There’s been a lot of attention paid this week to the 15th anniversary of Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s dramatic final Sprint Cup win in the Oct. 15, 2000 race at Talladega Superspeedway.
But this year marks another anniversary in “The Intimidator’s” storied career and in the history of restrictor-plate racing. It was 25 years ago that a flat tire in the last two turns of the Daytona 500 ensured that Dale Sr. would have to wait eight more years for his one and only win in the race.
However, after having to watch Derrike Cope celebrate, Earnhardt made sure no one else would have success in plate races during that 1990 season. Earnhardt won all three remaining races that year at Daytona International Speedway and Talladega.
Since then, no driver has won more than two plate races in a season.
And surprisingly, not Dale Earnhardt Jr.
But that could change Sunday in the CampingWorld.com 500 at Talladega. Earnhardt Jr., who won the May 3 race at Talladega and the Coke Zero 400 in July, could be the first driver in 25 years to win three.
The numbers are in Earnhardt Jr.’s favor. Start with the fact that the No. 88 Chevrolet has won three restrictor-plate points races in the last two years and one Daytona 500 qualifying race.
Then look at Earnhardt Jr.’s average finish at the plate tracks through three races in 2015. With his third-place finish in the Daytona 500, Earnhardt Jr.’s current average is 1.67. Barring an unfortunate turn of events Sunday, Earnhardt Jr. could tie the best single-season performance at Daytona and Talladega.
The four best all-time average finishes in a single season across the four annual races held at those tracks are Earnhardt Sr. (1999) and Bobby Allison (1988) at 1.50, and Earnhardt Jr. (2004) and Richard Petty (1974) at 1.75.
But there’s a more at stake for Earnhardt Jr. in Sunday’s race than an average finish. Earnhardt all but needs a win to advance to the third round of the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
A win also would provide a much-needed boost to Hendrick Motorsports, which hasn’t visited victory lane or finished in the top two since Earnhardt Jr.’s Coke Zero 400 win, which was 14 races ago. The average finish of all four cars in the 14 races since is 17.09.
This is the longest a Rick Hendrick-owned car has not won since 16 races came and went between the 2011-2012 seasons. But going in the team’s favor this year is restrictor-plate tracks. Hendrick cars have finished 1-2 in the last two plate races.
They have led 84 percent of the laps run in the three races. Jeff Gordon, who hasn’t won on a plate track in his last 31 attempts, has led more laps in the three restrictor-plate races this season (134) than he has in the other races combined (75).
Earnhardt is the only Hendrick driver to win a plate race since Johnson won the Coke Zero 400 in 2013.