Dale Earnhardt Jr. talks about how he became among the best at plate racing

(Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)
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NASCAR is back in Earnhardt country this weekend with the GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. has won two of the last five restrictor-plate races and is the active leader in wins at Talladega with six. He spoke at length Friday about how he became to be the man to beat when NASCAR rolls into Talladega, Alabama, twice a year.

Q: Your record at plate tracks is so much better than anybody else. You’ve won 10 points races. Why are you better than other people here? And does that cause you more pressure? Or are you more relaxed when we come here?

EARNHARDT: “It doesn’t really feel like it’s a lot more pressure. I don’t know why. I don’t know what it is about myself, but I’ve had some really fast cars. If I looked back at all the races that I’ve run here, there are some where the car just didn’t have what I needed. Every driver wants their car to do something different. Or, races where we just didn’t have the combination of car and driver and the races that we won, we certainly did.

“One of the things that helped me a lot was when RCR and DEI and (Andy) Petree formed the RAD racing program that was strictly dedicated to plate racing. And Tony (Eury) Sr. and Tony Jr., just by happenstance, happened to be very smart about what they needed out of their plate cars and how to work in some of the gray areas that a lot of people didn’t know about. Watching my dad, who was one of the best, I learned a tremendous amount because I solely watched him, whereas someone else who grew up around the sport may not have focused as much on one particular driver. All those things maybe helped me develop into maybe a better plate race car driver than the average guy.

“But the cars are everything. If the car can’t complete the passes that my mind mentally wants it to make, then I won’t be as offensive and as confident in making those moves. I’ll make those moves less often and put myself in the least likely position to succeed. If I would go out there and drive the car and it’s just not doing what I think I need it to do, then your confidence goes down and you certainly aren’t the big dog out there and someone else sort of rises to the occasion throughout the day and throughout the event as the dominant car, the dominant driver, the guy with the best stuff; and he’s the one that tends to control the race.

“So, you’ve got to try to establish yourself as that guy all day long and I’ve had more success doing it that way here lately than I have taking it easy or just taking care of myself ‘til late. When I was driving the Bud car, around 2003, ’04, ’05 when we were winning all those races, I raced as hard in practices as I did in the race. And I think that since, you kind of can set the tone early in the weekend with your competitors that this is who you’re going to be out on the track; plus this is the car you’ve got. And when they start talking about who might be strong in the event before the event is even here, and you’re one of those names on the list, you know they’re thinking that you’re a guy they’re going to be looking for and you’re more likely going to get the drafting help when you need it, and so forth.

“They’re going to expect you to complete these passes and expect you to know what you’re doing and they tend to work with the guys that do that. I do, when I’m out there. I’m like, ‘Oh, I think he knows what he’s doing. I think he’s got a good car. I’m going to push him instead of this guy.’ ”

“So, that starts at the early part of the weekend. And I think there was a time around 2008 to 2012 where we didn’t race in practice. We’d just come here and made up laps by ourselves. And then we’d go race. It just didn’t feel like you really understood who you were or what your car was capable of doing before you got to the race. So, now we’re drafting a lot more. You get that confidence in your car in practice, and you get that confidence in yourself and that bleeds over into Sunday race.”

Q: In the aero package, what’s the fundamental difference that you’ve seen and felt this year between last year and this year?

EARNHARDT: “A lot less grip. The cars are really harder to drive. To run a good lap at Richmond last week took a ton of discipline and self-discipline; same thing at Texas. It’s particularly at a track where we have a lot of falloff and the tires get worn out and get slow. There is so much more going on inside the car as far as what the driver is facing and what he’s dealing with and how he’s struggling with the car. There’s so much more of that than we’ve had in the past. With the spoiler on the back, they didn’t handle bad, they always drove pretty good, be in the throttle all the time. If you’re in the throttle all the, you’re obviously pretty comfortable.

“But man, they were way harder to drive. This seems weird to me but it’s what you want. I don’t know if that makes sense to someone who’s not a race car driver, but you want it to be hard because all the guys in the garage think they’re the best driver in the garage. And the harder we can make it, the better shot each one of them think they’ve got at winning, right? So, all of us are like, make it harder; make it harder, because that helps me. That’s pretty much the mentality in there. And so, I think you see in my conversations with the fans a little bit, they’re seeing the cars move around. That’s something they hadn’t seen in a while.

“They’re seeing the drivers wrestle with the cars a little more, which is important, to having a more exciting product. And if they can figure out a way to capture more of that, particularly with the television audience, I think we will be going in the right direction. But, yeah, the cars are way slicker, they’re harder to drive, they slide around on top of the track as far as in the past, they felt forced into the track and felt much more comfortable.”

