Friday April 24th, 2009

Dale Earnhardt Jr. strolled through the garage at Talladega Superspeedway on Friday afternoon, followed -- as usual -- by a crush of autograph-seeking fans. This is the way it is for Earnhardt at every track on the circuit every time he leaves the privacy of his motor coach and walks into a garage. It's the way it's been for him since he made his Cup debut in 1999. For six straight years, fans have voted him NASCAR's most popular driver. He'll likely win the award again this year, even though 2009 is shaping up to be the worst of his Cup career.

Currently 19th in points, Little E, 34, is in a big funk. He hasn't finished better than eighth and has come in 20th or worse four times. What makes Junior's poor performance even starker is that all of his teammates at Hendrick Motorsports have won a race this year.

So now Junior is at Talladega, the biggest track in NASCAR, his season already on the brink. He had a fast car last Saturday night in Phoenix and led 63 laps. But after Earnhardt lost the lead, Casey Mears pushed him into the wall, essentially ruining his race. Little E eventually rammed into Mears in an act of retribution, and on Tuesday NASCAR put both drivers on probation for six races. Of course, that won't make Earnhardt any less aggressive on the track. After all, he can't afford to become passive at this critical juncture in the season.

Sunday's race is huge for Earnhardt. Talladega is his best track on the schedule -- he's won five times on the 2.66-mile tri-oval -- and even though he hasn't reached Victory Lane at 'Dega since 2004, he's still widely considered by other drivers to be the top restrictor-plate racer in the sport. Like his father, who turned plate racing into an art form, Little E has an uncanny ability to anticipate the moves of other drivers before they make them.

On Sunday, expect Earnhardt to try to seize the lead early. The best way to avoid getting caught up in the Big One is to be in front of it. He'll draft with his teammates Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin, and they'll make few risky moves in the first 450 miles of the race. Things will get interesting with about 25 laps to go. This is when the real race will begin. The drivers will aggressively jockey for track position, which, if history is any guide, will cause the big wreck to occur.

That is what happened last fall when Carl Edwards, with 27 laps to go, tried to aggressively bump teammate Greg Biffle. It caused Biffle to lose control, and triggered the Big One, taking out Edwards and a slew of other cars. In retrospect, it was the moment that Edwards lost the championship to Jimmie Johnson, who narrowly drove through the wreckage and emerged scratch-free. Edwards finished that race 29th; Johnson came in ninth.

There likely will come a moment on Sunday when Little E will need to do what Johnson did last October and navigate through a blur of spinning, out-of-control cars. Luck always plays a big role at Talladega. And if Junior is going to start turning his season around, he'll need some of it on Sunday. I think he gets it done and notches his first win since last June 15.

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