Fit For The Big Screen: Dale Jr. Hits ’Dega

This weekend’s script reads like a blockbuster, and it’s not as far-fetched as some would think.

NASCAR’s most popular driver returns to his most prolific track, Talladega Superspeedway – a site at which a recent poll stated that a whopping 2/3rds of local fans ranked him as their favorite driver.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Dale Earnhardt Jr., Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet

Photo by: Action Sports Photography

That driver – it’s Dale Earnhardt Jr., of course – has a perfectly round winless drought: 100 races. That’s a career-long stretch for a driver with a hefty 18 career wins.

He owns the statistics that make him a favorite at the 2.66-mile track: five wins, a second-best Driver Rating of 92.7 and laps led in the last 10 races, and in 20 of 22 career starts overall.

The last 100 races have not been kind to Earnhardt, but 2011 has a different feel. Earnhardt has finished in the top 10 in two consecutive races, and four of the last six.

He is currently sixth in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series points standings, the highest he has been this late in the season since 2008. That season, he won his last race, and made his last Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.

Earnhardt’s Talladega runs have dipped in recent years. From 2001 until 2004, he posted eight consecutive top-10 finishes. Five of those were wins. Two others were runner-up finishes.

Since then, he has four DNFs and six finishes outside the top 20.

Talladega: New Leader, The Field (Practically)

Whenever a lead change takes place on the race track, the NASCAR control tower announces it thusly: “New Leader, the [car number].”

There were many such announcements at the two Talladega races last season. The April race had an all-time NASCAR record 88 lead changes; the October race had 87. The October race got off to a quick start – there were 10 lead changes in the first 10 laps.

The record for number of different leaders was also broken last April – 29 different drivers led at least one lap.

Figure on a similar ratio this weekend. The lead change and leader records both fell in the season’s first restrictor plate race – the Daytona 500. That jump-started a season that has already seen three races with records in lead changes, and another – Texas, last weekend – that came two lead changes short of tying the record.

Many competition numbers are highs through seven races. For instance …

• There has been an average of 13 leaders per race, most through seven races in series history.

• There has been an average of 31.4 lead changes per race, most through seven races in series history.

• There have been six different winners in the first seven races, most since 2003.

• There has been an average of 3,581 green flag passes all around the track per race, most through seven races since the inception of Loop Data in 2005.

• There has been an average of 39 green flag passes for the lead all around the track per race, second-most through seven races since the inception of Loop Data in 2005.

Childress Drivers Have Hot Hand At Talladega – For Now

Clint Bowyer, Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet with Richard Childress
Clint Bowyer, Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet with Richard Childress

Photo by: Eric Gilbert

Since Richard Childress drove in the inaugural race at Talladega Superspeedway in 1969 – finishing 23rd – perhaps it’s appropriate that his cars would be among the favorites to win Sunday’s Aaron’s 499.

Richard Childress Racing swept both Talladega races a year ago, breaking a nine-year ’Dega drought that followed Dale Earnhardt’s Winston 500 victory in the fall of 2000.

Kevin Harvick won last spring’s Aaron’s 499 and narrowly missed a sweep as RCR teammate Clint Bowyer grabbed the lead on the final lap of the track’s fall race. Click here for a video of Harvick discussing Talladega.

Ironically, Harvick and Bowyer are the only drivers out of the RCR stable besides Earnhardt to score a Talladega victory. Nine of Earnhardt’s 10 Talladega triumphs were with RCR, bringing the team’s total to 11 – most by any owner at the 2.66-mile Alabama track.

Winning plate races is an ebb-and-flow proposition. Childress’ organization has the hot hand at present with three victories in the past four races at Talladega and Daytona. Harvick also won the 2007 Daytona 500 and posted back-to-back Budweiser Shootout victories in 2009-10.

Six times in this decade a team has swept both Talladega races: Childress in 2010, Joe Gibbs Racing in 2008, Hendrick Motorsports in 2006-07 and Dale Earnhardt Inc. in 2002-03.

RCR has won the Aaron’s 499 four times.