Q: Do you think we will see a lot of teammates working together?

EARNHARDT: “The Gibbs guys did it to perfection in Daytona.  I think that we did a great job of that the last time at Talladega at the end of the season when I needed to win and Jeff (Gordon) was trying to protect his position. The other drivers certainly worked with each of us a lot more than we typically would. I think it helped us and almost allowed us to achieve what we were trying to do there with winning the race.

“But what the Gibbs guys did was good.  That is what you want to do.  You don’t start from 20th and all of you work together up through there.  All of you have to find your way to the front on your own.  Once you get there you quit racing each other and just race everybody else.  It’s hard to do because somebody is going to have to be at the back of that line of teammates.  That is not where any of us want to be.  I would rather be leading every lap and I think all my teammates would certainly rather be leading every lap.

“Being the leader is so much easier than trying to hold off everybody that is going to get these runs. All they are going to keep doing is trying to get runs, get up beside you over and over and over. If you are third, fourth in line you may run side-by-side with somebody on your door for 20 laps, 50 laps before somehow your line can break free or that whole line dominates the particular line you are in.

“It just depends on how it works out. We can’t sit there in 10th place and work together because we are just going to run in 10th. You’ve got to get to the front on your own and once you get there hopefully, you find your buddies up there with you. Once you are together in the lead or toward the lead you take care of each other a little bit better. If somebody tries to make a move, one thing that I did last time, I had to win the race.  We got all single file up on the high side and I was just sitting there around sixth or seventh or eighth and I had to get to the front.

“We all know if you pull out you go to the back, but Jimmie (Johnson) was running around 10th and I knew he would let me in line. So, I could be more aggressive in trying to pass to go up toward the front and find my way toward the front and then we did. We got up in there in the top three and top two and that led to us being in the right position on those last final restarts to actually have a shot at winning. So, yeah, you can work together a little bit, but you have to find your way to the front independently more so, but again if we get in those single file lines where we are trying to hold everybody in their position.

“If the leader goes up to the top to basically see if everybody will run there and then anybody drops out of line is screwed. The leader wants this to happen because he will lead and not face any real challenge. That is perfect for the leader.  If you’ve got a teammate running 10th and you’re in fifth, you can be aggressive and try to screw that whole plan up knowing that your teammate might let you in if you happen to not make the right move and start to get shuffled to the back on your own. I hope that made sense.”

Where are they now? Scott Riggs races with son, Layne

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Scott Riggs, who raced for 15 years in NASCAR’s top three national series, now is guiding the racing career of his 20-year-old son, Layne.

And things are going well.

Layne won this year’s NASCAR Advance Auto Parts Weekly Series Late Model championship, scoring 16 wins in 43 starts and edging former series champion Peyton Sellers by four points for the title.

Riggs thus became the youngest champion in Weekly Series history.

“It all started when Layne was 10 years old, mostly just something to entertain him and to have some fun,” Scott told NBC Sports. “But it’s turned into a full-fledged job. My life and plate have been full.”

MORE: NASCAR Power Rankings: Memorable quotes

The Riggs family’s race shop is located in Bahama, North Carolina, Riggs’ home base during his NASCAR career. Scott describes himself as the “truck driver, spotter, crew chief and in-shop mechanic.”

“I am very tired,” he said.

The team, which depends on volunteers, didn’t plan to race in so many events this season, but when Layne started the year with a string of victories, it made sense to chase the national championship and give him a chance to be the youngest winner ever.

“To chase it that hard and be that close and then to win it, it was very exhausting,” Scott said. “It was a very big relief to finish the year.”

Success on short tracks resulted in Layne racing in three Camping World Truck Series events this year with Halmar Racing. He had a best finish of seventh at Lucas Oil Indianapolis Raceway Park in his series debut.

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Scott Riggs ended his NASCAR driving career in 2014 in the Truck Series. He won five Truck races and four Xfinity races and ran 208 Cup races without a win. He made his Truck debut in 1999, moved to Xfinity in 2002 (winning Rookie of the Year) and then to Cup in 2004.

Riggs, now 51, raced in the Cup Series from 2004-13 with stops at MB2 Motorsports and with teams owned by Gene Haas, Tommy Baldwin and Ray Evernham, among others. He had four top-five finishes.

“I think I was very fortunate and the timing was right for me to move up through the ranks and get so many good opportunities,” Riggs said. “I raced late models for a long time, and then all of a sudden I got the opportunity to get in a truck. Won some races and poles and won races and poles in Xfinity.”

