In NASCAR Winston Cup racing, where 18 different drivers reached Victory Lane last season and 19 the year before, there's still room for a little old-fashioned domination--the type that used to define the sport.
With all respect to parity, one fact stands out: Dale Earnhardt Inc. cars have won six of the last eight races at Daytona and Talladega, the tour's two tracks that require engine restrictor plates to reduce horsepower. Forget everything else that has happened over the last two years because that one statistic represents domination as pure and absolute as anything the sport has to offer these days.
And there is a bit of poetic justice in that Dale Earnhardt, whose style and talent personified superspeedway success, left a legacy at Daytona and Talladega that continues not only through his success but through the team that bears his name. Two years after Earnhardt's death, there is no way to separate his superspeedway legacy from the success of his teams at Daytona and Talladega.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. is keenly aware of the legacy he faces and what his four restrictor-plate wins in eight races mean to his place in the sport.
"It's a good feeling because you grow up kind of battling comparisons with your father, anticipating more comparisons with your father," says Earnhardt Jr. "I watched Davey Allison and Kyle Petty, watched those guys as a kid, knowing well that I was going to be under the same circumstances at some point in time--to have to weather the storm, so to speak--when you didn't live up to your expectations that everyone set for you."
His success at Daytona and Talladega makes Earnhardt Jr. feel like he's doing his part to carry on the Earnhardt name. "That's real important to me, that there's an Earnhardt out there to cheer for, and doing good enough to cheer for," he says. "That makes me feel good. I just want to keep on racking up accomplishments so that when it's all done I can sit down and say I was a good race car driver and I made my daddy proud."
Shadow Of The Intimidator Dale Earnhardt's success in restrictor-plate races indeed casts a long shadow. He won the 1998 Daytona 500, won twice in the summer race, and won 12 Daytona 500 Twin 125 qualifying races, including 10 straight between 1990 and 1999. He was equally adept at Talladega, winning 10 races at the tour's fastest track. "Dale Earnhardt put his signature, his stamp, on this sport," says DEI driver Michael Waltrip. "It was his prowess at Daytona and Talladega, his ability to win plate races. He was the best at it."
DEI cars have twice put Waltrip in Victory Lane at Daytona (in the 2001 Daytona 500 and in the July race last season) giving the popular driver his only point wins in NASCAR's top series. Waltrip also won a Twin 125 qualifying race last season.
Earnhardt Jr., meanwhile, has prevailed in the last three races at Talladega, and he won the July race at Daytona in 2001. During their superspeedway domination over the past two seasons, Waltrip and Earnhardt Jr. have finished first and second three times. Junior was second in Waltrip's Daytona 500 win, and Waltrip was second during Earnhardt's win in July 2001 at Daytona and in last season's spring race at Talladega. Steve Park, the third DEI driver, has yet to regain full winning form from injuries he suffered at Darlington in late 2001.
The superspeedway success of Waltrip and Earnhardt Jr. has helped define the past two NASCAR seasons. One of the sport's most endearing and lasting images is Earnhardt Jr.'s win at Daytona in July of 2001, just five months after his father's death at the track. The celebration triggered by the victory, when Earnhardt Jr. and Waltrip embraced and celebrated on the track's infield grass, was a triumphant moment for the sport and for DEI. The celebration also foreshadowed DEI's dominant run, as Waltrip and Earnhardt Jr. have won four of the five restrictor-plate races since then.
Other teams have sought the formula to DEI's success with trips to the wind tunnel and extra effort in the engine room.
Greg Zipadelli, crew chief for defending Winston Cup champion Tony Stewart, says that Joe Gibbs Racing, which fields the cars of Stewart and Bobby Labonte, is putting more time and effort into its restrictor-plate program this year. Zipadelli calls DEI "definitely the class of the field" in restrictor-plate racing.
"They've raised the bar as far as restrictor-plate racing, and they're making it a lot harder to catch up to them," says Zipadelli. "They've just paid attention to details a lot more than we have, or more than the other teams have."
"Their organization is obviously on to something because two out of their three cars really run well at the restrictor-plate races," says Bill Wilburn, crew chief for Rusty Wallace. "Michael Waltrip has always been a good speedway driver. That's always been one of the areas, at Daytona and Talladega, where he shines and has been competitive, no matter whose car he drove. So you put those two guys there, with that information in mind, behind a situation with good cars, good engines, and a good thought process behind their program--then, hey, it just breeds success."
