Dale Earnhardt, Jr stands in the garage during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Bank of America500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway on October 13, 2011. Photo by Jason Smith/Getty Images for NASCAR
NASCAR's Most Popular driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has developed a love-hate relationship with Talladega Superspeedway. Five of his 18 career NASCAR Sprint Cup wins have come from the 2.66 mile track, including his four straight.
And if any track on the NASCAR circuit can be considered the mothership of Junior Nation, it's Talladega. The roar that goes up when Junior takes the lead can probably be measured using the Richter Scale. You'd think Earnhardt would be looking forward to this weekend.
Earnhardt has actually soured on Talladega-when it comes to the way racing has evolved there.
Junior hates the two-car tandem. He doesn't like the fact that the driver doing the pushing can't see in front of the car he is pushing. He doesn't like having to depend on another car, doesn't like not being in control of his fate. He'd much rather go back to the days of huge three-wide drafting packs. That makes sense since that is the kind racing Earnhardt got his five Talladega wins.
But how being in the middle of a big drafing pack buts a driver in control of his own fate is beyond me. One wiggle by someone else is all it takes to trigger the Big One and ruin the race for 10 or 12 drivers.
So it would be insane to pick Junior to win Sunday at Talladega, right?
He has one win in the last five seasons. The one victory in that stretch was on a fuel-milage gamble at Michigan. His career has been in recession longer than the economy.
It would be crazy to pick Junior to break his 124-race winless streak this Sunday, right?
There are quite a few reasons on why Dale Jr will finally break through to Victory Lane.
Driver No. 88 has the best driver rating among NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers at Talladega over the last six years--a 92.7. Too bad trophies aren't awarded for driver ratings.
In spite of his on track struggles, he has the most laps in the top 15--63.9 percent. Dale Jr definitely doesn't spent his Sunday at Talladega hanging out in the back and waiting for the wreck to advance his position. His average running position at Talladega--14.3--is second best in Sprint Cup. He has led in 12 of the last 13 races at Talladega Superspeedway.
Don't forget, he was so close to breaking the streak in April.
Barring disaster, Hendrick Teammates Johnson and Junior will be up front on the last lap. And this time, as Johnson told him in Victory Lane, Johnson owes him one.
The big question is whether Junior has the heart and the drive to win. SPEED TV analyst and former driver, Jimmy Spencer, wrote a column last week suggesting Earnhardt is acting like he wants to retire.
Junior can often seem cavalier about his chances before a race and more concerned with amassing points than winning, but there's no longer any point this year in worrying about points. He can't compete for the championship.
There's just one thing he needs to do.
"We are quite a ways behind," he said at Charlotte. "And you sort of got to adjust your goals and when we got as far behind as we are, I think winning a race becomes a top priority."