Dale Earnhardt Jr. left no doubt that he's still NASCAR's most popular driver when he passed Jeff Gordon for the lead at Martinsville, sending the grandstands into a roar that eclipsed the thundering herd of engines in a manner no other Sprint Cup driver is capable of accomplishing. It reinforced that even when the Chase doesn't include Earnhardt, he's still the driving force for ticket and merchandise sales and is the sport's hope of expanded national media coverage.
Earnhardt's strong run at Martinsville, where he led a season-high 90 laps and finished seventh, has become the prelude to Talladega. With five of his 18 career Cup wins there, it's Earnhardt's best track. He has gone through 89 straight races without a victory. He has a good opportunity to put that streak behind him Sunday.
"I feel like when I go to Talladega, I always have a shot to win," Earnhardt said at Martinsville.
Junior doesn't fool himself into thinking he has a chance to win in every race. He's realistic. He has been in a prolonged slump since the start of the 2007 season. His only win in the past four years has been at Michigan in 2008 and it was a fuel economy run. It's been a devastating period for him that he traces to the introduction of the Car of Tomorrow for 16 races in 2007 and full seasons since 2008.
"The racing is different these days," Earnhardt explained. "Racin' is different and I have to learn how to get it done. These cars made it different. The CoT car races different than the old cars that we won all those races with."
Earnhardt has driven for top teams in Hendrick and Dale Earnhardt Inc., in top equipment and with different crew chiefs in the past four seasons. He has struggled with finding the feel he needs to make the cars better, but on the massive high banks and with restrictor-plate at Talladega, it's an animal he can control.
"Now, the way the CoT is, everybody basically has the same odds really going into Talladega," Earnhardt said. "We'll go there and I always feel good and confident. Even if that was the only race we showed up for each year, I think we would feel good going into it."
Earnhardt went through a magical period at Talladega from 2001 to 2004. He won five of seven races and finished second in the other two. In the CoT era, his only top-5 is a second in April 2009. He was a contender in the spring, but finished 13th.
"I was real happy with the car and how we ran," he said. "When it counted, we didn't make the right moves."
Earnhardt made the right moves in finishing second in the Daytona 500, NASCAR's other restrictor-plate track, in February. He backed it up by finishing fourth at Daytona in July. Martinsville and Talladega are polar opposites, but Earnhardt's seventh there will also boost his confidence.
"We have to run way better than this [seventh]," Earnhardt said. "I can come in here and get a top-10 unless we have a major, major issue in the setup. I feel pretty confident. That is how I feel. I'm not saying that is a reality."
Denny Hamlin's win at Martinsville tightened up the Chase points to its closest race since 2004, when Kurt Busch won the championship by eight points over Jimmie Johnson and 16 over Jeff Gordon. Johnson leads Hamlin by six and Kevin Harvick by 62 heading into Talladega. It's the type of Chase that NASCAR prays for to maintain interest to the end at Homestead-Miami.
An Earnhardt victory at Talladega would dwarf talk of the Chase, for at least a week, maybe longer, but in the big picture, it would be the best thing that could happen for NASCAR. Junior has star power the Chase doesn't. We saw it at Martinsville.