In the decade or so since aerodynamics became so vital to NASCAR success, the debate has centered on this question: Is aerodynamics or engine performance the key to superspeedway success? The sport used to be populated by engine builders known for their ability to make more horsepower than the competition, and their drivers often found their way to Victory Lane. Men like Waddell Wilson, Ernie Elliott, and Maurice Petty could power guys like Buddy Baker, Bill Elliott, and Richard Petty to wins at Daytona and Talladega back when Winston Cup cars still looked like passenger cars.
Today, the road to Victory Lane is paved with an array of components: calculations by engineers, wind tunnel time, research and development in the engine room, constant tweaking of body shapes, and so forth.
"It's like a puzzle--it's no good without all the ingredients," says Buddy Baker, whose 1980 win still stands as the fastest Daytona 500 ever. "If you've got pieces missing, you'll never get it solved. If the motor does not run, then a great body does not mean a great deal. And if the driver is not going to push the button--if you don't take that extra little 10 percent that you have to put into your driving--you're not going to win Talladega and Daytona."
This may be the year for the competition to make up ground on the DEI cars, however. Chevrolet has introduced a new Monte Carlo for the 2003 season, making obsolete much of the body configurations teams have developed.
"It's all kind of up in the air right now as far as how our new bodies are going to work out for us (and) whether we've done our homework in the off-season," says Earnhardt Jr. "It's like almost starting from scratch again. I expect that we'll go and be competitive. I doubt we'll be as strong as we have been there in the past, but I think we'll be a Top-10 car, and over the year we'll figure out what it takes to get that car back to where it has been in the past."
"We'll see if the tide changes, but I don't really look for it to change much on either one of their parts," says Wilburn. "Like I said, they're good drivers and they have a good feel for the cars. With restrictor-plate engines and the rules we have to race under, the way you get your race car and the way you're able to handle your car in traffic--basically that feel you have to have for your car to go fast under those restrictions--that's all a big part of it, and I believe those guys have a little better handle on it than anybody else."
Another key to DEI's success may be its ability to tweak and tune its engines and bodies, so while a new body style may mean some of the hardware has changed, the engines, the baseline of knowledge, and DEI's willingness to fine-tune its equipment, all remain in place.
"I have to give a tremendous amount of credit to (team manager) Steve Hmiel, (engine builder) Richie Gilmore, and (crew chief) Slugger Labbe," Waltrip said after his win at Daytona last summer. "I had the fastest car and it's because of their effort and DEI's ability to explore every avenue that is available to us today in order to succeed. We go to the proving grounds in Arizona and we go to the wind tunnel. We go to the shaker machines and shake our cars up and down and we just have all the tools. (In) restrictor-plate racing the car is almost an engineering masterpiece. It's just a feat to get a car that will go fast."
Earnhardt Jr. also credits Gilmore with having a good restrictor-plate engine, one that has a good combination "as far as the cam and where the torque range is in the motor. It just seems to help the car pull up and draft well and be able to make passes."
"The bodies on the cars, they continue to mess with those," he continues. "Even once we're done testing in Daytona throughout the winter and we race our first car at the Daytona 500, they'll come back and cut the sides off of it and try to get it better. When we say it's the same car we race here and the same car we race there, that doesn't mean they haven't moved the nose or moved the tail piece or worked on the spoiler or changed something to try and get a little better. They send them to the wind tunnel throughout the year to try to improve or try to learn something. I mean, it never ends.
"It used to be you would race a car at Daytona and just put it over in the corner. If you ran good, you would leave it alone and put it in the corner and wait for Talladega to come. But it's not like that anymore."
DEI drivers can also thank Teresa Earnhardt for their continued success. She knew how important Daytona and Talladega were to her late husband, and has made sure the team has the resources to stay out front.
"As a driver, Dale did incredible things in restrictor-plate racing," Teresa says. "When we were establishing our goals for our Winston Cup teams years ago, we decided that one of the things we wanted to do as owners was to consistently be a threat on the superspeedways. Restrictor-plate races are among the highest profile events that there are in the sport, so we wanted to be recognized as a leader in that arena.
"Dale personally worked to see that we are among the best. We met the goal we established and invested a great deal of time and resources to see that we stay that way. It was important to Dale and to all of us here at DEI. We take restrictor plate racing personally."
