TALLADEGA, Ala. — Dale Earnhardt Jr. knows exactly what strategy he needs at Talladega Superspeedway.
He needs to go for broke and get a win.
His championship hopes fading, Earnhardt is among a handful of drivers who believe Sunday’s race could be the one that lifts them back into title contention. There’s some separation in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship field, and three drivers at the front are pulling away after three races.
Earnhardt, who sits seventh in points, knows chipping away probably won’t get the job done. He’s 39 points behind leader Brad Keselowski, with Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin keeping pace at the front.
“We’re in a position where it really doesn’t matter. We can’t be conservative at all,” Earnhardt said. “We really got to, you know, take a lot of risks. With just a few races left, as good as everybody’s running, as good as Brad and Jimmie and the 11 car (Hamlin) have been running, we have to get pretty aggressive and that should play right into this race track’s hands.”
It’s the same attitude Clint Bowyer, the two-time defending race winner, will take into Sunday. He’s fourth in the points but thinks Talladega could shake up the standings and change the complexion of the Chase.
“We have to use this weekend to put ourselves back in the hunt,” Bowyer said. “There’s three cars that have been breaking away here and this is the one track, the one opportunity that can change things. I’m looking forward to going there and seeing how it all shakes out. We all know what we’re getting into going into this race.
“This is a track that can really swing the points 20-30 points one way or another. So in my situation I have to use this as an opportunity. This is a race that can win the championship for somebody.”
Earnhardt hopes he’s that somebody.
He used to be an odds-on favorite at Talladega, where he’s got five career victories.
But the racing has changed, the strategy is different, and Earnhardt hasn’t won at Talladega since 2004.
He admitted Friday he doesn’t like riding around in the back waiting to make a late charge to the front, and the unpredictability of the race makes it difficult to plot a plan.
“You really don’t know what things are going to go down or what’s going to happen,” he said. “Sometimes it happens with the usual suspects and sometimes it’s a surprise of even who would be involved in it. I’ve been on the receiving end of some wrecks here and I’ve started a few myself.
“So you just go out there and try to run as hard as you can and try to put yourself around people you like to work with and benefit from having people around you that you trust and that usually pays off.”
It hasn’t paid off for his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Johnson, who has yet to finish a plate race this season. Johnson has two wins at Talladega, and Earnhardt pushed him to a victory here last year, but it’s his eight DNFs that stand out on his resume.
Part of the problem may be Johnson’s strategy of riding around in the back for much of the race <0x2014> something Earnhardt said can cause problems.
“Any time you’re cautious, you tend to get yourself into trouble,” Earnhardt said. “And the guys that are a lot more aggressive seem to find themselves towards front of the mess when it all goes down and end up being the ones that cross the finish line with some type of reasonable finish.”