Loudon II: Dale Earnhardt Jr preview

Dale Earnhardt Jr. - driver, No. 8 Budweiser team: "I think we've run really well at Loudon - well... other than earlier this year. (Said with a bit of a chuckle - referring to the Loudon race in July, the first race for Dale Jr. after his fiery...

Dale Earnhardt Jr. - driver, No. 8 Budweiser team:
"I think we've run really well at Loudon - well... other than earlier this year. (Said with a bit of a chuckle - referring to the Loudon race in July, the first race for Dale Jr. after his fiery sports car crash, and where he climbed out - or more correctly, was lifted out of the car after 61 laps and was replaced by his protege, Martin Truex Jr.)

"Yes, we have a real shot at winning the championship. We're a team that has been up and down, but if you look back, even in our Busch Series days, we've always finished really strong in the last third of each season. You have to look at the guys like the 24 (J. Gordon) and the 48 (J. Johnson) because they've been up front every week and I think that's what you have to do to win this thing. There are some tracks (in the final 10 races) that we always look forward to and where we've had success. We have a lot of tests coming up and I believe the races at Kansas and Homestead are going to decide our championship - win or lose. We've struggled at those places, and we're going to test at each of those tracks. If we get those figured out, we're going to be tough to beat."

Dale Jr. and the No. 8 Bud Team at New Hampshire:
Previous Nextel Cup Starts: 10
Best Start: 3rd (July 2003 / July 2004)
Best Finish: 5th (Sept., 2003)
This Race, Last Year: ST: 6th / FIN: 5th / Led 120 laps

-- Dale Jr. returns to New Hampshire International Speedway for the first time since soldiering through a painful weekend as a result of injuries sustained in a sport-car accident just seven days before. The Bud team finished 31st with the help of back-up driver Martin Truex Jr. Now fully recovered and aiming for a quick start in the 10-race Chase for the Nextel Cup Championship, Dale Jr. and the Bud team will attempt to match or better their two top-six finishes last year at Loudon.

-- With four victories, 12 top-fives, 15 top-10s, and 14 races led this year, Dale Jr. enters the Chase in third place in the point standings, 10 markers behind leader Jeff Gordon. Dale Jr. has been in the top-10 in points for 58 consecutive weeks (beginning March 16, 2003) and has been the points-leader following nine of 26 races in 2004, Junior is one of only four drivers to remain in the top-10 all season.

Driver No. 8 in the Chase: 10 Drivers, 10 Teams, 10 Races: Among the final 10 tracks, Dale Jr. is the most recent Cup victor at Phoenix (Nov. 2003) and Atlanta (March 2004). Of his 13 career victories, he has seven wins at four of the "Chase" tracks (Dover, Talladega, Phoenix and Atlanta). He also has a victory at Charlotte in the non-points all-star race in 2000.

A closer look at Dale Jr.'s Cup history at each track:

New Hampshire: Top-six finishes in two of his last three races; career-best finish of fifth in Sept. 2003; in the last five races he has led a total of 165 laps.

Dover: Came from two laps down to finish third in June; nine career starts with one win (Sept. 2001) and three top-three finishes.

Talladega: Has finished first or second in his last six races, including a track-record four consecutive wins from Oct. 2001 to April 2003. Has led the laps in eight consecutive Talladega races for 411 laps; finished second to Jeff Gordon earlier this year.

Kansas: Three career starts with finishes of 33rd, sixth and 18th; earned Bud Pole Award in 2002 and started third last season. Despite Dale Jr's protestations to the contrary, he has led laps in each of his three starts.

Charlotte: Finished sixth in May; has five top-10s in 10 career starts (including three in last four races); has finished fourth twice (May 2000, Oct. 2001) and became the first rookie to win NASCAR's all-star race when he won The Winston in 2000.

Martinsville: No other driver has been as consistently successful at Martinsville since 2002, as Dale Jr. is riding a string of five consecutive top-five finishes. He led 155 laps and finished third in April and has led 411 laps over last three races. Dale Jr. scored more points on short tracks than any other driver in 2002, 2003 and again so far in 2004 (two wins, a second, a third, and an 11th-place finish this season). He has 13 top-fives in the last 19 races on tracks less than one mile in length.

Atlanta: Earned his first Atlanta win in March, adding to finishes of seventh or better in last six races. He has led laps in eight of his 10 career races. Would have easily improved his finishing record except for a series of bizarre occurrences: cut brake line from a television telemetry sensor while leading (March, 2000), cut tire while making a pass for the lead with less than 10 laps left (March, 2001) and leading easily until being forced to drive the final 30 laps with metal debris in one eye (Nov. 2001). Won Bud Pole Award in November, 2001.

Phoenix: Reigning race winner with victory in November, 2003; two straight top-five finishes; has led 192 laps in last two races.

Darlington: Tenth-place finish in March was third top-10 in last five races; career-best is fourth-place finish (March 2002).

Homestead-Miami: Best finish is 13th in four career races; led for 46 laps in 2002.

HOW THEY FARED IN 2003: In the final 10 races last season, the Bud team scored one victory, four top-fives and six top-10s, with a total point accumulation of 1,369 points (an average of 136.9 points per race). A hard crash at Dover resulted in their only DNF of the final 10 races.

TEST DATES GALORE: Having strategically saved most of its test dates for the home stretch, the Bud team will begin a strenuous testing schedule Tuesday with a one-day session at Dover. Other scheduled tests include two days at Kansas, and single-day tests at Martinsville and Homestead-Miami.


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Series NASCAR Cup