To help stay among the best, DEI has an alliance with the Richard Childress and Andy Petree teams. The three teams formed RAD (an acronym for Richard, Andy, Dale) Engineering a few seasons ago in order to share wind tunnel and other aerodynamic information. Factor in Petree's win at Talladega in the spring of 2001, with driver Bobby Hamilton, and RAD Engineering has won seven of the last eight restrictor-plate races.
During his heyday in the '70s and '80s, Buddy Baker had the heaviest foot in the NASCAR garage. Baker, who still works as a test driver for Penske Racing South, knew one speed at Daytona and Talladega--flat out--but he respects Dale Earnhardt as the man who knew his way around those tracks better than any other.
"At one time," says Baker, "I felt I had a pretty good advantage over most of the guys I was racing against, but he (Earnhardt) epitomized Daytona and Talladega as far as being the man to beat. I dare say, and this is certainly not a reflection against any race team or anything else, but there was a time when you could have put Dale Earnhardt in any of the top five cars and he would have won."
Earnhardt's ability on superspeedways was never more evident than in his last win, in the fall race at Talladega in 2000. "That right there is a perfect example of a guy knowing what he's going to do before you even have a clue what you're going to do," says Wilburn. "I don't believe that they've got a superior car that can run from 20th to first in 10 or 15 laps, or whatever it was. I don't believe anybody has a car like that. In all situations, you've got to be three steps ahead of where you're at right now and anticipate the next guy's moves. It's just a guy capable of making moves, knowing where he's going to be before you're even able to think about where you're going to be. He's already there, and he's just gone. He was always that kind of driver and it didn't change when he got on a speedway."
Wilburn sees the same traits in the next generation. "Dale Earnhardt is gone from us now," he says, "but I think there is one individual named Dale Jr. who might have learned a thing or two and probably had some conversations with his father and picked up a tip or two."
Nonetheless, his father's talent took some time to manifest itself in Earnhardt Jr. His first trip to Daytona, a Busch Series race in 1998, included a broken driveshaft on a pit stop (driver error) and a wild flip on the backstretch (wrong place at the wrong time). There was a pronounced learning curve.
"When you first come in as a rookie, it's really hard to know when to go, when to make a run, when to attempt a pass, and when you need to stay in the draft," says Earnhardt Jr. "It was really hard for me when I first started running at Daytona and Talladega to know when to do that, and when not to, and what was a smart move. ... So it took me awhile, took me a couple of races, a couple of years. Like in the Busch Series, I crashed out of pretty much every one of the plate races I ran. That was just because I didn't know when to be aggressive and when not to be aggressive and just kept getting myself in the wrong situations.
"Then when you come into the Cup series, you've got to know when to be in the low line and you've got to know when to be in the high line. You've got to know when changing lines is going to improve your position. It's really tough and it's hard to figure that out. I used to race as hard as I could and never get anywhere, almost lose three or four spots. And my dad could whip right up through there, no problem. I would be like, 'Man, how come I keep getting in the wrong line and he seems to keep getting in the right line?' And you just kind of figure that out.
"There's no way to really tell you, 'All right, this is how you get to the front.' You just have to be sitting there in the car when the time comes to know, 'All right, this line is getting ready to move forward three or four lanes. I'm getting in it.' You hop in it and pick up three or four spots and get back to the bottom line and make a few moves there. And you do it without really being aggressive. You hope that when you're done, you're up front and everybody wonders how you got there."
As the 2003 season gets underway, DEI has the competition wondering that very thing: how the team gets to Victory Lane so often at Talladega and Daytona. "I know when it comes time to race you only have to win a couple of races in a row and all of a sudden you've placed yourself as a favorite," says Wilburn.
"Well, when you've won six out of the last eight, it doesn't take much calculating to figure, 'Hey, we've definitely got to deal with these guys before the day is over."
Waltrip's win last summer...
Waltrip's win last summer gave DEI three victories in the last four races at Daytona.
Waltrip's win in the 2001...
Waltrip's win in the 2001 Daytona 500 was the first of six restrictor-plate races won by Dale Earnhardt Inc.
The cars of Earnhardt Jr....
The cars of Earnhardt Jr. (8), Park (1), and Waltrip (15) run together at Talladega.
Earnhardt Jr.'s win at Daytona...
Earnhardt Jr.'s win at Daytona five months after his father's death at the track was a triumphant moment for DEI.
Earnhardt Jr. and DEI stood...
Earnhardt Jr. and DEI stood tall at Talladega in 2002, sweeping both races.