Whether Harvick or Bowyer can do a Talladega double, however, is open to question. Talladega hasn’t seen a repeat winner in its past seven races. Jeff Gordon was the last to win Talladega back-to-back, taking both races in 2007. Six different drivers have found Victory Lane since then.

How Long Will Roush Fenway Dominance Last?

Roush Fenway Racing put all four of its drivers in the top seven this past weekend at Texas Motor Speedway, including winner Matt Kenseth.

Matt Kenseth, Roush Fenway Racing Ford
Matt Kenseth, Roush Fenway Racing Ford

Photo by: Action Sports Photography

Statistically speaking, don’t count on that happening again this Sunday at Talladega. With a team-wide average finish of 18.9 at Talladega, the track ranks as RFR’s worst. Its Driver Rating there is 75.6, making Talladega its second-worst track in terms of the Loop Data stat behind Watkins Glen (75.3).

Some quick hits on the team’s Talladega struggles…

• Last year, only one Roush Fenway driver finished in the top 10 in either Talladega race: David Ragan, 6th in April.

• Jamie McMurray, who is no longer with the team, is the last RFR driver to win at Talladega (Nov. 1, 2009). Prior to that, RFR’s last Talladega win was by Mark Martin in May of 1997.

• Since 2007, 38 Roush Fenway Racing cars have entered at Talladega; seven have placed in the top 10.

• Those seven top 10s have come from three drivers: Dave Ragan (three), Jamie McMurray (two), and Greg Biffle (two). None from points leader Carl Edwards or third-place Kenseth.

Call Of The “Wild”: New Chase Format Could Help Some Big Guns

A number of preseason favorites are in serious danger of falling out of Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup contention. But with the new Chase format, these drivers can still rely on the two “Wild Card” spots. After race No. 26, the top 10 drivers in points will earn a Chase berth. Spots 11 and 12 will go to the drivers with the most wins, provided they are in the top 20 in points. Some big names might have to use that as a last resort…

Denny Hamlin, 20th: This is Hamlin’s lowest points position through seven races in his six-year career. The good news: His Talladega Driver Rating of 93.0 tops the charts. Hamlin has led at least one lap in all 10 of his Talladega starts.

Jamie McMurray, 24th: McMurray has been outside the top 20 after seven races in three of the last four seasons (last year, he was 20th). At Talladega, he has a win in 2009, and a runner-up finish in last year’s Aaron’s 499.

Jeff Burton, 25th: This is the first time that Burton has been outside the top 12 after seven races (he led the points in 2008). With a Talladega Driver Rating of 87.8, Burton ranks fifth.

Joey Logano, 28th: At this point last year, Logano was 11th in the points standings. He ranks fourth in Driver Rating at Talladega (89.1), and has finished in the top 10 in three of his four Talladega races.

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NSCS Etc.

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series teams have been notified that they will be using a 7/8 inch diameter restrictor plate to prepare and practice for the event at Talladega. It will be a slight reduction in restrictor plate size from Daytona (by 1/64 inch). … All of the other adjustments that were made at Daytona with the cooling systems will remain intact – maximum radiator air inlet size will be three inches x 20 inches wide (as it was for the Daytona 500). … Michael Waltrip will attempt his first NASCAR Sprint Cup race since the season-opening Daytona 500. If he makes the field, it’ll be his 50th start at Talladega. … Kyle Busch, who failed to lead a single lap at Texas last weekend, still needs 117 laps to reach 20,000 laps led for his NASCAR national series career.

Biggest Superspeedway On The Schedule Attracts Biggest Names In NASCAR

The who’s who of NASCAR will be gracing the high-banks of Talladega Superspeedway for Saturday’s Aaron’s 312. Some of the biggest names in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series will join the familiar faces of the NASCAR Nationwide Series regulars. Below is the star-studded double-duty list and some quick highlights:

• Two-time NASCAR Nationwide Series champion and series car owner Dale Earnhardt Jr. has made seven starts at Talladega posting one win (2003), three top fives and five top 10s. He is ranked seventh in the pre-race Driver Rating with 94.5.

