Earnhardt Jr. Happy Be at Talladega

Friday, April 19th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

TALLADEGA, Ala. (AP) _ Only a few drivers like restrictor-plate racing. Count Dale Earnhardt Jr. among them.

Earnhardt Jr., who won at Talladega last October and earned a $1 million bonus with the victory, learned a thing or two from his late father and has seemed to master the art of drafting.

It's allowed him to overcome the horsepower-sapping restrictor plates and bully his way around the track. He's now eager to get back to Talladega, where he's considered a favorite for this weekend's Aaron's 499.

``I'm always in a good mood at Talladega because I love the track and we always seem to run really well here,'' he said. ``A lot of the racing here with restrictor plates is about attitude. Some guys come in with a bad attitude about the race _ they're just riding around out there.

``I want to be aggressive and be up front all I can. Even if these new rules make it harder to pass, I know I have the car that can put me in a position to win.''

But he's pretty much alone in his fondness for NASCAR's biggest and fastest oval.

The last visit on this track ended with a 16-car accident, angry drivers and a renewed focus on the dangers of racing under restrictor-plate rules.

So NASCAR introduced a new aerodynamics package before the season-opening Daytona 500 and will bring it back this weekend. Still, drivers are anticipating another nerve-racking race.

``The problem is that Talladega is a place where the restrictor plate forces you into doing things that you shouldn't be doing,'' said Bill Elliott, who will be making his 51st start at Talladega. ``You start cutting people off. People take it for a while, the guy gets mad and he ain't going to take it anymore. It puts you in a bad situation.''

The restrictor plates make the speeds slower and the cars have a hard time pulling away from each other.

It leads to pack racing, which makes avoiding the big wrecks close to impossible. When the leaders wrecked on the final lap last October, drivers were adamant that NASCAR do something to improve the conditions.

The new package altered the height of the spoilers and removed the roof deflector and metal strip at the top of the spoiler designed to punch a hole in the air and keep the speeds down.

There was more tweaking for the Fords and Dodges, with both makes getting reductions in spoiler height before the actual race.

But the results were the same _ an 18-car wreck midway through the race and a finish marred by a six-car accident.

Defending race winner Bobby Hamilton said the wrecks are just the nature of restrictor-plate racing, and blocking at Daytona and Talladega is a necessary evil.

``We have no downforce,'' he said. ``If somebody touches you, the car goes around _ and we have no power. We really can't afford to let off the gas because we're going to get hit from behind. Nobody can stop, you can't be touched and you really can't afford to let off the gas because the thing won't pull back up.''