Sunday, April 6, 2003

Little E chasing history at Talladega

Earnhardt Jr. seeks fourth straight victory on Superspeedway track

The Associated Press

TALLADEGA, Ala. - Dale Earnhardt Jr. goes for an unprecedented fourth straight Talladega Superspeedway victory today, and nobody would be happier for him than former driving star Buddy Baker.

Baker, like Earnhardt the son of a Winston Cup champion, is the only other driver to win three consecutive races on Talladega's high-banked, 2.66-mile oval (in 1975-76).

Baker was on the way to a fourth straight victory before running out of gas two laps from the finish. He was able to hold on for second, but Dave Marcis got the win.

"If anybody breaks that record, I would like for it to be Earnhardt Jr.," Baker said. "He's like his dad. He really knows this racetrack."

There isn't much doubt about how the 28-year-old Earnhardt feels about Talladega, a place where his late father won a record 10 Winston Cup races. Earnhardt Jr. added to the family collection by winning Saturday's Busch Series race.

"Sure, I love this place," Earnhardt said. "It's just a fun place to race, especially running around the top (of the banking). It's like back in the '80s and stuff."

Race speeds reached close to 210 mph at Talladega before a crash in 1987 nearly sent Bobby Allison's car flying into the packed main grandstand. That prompted NASCAR to require carburetor restrictor plates to slow cars at Talladega and Daytona.

Earnhardt became the man to beat on those tracks. Now his son is.

It didn't come easily to Little E, though. He wrecked constantly when he first began racing on NASCAR's two biggest ovals in Busch Series cars.

"The last time I was going to race here in a Busch car was in '99," Earnhardt Jr. said. "I came here and just made the decision not to wreck. I just said, 'Look, I'm not going to do anything that would put me in that situation or put me in a potential situation for a crash.' I finished sixth."

He and Dale Earnhardt Inc. teammate Michael Waltrip have combined for wins in seven of the past nine events at Talladega and Daytona - including three 1-2 finishes. That's how they crossed the line here a year ago.

Waltrip has dominated Daytona, winning three of the last five races there. Earnhardt is the king of Talladega.

"I think he's got a little bit of the old man in him," Baker said. "When it comes time to go, he knows when to push the button and when to make the right moves."

Baker, the son of two-time champion Buck Baker, retired in 1992. He won four times at Talladega and twice at Daytona. That was before restrictor plates, though Baker insists that doesn't make much difference.

Baker said the DEI Chevrolets remind him of the Dodges he drove in the 1970s.

"When we came down here, we came to run up front. We didn't come to play around," he said.

Although it will take a fast car to win today, fuel and tire strategy could play a big part in the 188-lap race. There could very well be a big wreck as the 43-car field races two- and three-wide at close to 190 mph.

This race will be the third in which NASCAR has used a 13-gallon gas tank - compared with the standard 22-gallon fuel cell used at non-plate races.

The idea is to make cars pit more often, with the hope the extra stops will spread out the field. It will definitely increase the number of pit stops.

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