At one point in time, Dale Earnhardt Jr. dominated Talladega Superspeedway in such a way that only one word could describe him: Untouchable.
From 2001-04, Earnhardt rattled off a track-record four consecutive victories, followed by two straight runner-up finishes and a fifth checkered flag.
A decade has passed since the No. 88 Mountain Dew Chevrolet driver’s last win at ‘Dega (Oct. 3, 2004). Still, his five visits to Victory Lane rank third on the track’s all-time list.
Currently sitting at 12th in the standings – 26 points behind his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Kasey Kahne for the final Eliminator Round spot – Earnhardt will need to rekindle some of his old Talladega magic in Sunday’s GEICO 500 cutoff race (2 p.m. ET on ESPN). Barring epic collapses from at least four drivers in front of him – a distinct possibility at the 2.66-mile restrictor plate track known for its treachery – he must win Sunday to move onward in the Chase.
Earnhardt is fully aware of his mission at Talladega.
“Go out there and win it,” he said. “We can do it; we have won there a lot of times. I know what we need to do. We will just have to build a fast car and hope that we don’t have any gremlins and try to go out there and win it.”
NASCAR’s 11-time most popular driver has still performed well throughout his 19-race ‘Dega drought. He has recorded a respectable six top-10 finishes, including two runner-ups, the most recent in last fall’s Talladega tussle. Earnhardt also boasts the third-highest driver rating (90.3) at the Alabama track over that stretch.
A rejuvenated Junior has proven anything can happen this year. His three victories so far in the 2014 campaign outnumber his win total from the last seven seasons combined.
“The season isn’t over though,” Earnhardt posted on Twitter after Charlotte. “We will take a rocket to Dega and fight till the end. 110% till the checkered at Homestead.”
Crafton won’t talk championship until after ‘Dega
Equipped with a commanding 19-point lead over his ThorSport teammate Johnny Sauter with five races left in the season, Matt Crafton seems well on his way to becoming the first repeat champion in the 20-year history of the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series.
Despite his lead and momentum from a trio of consecutive top-three finishes, the 38-year-old does not want to set his sights on his second driver points championship just yet.
“I’m looking forward to the next thing we’re going to do at Talladega. We get through that and then I’ll start looking (towards Homestead),” Crafton said. “I’m not even going to worry about it to be honest. “I’m going to go into each and every race to just go to win. If we get through Talladega, I’ll feel a lot better at that point.”
Crafton has struggled at Talladega throughout his career. In eight starts at the 2.66-mile track, he claims an average finish of 15.5 – almost four places lower than his career mark of 11.8. The driver most likely to catch him, Sauter, boasts a 7.0 average finish at Talladega and took the checkered flag in last year’s race there.
“I’m not even a little bit worried about 19 points,” Crafton said. “It could be one point. I could be 19 points back. I’m not even worried about that to be totally honest. I’m worried about just going each and every week, do what we keep doing, do what we started doing at the beginning of the year, go there to win races and the points will come.”