CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) _ If Dale Earnhardt Jr. is going to make a run at his first Nextel Cup title, he'll have to jump-start his campaign this weekend at Talladega Superspeedway _ the wild-card race in the Chase for the championship.
Mark Martin is resigned to wrecking, and Jeff Burton knows his long string of avoiding disaster at Talladega is bound to end some time. Just about every driver in the 10-man Chase field will be on pins and needles Sunday, knowing that their title hopes can take a serious hit on the 2.66-mile superspeedway.
Everyone except Junior, that is.
Although he's currently seventh in the standings, 123 points behind leader Burton, the five-time Talladega winner isn't waving the white flag just yet _ and a win at Talladega would put him up front with the leaders.
``Jeff Burton's no super hero, he's not invincible,'' Earnhardt said. ``He can have bad luck just like anybody else. Within one race, six or seven of us can be right back in it. I still feel like we got an awesome chance.''
Although Earnhardt once owned Talladega _ winning four straight from 2001 to 2003 _ his dominance has faded. Hendrick Motorsports drivers Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson have caught up to Earnhardt and his restrictor-plate program, and the win is no longer automatic.
Earnhardt sort of likes it that way.
``Going into Talladega, it's important that we run good because it's in the Chase, it's a part of the championship, but it doesn't really matter that it's a restrictor-plate track to me,'' he said. ``I don't really care to be the most dominant restrictor-plate team out there. I want to run good everywhere.
``When we were dominant there, we got crap for not being good anywhere else. So I'd give it up to be running good at all these 2-mile tracks like we have this year.''
Indeed, it's not the plate races that have Earnhardt back into the Chase after a one-year hiatus. Instead, it's that the entire No. 8 team finally has put the complete package together and learned how to compete at every circuit on the schedule.
Take last Sunday at Kansas Speedway, where Earnhardt eked out a 10th-place finish. Disappointed at first with the finish, he took a few days to think about it and realized just what a good job it was.
``Years ago when I was a rookie, a win would be the high point,'' he said. ``But now that I'm a little bit older, I see a little bit more, understand the sport a little bit more. I think that this weekend was as big, was as good of a job as that win in Richmond (in May) as far as my team and myself as a whole. We did as good of a job.''
The key now is not squandering this opportunity.
Although Earnhardt has yet to experience winning a title, he knows all too well how to lose one.
His win at Talladega in 2004 pushed him into the Chase points lead, briefly. He dropped a four-letter curse word on live TV during his Victory Lane interview, and NASCAR docked him 25 points as punishment.
The penalty knocked him off the top of the leaderboard, and his championship hopes evaporated three weeks later when a rear-end gear broke in his Chevrolet and he finished 33rd.
He never recovered and wound up sixth in the standings, despite winning six races that year.
``I did feel like '04 was a good little chance we let kind of get away from us,'' he said. ``You know, I didn't think I'd ever win six races in a season. You dream about doing that kind of stuff.''
His team collapsed in 2005, he missed the Chase, and Earnhardt now appreciates even being eligible for the title.
``How many opportunities do you have? How many chances do you have? How many Chases are you going to be in?'' he wondered. ``You just have to go at it like it's your last chance.''
But if it doesn't happen this year, or any other year, the son of the seven-time champion is positive he'll be fine.
``I'd trade winning the championship for winning 10 races in a year if that makes any sense,'' he said. ``I don't think (winning a championship) will be a burden. I got a lot to be proud of. I've had a hell of a life up to this point so far.''