MORE: Jody Ridley’s upset for the ages

He ran out of chances in Cup as team models shifted, including some downsizing and mergers.

“I felt like I couldn’t get an opportunity that I had worked for and earned,” Riggs said. “It was hard for me. I was bitter for a year or so. But I look back, and a realization came over me that I was fortunate to have that time with my kids when they were at the right ages. I got to watch them do their things and just be the dad I wanted to be — not being gone four out of every seven days racing.

“I don’t think I’d have the relationship I have today with my kids if I had had a longer time in the sport.”

 

 

NASCAR Power Rankings: Memorable quotes through the years

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The best quotes from drivers and others involved in NASCAR competition often come in the heat of the moment — after a crash or a close finish or a controversial decision by officials.

NASCAR’s history is filled with memorable quotes from drivers who won races to drivers who watched wins slip away to officials caught in a moment of history.

Here’s a look at 10 that stand out:

NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings

1. “I didn’t mean to turn him around. I meant to rattle his cage, though.” — Dale Earnhardt, describing how he didn’t mean to wreck Terry Labonte after he wrecked Labonte on the last lap at Bristol Motor Speedway to win the Aug. 28, 1999 race.

2. “They have a golden horseshoe stuck up their ass. There’s no way to get around that.” — Kevin Harvick, Feb. 21, 2010, offering his opinion on why Jimmie Johnson and his Hendrick Motorsports team won so many races after Johnson outran him to win at Auto Club Speedway.

MORE: An upset for the ages: Jody Ridley wins at Dover

3. “It’s a stump-puller.” — Sterling Marlin, emphasizing the strength of his engine after he won the Daytona 500 Feb. 19, 1995.

4. “It’s probably not his fault. His wife wears the firesuit in the family and tells him what to do.” — Joey Logano, talking about Kevin Harvick after they were involved in a late-race crash at Pocono Raceway June 6, 2010. Harvick’s wife, DeLana, often wore a firesuit similar to those worn by team members during races.

5. “Do you have a brother?” — Ward Burton, responding to a reporter who asked if it was tougher to finish second because the race winner was his brother, Jeff, March 7, 1999 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

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6. “I couldn’t hear him. He’s got that little yap-yap mouth. I couldn’t tell what he was saying.” — Ricky Rudd, commenting on what Kevin Harvick said to him after they wrecked at Richmond Raceway, Sept. 6, 2003.

7. “We can’t race with tears in our eyes.” — team owner Robert Yates, explaining why his team would not participate in the next week’s race after its driver, Davey Allison, was killed in a helicopter crash, July 1993.

8. “He’d have to toast everyone with milk.” — Dale Earnhardt, commenting on the celebratory drink choice Jeff Gordon might make if he ever won the Cup championship. After he won the 1995 Cup title, Gordon followed through, toasting his championship with a glass of milk at the awards banquet.

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9. “You know they say there’s talkers and doers. I’ve done this twice.” — Tony Stewart, winning the pre-race trash-talk contest with Carl Edwards prior to the 2011 race for the championship. Stewart had won the title in 2002 and 2005 and notched another over Edwards in 2011.

10. “This is undoubtedly one of the toughest announcements that I’ve ever personally had to make, but after the accident in Turn 4 of the Daytona 500 we’ve lost Dale Earnhardt.” — NASCAR President Mike Helton, confirming Earnhardt’s death at Daytona International Speedway, Feb. 18, 2001.

Honorable mentions: David Pearson, after being told that Richard Petty had said Pearson was the best driver he ever raced against: “I agree with him.” … CBS broadcaster Ken Squier, calling the famous finish of the 1979 Daytona 500: “And there’s a fight between Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison! The tempers, overflowing. They are angry. They know they have lost. And what a bitter defeat.” … NASCAR founder Bill France, providing a unique ending to a pre-race prayer after temporarily forgetting to use Amen: “Sincerely, Bill France.”

Snowball Derby entry list includes NASCAR Cup, Xfinity, Truck drivers

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Four Cup drivers are among those entered for Sunday’s 55th annual Snowball Derby at Five Flags Speedway in Pensacola, Florida.

The Cup drivers entered are former series champion Brad Keselowski, playoff competitor William Byron, two-time Southern 500 winner Erik Jones and incoming Cup rookie Noah Gragson, who advanced to the Xfinity title race this year.

Also entered: Josh Berry, who competed in the Xfinity championship race this year, and Ty Majeski, who competed in the Truck championship race this year.

Majeski won the 2020 Snowball Derby. Gragson won the race in 2018. Jones won the event in 2012 and ’13.

