Tough Talladega race goes on without Earnhardt

Posted: Sunday, April 22, 2001

TALLADEGA, Ala. -- Reminders of Dale Earnhardt are everywhere at Talladega Superspeedway.

His No. 3 is written on just about anything that can hold paint or chalk. And clothing of every fashion carries the number, name or likeness of the late racing great.

Most of all, though, The Intimidator is missed on Talladega's 2.66-mile oval, where he was considered the absolute master.

Whether Earnhardt could actually see the air currents swirling around the race cars, as car owner Richard Childress has suggested, is open to debate. But there is no question that no one was better than Earnhardt, who had a record 10 Winston Cup victories on NASCAR's biggest and fastest track.

Earnhardt, who died in a crash Feb. 18 in the Daytona 500, loudly decried the restrictor-plate racing at Talladega and Daytona -- saying the idea in the sport is to go as fast as you can as long as you can -- even as he became its most proficient performer.

''At these plate tracks, I always told people you just find that car with the No. 3 on the back and follow it,'' said Mike Skinner, Earnhardt's teammate at Richard Childress Racing.

Dale Jarrett, a winner of three of the last four Cup events and the series points leader, has been thinking about Earnhardt all week.

''Dale was always the guy that, if you were going to win this race, you had to beat him,'' said Jarrett, who edged Earnhardt twice in memorable Daytona finishes. ''Sometimes he didn't have the best car, but he ended up being the best driver most of the time and could get to the front.''

The plates used at Talladega and Daytona slow the cars by restricting airflow to the carburetor. Instead of racing at speeds well above 200, the Cup cars are dampened down to about 190. Because of that, they are bunched in long, tight, frightening packs.

Aerodynamic rules changes midway through 2000 made it even more competitive at Talladega and Daytona, allowing the cars to use the air flow that Earnhardt knew so well to pass virtually at will. It played right into his hands.

Last October, in the first race with the new rules, there were 49 lead changes at Talladega as the field raced three, four -- sometimes even five-wide.

Speedway officials might as well have removed the seats from the grandstands, because the fans rarely used them. Many stood from green flag to checker.

Earnhardt saved the best for last that day, somehow racing from 18th to first over the final five laps as the crowd howled its appreciation.

Daytona was more of the same, with 49 more lead changes -- and Sunday's race is expected to be a repeat.

With the huge packs always comes anticipation of the big crash that is commonplace in plate races, making the drivers edgy and anxious.

In October, the drivers somehow got to the end at Talladega without a major melee, but a 19-car crash marred Daytona before the last-lap, three-car accident in which Earnhardt was killed.

There was a 13-car crash Saturday in the Subway 300, the Busch Series race at Talladega. The Busch cars also run with restrictor plates.

Jarrett says the key to a safe plate race is always patience -- a commodity that can be scarce as the tense race goes on.

''It's a tall order to ask 43 guys that race for a living to be patient for 500 miles,'' he said.

The 1999 series champion pointed out that part of the problem here is that anyone could win.

''You look down the list of winners and you see a number of guys that have won here for the first time, and some that have won here for the only time in their Winston Cup career,'' Jarrett explained. ''So that literally gives everybody in the field the opportunity to win here and, for some, it may seem that this is their chance for the year.''

That can be a problem.

''The patience can run a little bit thin for those people because they're seeing that opportunity and they want to make things happen,'' Jarrett said.

That also makes racing at Talladega a nerve-racking weekend for many of the competitors.

''I lose about two years off the end of my life every time we come here,'' said Tony Stewart, who flipped and landed on top of defending series champion Bobby Labonte's car in the big Daytona wreck.

Polesitter Stacy Compton sees the big wreck as almost inevitable.

''You know it's going to happen,'' he said. ''Hopefully, you can get through it. There's nothing you can do to avoid it at this point. You just go out there and race as hard as you can race and, hopefully, you don't get caught up in it.''

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