There used to be a joke inside the NASCAR garage when it came to Dale Earnhardt and restrictor plate racing: Once Earnhardt was entered in the race, everyone wanted to know who was going to finish second.
The Man in Black was a restrictor plate ace and told people that he could “see” the air as it traveled over cars. Whether he really could or not isn’t known for certain, but he did see many checkered flags at the plate tracks of Daytona and Talladega over the course of his career.
It’s not uncommon to hear many say he’s the best plate racer NASCAR ever had.
After Earnhardt died on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, his son began to pick up where his old man left off. Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the July Daytona race and the October Talladega race held that same season and began to set a trail of his own restrictor plate dominance.
Over the next three years both he and teammate Michael Waltrip made the plate tracks their personal playground: In the 12 Sprint Cup Series races held at Daytona and Talladega between 2002 and 2004 the duo won eight of them.
Five of those belonged to Earnhardt Jr. including a historic four straight at Talladega Superspeedway; he was later inducted into the Talladega "Walk of Fame."
When the schedule rolled into Florida or Alabama, teams showed up on race day with one game plan, try not to let Earnhardt Jr. and Waltrip get to the front.
For Earnhardt Jr. and his then DEI team, it wasn’t just points paying races they were winning. In 2003, he won the Budweiser Shootout and his Gatorade Duel qualifying race and backed it up a year later by winning his Duel race again.
The plate success even carried over into the Nationwide Series.
From 2002 through 2004, he won the season-opening Daytona race for three straight years, and in 2003 he won all three of the plate races in the series: both Daytona events and the April Talladega race.
Every year it was guaranteed that Dale Earnhardt Jr. was going to win at least one restrictor plate race. Even if his season wasn’t going the way he wanted, even if his fans were worried he wasn’t going to win a race, there was always Daytona and Talladega, he would always win at a plate track.
And then he didn’t.
Suddenly the momentum and the dominance shifted from DEI to Hendrick Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing.
Earnhardt Jr. was shut out of the 2005 Speedweeks for the first time since 2002, not winning one of the four events: the Budweiser Shootout, Gatorade Duel, Nationwide race or Daytona 500.
Jimmie Johnson won the 2005 Shootout, Waltrip passed Earnhardt Jr. on the last lap of the Duel race, Tony Stewart started his Nationwide dominance with the Saturday win, and Jeff Gordon won his third Daytona 500.
But everyone relax, there were still plenty of plate racing left in the season.
Except none of them, the Nationwide or Sprint Cup races, would be won by Earnhardt Jr. as Gordon, Johnson, Stewart and even Kyle Busch, asserted themselves as the big dogs.
The following season in 2006, Johnson won his first Daytona 500 as well as the first Talladega race, Denny Hamlin of JGR as a rookie shocked the world with the Shootout win, and Gordon took home the Shootout trophy.
Stewart again dominated the July Daytona race while Earnhardt Jr. had one last chance at the Spring Talladega event to pick up a points win. While leading on the last lap he was spun out when Brian Vickers made contact with teammate Jimmie Johnson and the restrictor plate shutout continued.
It happened again in 2007 and seemed apparent that the magic Earnhardt Jr. once had was nothing but a mind trick now. In 2008, for a brief moment at least, it appeared that the old "Junebug" might be making a comeback.
In his first race with Hendrick Motorsports, he won the Budweiser Shootout and backed it up five days later with a win in his Gatorade Duel race. But then, once again, he was locked out the rest of the year, as well as all of the 2009 season.
When Speedweeks kicks off this month there will be a lot of questions surrounding the driver of the No. 88 AMP Energy/National Guard Chevrolet, and there will continue to be much attention.
Everyone wants to know if he can get back to the top of the sport, win a race and compete for a championship. But the underlying storyline for his die-hard fans is going to be: Will he ever win another restrictor plate race that actually means something?
He did win the July Nationwide Daytona event in 2006, as well as those two races during Speedweeks of 2008, but Earnhardt Jr. hasn’t been to victory lane at a plate track in a point race that meant something in over five years...October of 2004 at Talladega.
Some of the races he was shutout in weren’t just that he came in second or lost the draft at the end of the race. Once a restrictor plate chess master is now a restrictor plate wrecker: crashing or having engine problems in nine out of the last 18 plate races.
If he had been able to stay out of the wrecks it seemed he lost confidence in being able to choose the right drafting lane when it came down to the end of the race. Earnhardt Jr. even admitted that he feels he needs to make better decisions in order to be up near the front when it matters the most, to get in the line that’s moving when it’s time to go.
It could also be that he needs to find more drivers that are willing to push him down to the finish line and be a drafting partner. For years it used to be Tony Stewart, but Earnhardt Jr. seems on his own now a days and at Daytona for the Fan-Fest he said he wanted someone that was going to “push the crap out of me.”
Lately there hasn’t been and because of such he's found a new finishing position at the bottom part of the top ten in Daytona and Talladega. Not something his fans are used to seeing. He's had no problem getting up to the front and leading laps, making the grandstands stand and cheer as a united sea of green and blue, but the finishes haven't been what everyone's expected.
Junior Nation members around the globe are hungering for the days of the old Dale Earnhardt Jr. The driver that won six races in a year and contended for a championship. The driver that could win any race on any given weekend and had the confidence to get it done.
The old days when he was the one called the master or the pied piper, and the one to beat when it came to Daytona and Talladega. The days when he was No. 1.
In order for Dale Earnhardt Jr. to get back to contending for championships and having the confidence to win on any given Sunday, he to get back to doing what he's done best: dominating and winning at Daytona and Talladega.
Time to get back to basics and find the lost magic and show everyone that he’s his father’s son when it comes to restrictor plate tracks.
Speedweeks 2010 will be a new chance to start fresh on many levels.
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