• Past NASCAR Nationwide Series champions Joe Nemechek (1992), Kevin Harvick (2001, ‘06), Carl Edwards (2007), Clint Bowyer (2008), Kyle Busch (2009) and Brad Keselowski (2010). Keselowski is the defending race winner. Nemechek, who made his 900th NASCAR national series start last weekend at Texas, leads all series active drivers at Talladega in wins with two (1998, 2000) and poles with five (1996, ’97,’98, 2001,’02).

• Daytona 500 winner Jamie McMurray (2010) and two-time Daytona 500 winner (2001, ‘03) and series car owner Michael Waltrip return to the series.

• Joe Gibbs Racing driver Joey Logano has the highest-ranked (second) NASCAR Pre-Race Loop Data Driver Rating heading into Talladega this weekend with (113.5). He has made two starts at Talladega finishing second last season and third in 2009.

Driver Spotlights: Brian Scott and Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

Joe Gibbs Racing’s newest addition Brian Scott and Roush Fenway Racing’s comeback king Ricky Stenhouse Jr. are both heading to Talladega with momentum from their early success this season.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

Photo by: Action Sports Photography

Finding room in the spotlight with a teammate as dominate in the NASCAR Nationwide Series as Kyle Busch can be difficult, but Brian Scott has done it. He is eighth in the points after the first six races of the season just 45 points behind Stenhouse, the series standings leader. Scott has posted two top-10 finishes this season at Phoenix and last weekend at Texas.

Scott made his Talladega debut last season starting 17th and finishing 10th, just ahead of Busch in 11th.

Roush Fenway Racing swept Texas last weekend in both NASCAR national series, and this weekend the series driver standings leader, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is looking to capitalize on the momentum. Stenhouse is tied with his teammate Carl Edwards for the series lead with five top-10 finishes this season. Stenhouse is the highest ranked series regular in season-to-date Driver Rating (108.4) and only third overall behind Kyle Busch (128.2) and Carl Edwards (117.5).

Stenhouse leads the standings by 14 points over Turner Motorsports’ Jason Leffler. Stenhouse is looking to rebound from last season’s Talladega debut, when he started third but finished 29th.

NNS Competition Corner

After the first six races here are some competition highlights:

• All four manufacturers have now won in the new car. Dodge and Chevrolet each had two wins among the new car’s four races last year. Toyota claimed its first new car win this year at Phoenix courtesy of Kyle Busch, and Ford scored its first new car victory with Carl Edwards’ victory at Texas last weekend.

• Four different winners in the first six races: Kyle Busch (three wins), Tony Stewart, Mark Martin, and Carl Edwards (each has one).

• Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is the fourth different driver standings leader joining Landon Cassill, Reed Sorenson and Jason Leffler.

• Three perfect driver rating performances this season: Kyle Busch (150.0) at Phoenix and Bristol; Carl Edwards (150.0) at Texas.

Below are some bullets highlighting the action scheduled for this weekend at Talladega:

• The NASCAR Nationwide Series new car makes race debut at Talladega, but this won’t be its first time on the track. The new car tested at Talladega in October 2009.

• There have been 19 series races at Talladega Superspeedway with 13 different pole winners led by Joe Nemechek (five), and 16 different race winners led by two-time series champion Martin Truex Jr. (three). Nemechek leads all active drivers this weekend with two victories.

NNS Etc. – Talladega Superspeedway

Travis Pastrana turned his first laps in a NASCAR Nationwide Series car this week at Motor Mile Speedway in Radford, Va. for his co-owned team Pastrana Waltrip Racing. Click this here to listen to an interview with Pastrana at the event. … Joe Gibbs Racing No. 20 car became the fourth new leader in the owner standings this past weekend, overtaking the No. 18 Toyota, which dropped to seventh in the standings. The No. 20 team holds the standings lead by one point ahead of the Roush Fenway Racing No. 60 car and the Kevin Harvick Inc. No. 33 car. Both have 224 points this season.

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Randy Moss Motorsports Hits “300” Milestone In Nashville

Randy Moss Motorsports will achieve a significant milestone April 22 at Nashville Superspeedway, becoming just the fourth NASCAR Camping World Truck Series organization to field at least one truck in 300 consecutive races.

