NASCAR officials.

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