TALLADEGA, Ala. Teammates Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Michael Waltrip will start near the back of the field Sunday in the Aaron's 499 at Talladega Superspeedway. Nobody expects them to stay there long.
''They have a great race package,'' said Elliott Sadler, starting third in the 43-car field. ''I think they're going to be the ones to beat when it's all said and done.''
Scott Riggs, starting fourth, said none of the competitors have been lulled by Earnhardt and Waltrip qualifying 36th and 38th for the Nextel Cup event on the 2.66-mile oval. Everyone is aware the Dale Earnhardt Inc. drivers have combined to win nine of the last 16 races at Talladega and Daytona, the only tracks at which NASCAR requires horsepower-sapping carburetor restrictor plates to slow the cars.
Earnhardt and Waltrip have become the acknowledged masters of the draft the thundering freight trains of stock cars racing two- and three-wide lap after lap at nearly 200 mph on NASCAR's two biggest tracks.
Riggs noted several other teams have caught up to the Dale Earnhardt Inc. duo on the plate tracks, but that doesn't make Earnhardt and Waltrip any less dangerous.
''They have a lot of experience,'' Riggs said. ''I guess running up front a lot like they have in the past, restrictor plate races teach you a lot about where to move your car and where to position yourself. I think that even if their cars aren't dominant like they have been in the past, I think they will still wind up being up front and leading the race at some point.''
But Riggs, who drives for MBV Motorsports, said the DEI cars won't be able to play the kind of games with the rest of the field that they once did.
''They'd get up there and wait for the next one to get up to them, then they'd hook up together and then the race is over,'' he said. ''They'd just make sure they got out of the pits first and second and they'd race among themselves. I don't think that's going to happen anymore.''
If winding up with Earnhardt and Waltrip at or near the front at Talladega is virtually a given, so is having Jeff Gordon in the mix at the end.
The four-time Cup champion, who will start second, alongside pole-winner Kevin Harvick, has won three of the last four races on the plate tracks and is the defending winner of the spring Talladega event. He also won the season-opening Daytona 500, beating Kurt Busch and Earnhardt.
Gordon said the qualifying at plate tracks means almost nothing after the race begins.
''Once you get into the draft, it's an equalizer,'' Gordon explained. ''I've never seen a car out there look stronger than another one, really, especially here at Talladega. So, I think it's more of who knows how to work the draft and use their mirrors and who has a pit crew that is solid all day long to hold onto that track position.''
The DEI drivers, Gordon, Harvick and Riggs all drive Chevrolets, the brand that has won 12 straight Cup races at Talladega. That makes drivers like Sadler, who races a Ford, feel a little picked on.
''I'm tired of those bowties hogging up the show,'' Sadler said, referring to the Chevrolet corporate logo. ''We just want to get a Ford in Victory Lane, so I'm going to try to go out there and lead some laps and do what we can.
''A Ford hasn't won a race here since 1998 and we hardly even lead any laps when we come, and everybody in our shop wants to change that,'' added Sadler, who drives for Robert Yates Racing. ''They've built me a brand new race car. It's never been tested or anything and we brought it right down here and qualified third. That says a lot about our program.''
Ryan Newman qualified fifth in the fastest Dodge in the field and he isn't willing to concede anything to the Chevy drivers, either.
''This is probably the most excited I've been about a restrictor plate race, other than being a rookie and not knowing what it's all about,'' Newman said. ''I think we've got a good shot at running up front Sunday. When you've got a fast car, guys line up behind you.''
Still, everybody up front will be looking over their shoulders for Earnhardt's No. 8 and the No. 15 of Waltrip after the green flag waves.
And Earnhardt didn't sound worried about his starting position.
''It's kind of fun starting in the back and cutting up through there,'' Junior said. ''That's one positive way of looking at it.''
Adding to the equation going into the race, heavy rains Saturday forced NASCAR to cancel the final practice sessions for the Cup cars. That means everyone will have to do a little bit of guesswork on their starting setups.
''I don't think it's a big deal now,'' said Ricky Rudd, whose Ford will start seventh. ''We've run this set of rules enough to know what to do to your race cars and, at least in our situation, this car has been raced before. We'll see how it goes, but I guess we'll get 500 miles of drafting practice tomorrow.''
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