The secret to Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s restrictor-plate resurgence? It’s simple

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SPARTA, Ky. – It’s become increasingly evident that Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s nine-season winless streak in restrictor-plate races was definitely a case of a slower car and not a slumping driver.

With his victory in the Coke Zero 400, Earnhardt has won three of the past seven races held at Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway and is averaging a finish of 1.6 in three plate races this season.

He might have even more wins during that stretch if he hadn’t lost his Daytona 500-winning car to the track’s museum for the last three plate races of the 2014 season. Earnhardt, whose No. 88 Chevrolet shares a shop with the No. 48 of six-time series champion Jimmie Johnson, said his 2015 cars are on par with the Daytona 500 winner.

“Over the last two years, the 88‑48 shop has built two of the best restrictor-plate cars in the sport,” Earnhardt said. “Fortunately, yet unfortunately, we won the Daytona 500 with one of them where we didn’t get to use it again the rest of the year, and we basically had to use a second-hand car or backup car that wasn’t quite as good the rest of the (2014) season at the plate tracks. Still a good and competitive car, but the car that I’ve had (in 2015) and (that won the 2014 Daytona 500) is exceptional and extraordinary compared to the rest of the competition.”

The win at Daytona was the 10th of Earnhardt’s career at Daytona and Talladega, ranking him behind only Jeff Gordon (12) and his late father (11) at the plate tracks (NBCSN analyst Dale Jarrett ranks fourth on the list with six wins).

But after winning seven races at plate tracks from 2001-04 (including four in a row at Talladega), there were questions about whether Earnhardt’s knack for side-drafting and navigating the slipstream had faded as he endured an 0-for-36 streak at Daytona and Talladega from 2005-13.

During the drought, there were new iterations of cars, varying rules and repavings at both tracks.

Earnhardt never lost faith in his ability to deliver the goods. But as cars became more standardized and his rivals improved, the talent gap lessened and made it more difficult to reach victory lane without a superior car. He was in first for a race-high 96 laps in Monday’s rain-delayed win at Daytona, the most laps  he’d led in a plate race since May 2002 at Talladega (133). It was his second-highest laps led total at Daytona, ranking behind the 116 he paced in July 2001 – the first plate win of his career.

“There’s a lot of drivers with the same skill level that know what to do,” Earnhardt said. “I know what to do, they know what to do, but will our cars do it? My car can do the things I want it to do, and when I can move from seventh to first in a matter of a lap or two, that’s because the car can sustain the run. You’ve got to do all these things that’s sort of like playing Frogger, and you’ve got to time everything in order to get across.  That’s what it’s like when you’re passing. You’ve got to do everything just right, but the car is probably 80 percent of it.

“Denny (Hamlin), Jimmie (Johnson) and all those guys know how to do all these things. I just feel like we have the car that’s better than all of them.”

NBC analyst Steve Letarte, who worked as Earnhardt’s crew chief from 2011-14, said Hendrick Motorsports had raised its game since last season in finding more speed at Daytona and Talladega.

“As we went from the traditional mid-2000s cars to the COT to the generation of car we have now, Dale Jr. was very vocal to me about the underperformance of our vehicles a couple of times at the speedways,” Letarte said. “I think that is what has driven the company to work very hard on the restrictor-plate program and what makes it worth your while is when you give a guy like Dale Jr. a fast car, look at what he does with it. He makes very few mistakes. He’s very efficient.

“Both at Talladega and Daytona now, I thought he had the best car. We’ve seen the best car not win a lot, and this is back-to-back speedway races that the best car does look like it has won. I think it’s the combination of it all, him forcing the company to support a style of racing he loves. When they have done that, it gives them what they’re looking for.”

Earnhardt led a race-high 67 laps in the May 3 win at Talladega, his third-highest total at the 2.66-mile oval.

The success has reminded Letarte of the early to mid-2000s era when the Dale Earnhardt Inc. cars of Earnhardt and Michael Waltrip often seemed unbeatable with the father-son duo of Tony Eury and Tony Eury Jr. building the slickest cars on the circuit.

Just as this season, the key was giving Earnhardt an edge behind the wheel and letting him slice his way into the lead.

“It became apparent (the DEI cars) had figured out way to find an advantage in the pack, and I applaud the Eurys for doing that,” Letarte said. “But I’m not taking anything away from Dale Jr. You can’t build a better car without a great race car driver driving it and giving you feedback. A great race car driver can only do so much with an average race car.”