Dale Earnhardt Jr. needs to reclaim his old Talladega magic

Jeff Gluck
SB Nation

Eight years. Eight YEARS!

It's been eight years since Dale Earnhardt Jr. last won a NASCAR race at Talladega Superspeedway, which was once his best track on the circuit.

Remember those days? Back then, Earnhardt Jr. had a seven-race stretch at 'Dega when he won five times and finished second in the other two races.

NASCAR's most popular driver had seemingly inherited the ability to "see the air" from his father, who won at Talladega a record 10 times. Both Earnhardts had an uncanny talent at restrictor-plate racing, and it seemed Earnhardt Jr. would go to Victory Lane at 'Dega – the capital of Junior Nation – for years to come.

Instead, the years have come and gone without another Earnhardt win. The driver who once mastered NASCAR's biggest track now calls restrictor-plate racing a "lottery."

So what happened? Bad luck? Slow cars? Did Earnhardt forget how to drive at Talladega?

The answer is none of the above.

Earnhardt isn't winning in Alabama these days for one main reason: The racing has changed. It's just like Earnhardt said: More than ever, Talladega is just a lottery.

There's always been an element of being in the right place at the right time to win a restrictor-plate race. Heck, Derrike Cope won the Daytona 500. But before the current model car – formerly called the "COT" – drivers had much more control over timing their runs.

Now? There's nowhere to go when they think it's time to make a move. The current aerodynamic package on the cars "boxes everybody up into one little lump," Earnhardt said Friday, and it essentially clogs up the track like hair in a sink.

"We all kind of ride around the racetrack on top of each other and it really makes for a real challenge," he said. "When you're sitting there in about 20th place and the whole track is three-wide and there's really nowhere to go, the race cars aren't able to pull out and pass."

To be more specific, Earnhardt said drivers can't make the moves they once did because the closing rates "changed dramatically." The way the cars drafted and worked together, he said, is different now than when he was a regular in the Talladega winner's circle.

"With the old car, I had a real understanding of what to expect when I moved around the racetrack and when I was around other people and what was going to happen," he said. "But with the COT, you're just really limited. You feel like you don't have quite as much freedom with the car and the car's ability."

Because of that, Earnhardt hasn't come all that close to winning at Talladega lately. He pushed Jimmie Johnson to the win in the spring of 2011, but that's about it. Since his last Talladega victory, Earnhardt has more finishes of 25th or worse (six) than top-10s (five).

It's made Earnhardt question his decision-making at a place where every call used to be the right one. For example: Should he try to run up front and lead laps or fall to the back and stay out of trouble?

He only led two laps in this race last season – tying the second-lowest of his career – and regretted the hang-back strategy after it didn't pay off the last couple years. This weekend, he plans to take his startlingly bright green car and put it at the front all day long.

"We would be all like, 'It's time to go!' And we wouldn't go anywhere," he said of the lag-behind philosophy. "We wouldn't catch anybody and nothing would happen. And we don't know why. Sometimes it just wouldn't work. And I don't want to be in that situation again."

The two-car drafts are mostly extinct thanks to NASCAR's rule changes, and the drivers have more of an ability to control their own destiny again. It's good timing for Earnhardt Jr., who needs to collect big points and doesn't want to rely on other drivers to push him into position.

Sitting seventh in the point standings and on the fringe of being virtually eliminated from the Chase with one more less-than-stellar run, Earnhardt said he has nothing to lose. His No. 88 team hasn't performed as well as it did in the regular season, and he said there's "just something not quite there." Whatever is missing has prevented him from running with the leaders in the first three races.

In that sense, there's no point in being conservative now.

"We're in a spot where we can just kind of let it all hang out and kind of go for broke," he said. "... We're far enough behind really where we could start throwing some things out there and seeing what sticks."

The driver emphasized he wasn't giving up on the championship just yet. Anything can happen, he said, especially at Talladega.

Earnhardt knows that better than anyone. But if a title run is going to happen for the No. 88 team this year, its driver needs to find a way to reclaim some of his old magic on Sunday.

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