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.”