TALLADEGA, Ala. -- Jeff Gordon is racing for more than third place at Talladega Superspeedway.
But the four-time NASCAR champion and everyone else may have to be satisfied with that unless they figure out how to beat Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Michael Waltrip.
The two teammates have dominated since 2001 at Talladega and Daytona. At those tracks, NASCAR requires horsepower-sapping carburetor restrictor plates, keeping the Nextel Cup cars under 200 mph in the interest of driver and fan safety.
Earnhardt and Waltrip have won 10 of the last 13 plate races, including the last five - four in a row by Earnhardt before Waltrip won last fall - on Talladega's 2.66-mile oval. They have finished 1-2 four times in that span, including last September's race.
"We seem to have Talladega figured out," Earnhardt said this week. "We're going there with cautious optimism."
Earnhardt won the Daytona 500 in February while Waltrip crashed. But they go into Sunday's Aaron's 499 as co-favorites - again - despite both using new, untried Chevrolets.
The car in which Earnhardt won at Daytona is now on display in Daytona. Waltrip's crashed car could not be repaired.
Richie Gilmore, head of racing operations for DEI, promised the new Monte Carlos will be just as strong. That's not good news for the rest of the field.
"I think we work harder now than when we first starting winning restrictor plate races," Gilmore said. "We take a lot of pride in that.
"We, as a company, do that for Dale," Gilmore added, referring to team founder Dale Earnhardt, a six-time plate race winner who was killed in a crash at Daytona in February 2001. "We feel it keeps his legacy going."
Gordon would like to at least slow DEI this weekend.
Last September, he was running third on this track on the final lap as the lead pack entered the turn three. Instead of staying in line and virtually guaranteeing himself a third-place finish, Gordon made a move to try to win.
"I don't race to finish third," Gordon said. "I had some help behind me as we entered turn three and got a run on Dale. Michael pulled high to block me and I left too much room on the inside. Kevin arvick) pulled alongside and it just stopped my momentum.
"I just had to fight for the best finish possible after that, which was fifth."
Talladega, wider and more steeply banked than Daytona's 2.5-mile oval, lends itself to three- and sometimes four-wide racing at speeds hovering in the 190s. Thanks to the plates, the cars all have about the same power and it's hard for anyone to break away.
Somehow, though, Earnhardt Jr. and Waltrip always seem to be at or near the front at the end.
"DEI has hit on something in their restrictor-plate program and we're all playing catch up," Gordon said.
Gordon struggled early on at Talladega, posting no top 10s and leading only 10 laps in his first four events at the track. Since then, he has two victories (1996, 2000), nine top fives and 12 top 10s. He has led 464 laps in 18 races.
"This track isn't physically demanding, but my eyeballs seem to hurt after each race," Gordon said. "Your concentration level is so high for such an extended period of time."
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