Others entered include:

Chandler Smith, who won the 2021 Snowball Derby and will drive for Kaulig Racing in the Xfinity Series in 2023, is listed on the entry list but stated on social media he will not be competing.

The Snowball Derby is among the more prestigious Super Late Model races on the calendar and coming after the NASCAR season makes it easier for more Cup, Xfinity and Truck competitors to take part in the event.

Qualifying takes place Saturday. The Snowball Derby is scheduled for 2 p.m. ET Sunday. Racing America will stream Sunday’s race for $49.99. A three-day viewing pass can be purchased for $74.99.

 

 

An upset for the ages: Jody Ridley’s 1981 victory at Dover

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NASCAR’s history is sprinkled with upsets, from unlikely winners riding the Talladega draft to short tracks that yielded unexpected wins when favored leaders crashed on the final lap.

Survey the list of surprise winners over the decades, and Jody Ridley’s name likely will stand out.

On May 17, 1981, two days shy of his 39th birthday, Ridley won a 500-mile race at Dover Motor Speedway in Delaware. It was the only victory of Ridley’s Cup career and the only win scored by Virginia team owner Junie Donlavey, who participated in the Cup Series for 45 years, with 863 starts.

Donlavey’s team was perpetually underfunded, and his drivers often raced with tired, overused engines and tires that had too many laps. He survived with a mostly volunteer crew and enough sponsorship to carry him from race to race. Rival drivers and team owners considered Donlavey one of the most popular residents of NASCAR garage areas across those many years, but he rarely had the chance to reach for victory lane.

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On that spring day at Dover, one of NASCAR’s toughest tracks, everything fell the right way. Many of the tour’s leading drivers parked with engine or overheating problems, and the day’s best car – the Wood Brothers entry driven by Neil Bonnett — was sidelined with an engine issue late in the race after leading 404 laps.

Ridley, running a steady race, benefited from an unusual day at Dover. The race had only two cautions, and the final 471 laps of 500 were run under green-flag conditions. A general lack of cautions prevented top teams from changing tires frequently, putting Ridley, who was used to running tires longer than normal, on better footing.

When Cale Yarborough left the race with engine trouble 20 laps from the finish, Ridley inherited the lead — he had been two laps down to Yarborough — and led the rest of the way. He won by 22 seconds over Bobby Allison, who was the only other driver on the lead lap. Dale Earnhardt finished third, a lap down. Illustrating the problems experienced by many in the field — not an unusual result in those days — was the fact that the fourth-place driver, D.K. Ulrich, was nine laps off the lead pace.

Ridley drove into Victory Lane for the first time, much to the delight of Donlavey’s crew.

“Junie took it all in stride,” Ridley, now 80, told NBC Sports. “He wasn’t as excited as the team guys were. Junie was the type of guy who didn’t want to cash in on other people’s bad luck. He kind of felt sorry for the guys who blew up. That’s just the way he was.

“For me, it was the highlight of my career. Once I got into Cup racing, I knew we probably wouldn’t do much winning because we didn’t have the equipment. It was icing on the cake to win that one.”

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Jody’s son Anthony, then 22 years old, was listening to the race via radio in Chatsworth, Georgia, where the family lived.

“I was upstairs at my girlfriend’s house, and I think I bounced all over the upstairs and then floated down to the first floor,” Anthony said. “It was all pretty cool. Dad called home. He’s the kind of guy who doesn’t get real excited about anything, but he was happy.”

The win paid $22,560. Ridley’s cut from the check (40 percent, generally standard in those days) was $9,024, a nice payday but not Ridley’s biggest in Cup. He would win more for finishing in the top 10 in the Daytona 500.

“We were having a good day,” Ridley said, “but I never thought about winning it. We just didn’t have the cars. But we stayed in the hunt, and the other teams couldn’t get too many new tires, and Junie had put a different gear in the car. Normally he would put in a taller gear and drop the RPMs down (to protect the engine), and you couldn’t keep up. For some reason that day, he didn’t. And it paid off.”

Before joining the Cup tour full time in 1980 at age 37, Ridley had established himself as one of the top short-track drivers in the country. Across the South, at top Eastern Seaboard tracks and into the Midwest, a visit by Ridley usually meant a tough night for the locals.

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Ridley’s older brother, Biddle, and Anthony kept the Ridley short-track cars running.

“We did all that together for 36 years,” said Anthony, who started changing tires during pit stops at the age of 14. “It was how we made a living, but trying to feed three families out of a race car is tough.”

Ridley still lives in Chatsworth, where his 1981 victory was a sports highlight for years.

“He can’t hear well, but he’s still tough as a pine knot,” Anthony said.