Known previously as Dollar Motorsports, the team has competed in 15 of the series’ 16 seasons. Its No. 5 Toyota is driven by 2003 champion Travis Kvapil.

“I feel very fortunate to be able to reach this milestone in my career as a team owner,” said team founder and co-owner David Dollar. “As a young racer competing on dirt tracks back in Oklahoma, I always heard about Richard Childress and Rick Hendrick, and now here we are competing against their drivers and equipment every week.”

Randy Moss, the National Football League wide receiver, became a team principal in mid-2008. “I can sleep every night knowing David really cares about the sport, making it better and educating me; that has made the transition a lot smoother,” said Moss.

Kvapil, one of more than 30 to drive for the organization, said, “I’ve been racing in the (series) on-and-off for the last 10 years, and have had some intense battles with drivers from Randy Moss Motorsports. David and Randy have always put in a lot of time to make this team one of the strongest in the [NASCAR Camping World] Truck Series garage.”

The Randy Moss Motorsports timeline:

• Oct. 7, 1996 Marc Robe starts and finishes 33rd as Dollar Motorsports debuts at Infineon Raceway.

• Rob Morgan and Dollar form Morgan-Dollar Motorsports in 1999. The team begins its current streak on March 20 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Morgan finishes 18th in the championship standings.

• Dennis Setzer scores the team’s first victory on June 23, 2001 at Memphis Motorsports Park and adds a first pole two weeks later at Kansas Speedway.

• Setzer is the team’s most successful driver, winning 11 times and finishing runner up in the championship standings from 2003-05. Three other drivers - Mike Skinner (three wins), Clint Bowyer and Bobby Labonte - contribute to the team’s 16 wins, ranking 11th all-time among owners.

• A virtual who’s who of NASCAR has been at the controls of a Randy Moss Motorsports truck contributing to 70 top-five and 164 top-10 finishes and six poles. They include AJ Allmendinger, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson, Scott Speed and Tony Stewart.

Points Reflect NASCAR Camping World Truck Changes

Finding Todd Bodine and Ron Hornaday Jr. among the top 10 of the NASCAR Camping World Truck standings is a virtual given. Bodine (eighth) has held a top-10 position after four races in each of the seven seasons he’s competed in the series fulltime. Hornaday (sixth) is 11-for-12 seasons.

That, however, is where comparisons between 2011 and 2010 end. Six of those ranked among the top 10 as the series heads to Nashville Superspeedway weren’t there a year ago. In fact, four of those six weren’t even fulltime series competitors in 2010.

Here’s the tale of the tape:

• Matt Crafton and Timothy Peters rank in the top five for the second consecutive season. Crafton is second vs. fifth a year ago; Peters, last year’s points leader after race No. 4, is third.

• Current leader Johnny Sauter didn’t make the 2010 top 10 until his victory in race No. 5 at Kansas Speedway.

• Last year’s Sunoco Rookie of the Year Austin Dillon also needed a win to reach elite ranking. He jumped to seventh, where he currently resides, after a victory in race No. 10 at Iowa Speedway.

• The remaining top-10 drivers – Cole Whitt, Clay Rogers, Max Papis and Miguel Paludo – were doing the majority of their racing elsewhere in 2010. Whitt and Paludo are rookies. Last season’s comparable top 10 was 100% veteran drivers.

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NCWTS Etc.

David Starr finished 38th in his NASCAR Sprint Cup Series debut last weekend at Texas Motor Speedway. … Series veteran Scott Eggleston and SS Green Light Racing’s Bobby Dotter and Butch Miller won big on their weekend off as Eggleston collected one of late model racing’s largest pots - $75,000 – on Sunday at North Wilkesboro (N.C.) Speedway. … Eibach Springs will partner with ThorSport Racing and its three drivers Crafton, Sauter and Dakoda Armstrong for the remainder of the 2011 season. … Camping World will sponsor the Wood Brothers’ No. 21 Ford driven by Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne this weekend at Talladega Superspeedway as well as the team’s participation in the May 21 NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race.

-source: nascar