Talladega could be Earnhardt's launch pad

DEAN MCNULTY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 11:22 PM ET

TORONTO - In a perfect world fans of Dale Earnhardt Jr. should be looking forward to Sunday’s NASCAR Sprint Cup’s Aaron’s 499 at Talladega Superspeedway with a ton of anticipation.

After all, Earnhardt has notched five victories at the Alabama 2.66 mile oval and he comes into this week’s race with a string of six consecutive Top 12 finishes.

It is his best start since he moved to the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet in 2008.

In truth the whole No. 88 team does look re-energized since Steve Latarte took over as crew chief.

But, as the old saw goes, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and good deserts have been few and far between for NASCAR’s favourite son since he last won at Michigan International Speedway in his one and only HMS victory.

Even Earnhardt himself is trying to tone down expectations for this weekend.

“I really don’t know how close we are to getting our first win,” he said after his ninth-place finish at Texas. “We still have a step or two to go, but we’re getting better and we feel pretty competitive every week.”

Earnhardt said there are simply too many variables to predict from race-to-race how much success the team will have.

“I feel like we should finish in the top five every week this year so far,” he said. “And if I look back at my cars, we’ve taken seventh- and eighth-place cars and finished 12th with them and it was good to take a seventh- and eighth-place place car and finish second (at Martinsville).”

The other variable in his way to victory at Talladega, Earnhardt said, is the two-car drafts that restrictor plate racing bred at Daytona and will be repeated on Sunday.

He is not a fan of that kind of racing.

“I don’t particularly like that style of racing,” Earnhardt said. “I’d rather have control of just what I’ve got to do and having to have responsibility for someone else is a little bit more than I care to deal with. But, that is the way the racing is.”

In any event, NASCAR and its fans know nothing would be better for the sport than an Earnhardt win at Talladega.

FINISH LINES

Canada’s Scott Maxwell and American co-driver Joe Foster notched their first Grand-Am Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge victory of the 2011 season in the No. 15 Multimatic Motorsports Ford Mustang Boss 302R, at Barber Motorsports Park. Maxwell passed leader Bill Auberlen’s No. 96 BMW M3 for the win. Maxwell completed the pass and never looked back, winning the race by 1.250 seconds over the BMW M3. ... Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne was treated and released from Carolina Medical Center University Hospital in Charlotte, N.C., earlier this week after a reaction from an apparent insect bite on his left elbow that the 20-year old driver suffered last week while at home. Bayne is scheduled to compete in both the Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series events this weekend at Talladega. ... A fast fact: The fastest speed for a NASCAR stock car during a sanctioned event was 212.809 m.p.h. by Bill Elliott in 1987 at Talladega, but Toronto’s Paul Tracy smashed that record in an open wheel Indy type car in 1996 when he recorded a trap speed of 256.948 m.p.h. at Michigan International Speedway. ... NASCAR Sprint Cup racing on FOX posted a 3.7 share for a prime time telecast of the Samsung Mobile 500 at Texas on Sunday. That’s up nine per cent over last year. ... The surprise of the F-1 season so far has to be Paul di Resta. He has exceeded everyone’s expectations with a pair of 10th place finishes at Australia and Malaysia for Force India. Di Presti, by the way, is a first cousin of IndyCar and Indy 500 champion Dario Franchitti. ... A dark horse pick for Sunday’s Aaron’s 499 at Talladega: Juan Pablo Montoya. The ex-Formula One driver has a pole position and a pair of third-place finishes at the two most recent races in Alabama.

RANT

If you liked the two-car draft that was the signature of this season’s NASCAR Sprint Cup season-opening Daytona 500, you are going to love the racing this week at Talladega Superspeedway.

NASCAR bosses, in their infinite wisdom, have decided to reduce the size of the restrictor plates on Sprint Cup motors by 1/64th of an inch from the plate used at Daytona to keep the speed from eclipsing 205 m.p.h. in Alabama.

This means diddly squat to the folks watching the race on television because the true speed of NASCAR has never really translated from reality to video.

But what it means in terms of motor racing artistry is that you will be seeing way more two-by-two running on Talladega’s big 2.66 mile oval.

Drivers will have to hook up, if you will, in order to get from the back to the front, or from the middle to the front and stay there.

The combination of smaller restrictor plates and Talladega’s wide track will make the Daytona duets look exciting.

Just ask four-time champion Jeff Gordon.

“There’s a lot more racing lines and grooves and room to race on (at Talladega),” he said. “We should be able to do the two-car drafts a lot easier than we did at Daytona.”

Say it ain’t so.

The sight of two cars pushing each other around Daytona was sleep inducing.

The solution, of course, is for NASCAR to remove the restrictor plates and let horsepower decide the winner.

However, the thought of 3,400 pound stock cars reaching speeds in excess of 220 m.p.h. just scares the heck out of everyone.

Maybe there is an aerodynamic solution — like adding more downforce — that would allow maximum speed and maximum control at the same time.

At the very least it is worth exploring.

FERRARI FOLLIES

While Ferrari boss Luca di Montezemolo was telling Eurosport UK Tuesday that the Italian team is not is disarray and in fact is on top of qualifying issues that have plagued them since the opening Formula One race in Australia, it looks from here like there is panic in Tifosiland.

“I am definitely not satisfied with the way the season has begun, but I have complete faith in the people here who know how to react when the situation is tough,” di Montezemolo said of Ferrari’s two 2011 races. “I am sure there will be an amazing response. I know everyone is working flat out and I have great faith in the human and technical strengths of our people. I believe the period when the most we can hope for is a podium will soon come to an end.”

With only days to prepare for the next event in Shanghai after Sunday’s fifth- and sixth-place finishes at the Malaysian Grand Prix, di Montezemolo ordered team principal Stefano Domenicali, technical director Aldo Costa and engineering chief Pat Fry back to Ferrari’s Maranello factory to conduct an investigation into the situation.

“I hope we see some improvement, especially in qualifying and to see us be competitive as we were in the (Malaysia) race,” he said. “But I reckon that will be difficult as I don’t think Ferrari can turn it around in the space of a week.”

Di Montezemolo said he still has faith the team will adjust.

“I know from Domenicali ... that everyone has got their heads down working hard,” he said. “I also spoke at length with (Fernando) Alonso to get his impressions of the car and I could tell he was confident in how things went in the race, even if we have a lot of work to do to improve.”

CANADIAN CONTENT

There will be three Canadians on the grid at the IZOFD IndyCar Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach this week for the first time since Player’s were forced out of big league racing by the federal government’s ban on tobacco advertising.

Alex Tagliani, of Montreal, a full time driver in IndyCar for the past two seasons will be in the No. 77 Sam Schmidt Motorsports machine. He will be joined by Toronto’s Paul Tracy, in his first ride in 2011 aboard the Dragon Racing No. 17 of Jay Penske, and rookie James Hinchcliffe, of Oakville, Ont., in the No. 06 Newman Haas Racing Dallara.

Tracy is by far the most successful of the trio and a three-time winner at the Southern California temporary street course, but he hasn’t even tested yet this season.

The 42-year-old 2003 Champ Car World Series champion hasn’t even been behind the wheel of an Indycar Dallara since the Edmonton Indy last July.

Tagliani has a pair of Long Beach podium finishes and is always a threat on the street courses.

For Hinchcliffe this will be his first California start in IndyCar but he has raced on the circuit in both the Firestone Indy Lights and in the Atlantic Series.


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