Dale Earnhardt Jr., admittedly, can be a shy person, especially when he feels he is out of his element. But when it comes to restrictor-plate racing at high-speed, high-banked venues such as Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway, where the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series will resume racing Sunday, Earnhardt is unabashedly confident in his surroundings.
Earnhardt’s victory in the season-opening Daytona 500, the first of four plate races this season, had the driver of the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet soaring with confidence. Earnhardt was not only a virtual lock to make the 16-driver field for the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, but also a contender to win Sunday’s plate race at Talladega, the Aaron’s 499.
“We as a team, I think, improved our emphasis on our plate cars to be able to improve their performance,’’ Earnhardt said. “I think that started to show in the last 12-16 months. When [crew chief] Steve [Letarte] and I first started working together our focus was more on improving ourselves as a whole.’’
Through the first nine races of the season, Earnhardt is ranked fifth in the Sprint Cup standings with 309 points. He was recognized as the Driver of the Year first-quarter ballot winner after he compiled 1 win, 5 top 5s, 6 top 10s, and led 142 laps.
At Talladega, however, Earnhardt is a five-time winner, where he last won Oct. 3, 2004, and has recorded 10 top 5s, and 14 top 10s to go along with 5 DNFs (did not finish).
“We really didn’t focus on the plate stuff as much as we needed to improve everywhere. We had to kind of put our emphasis on the plate tracks on hold for a while to try to get our team in the right direction,’’ Earnhardt added. “I think that started to happen to where we were running well enough everywhere [that] we could start to put a little more care and preparation into our plate track cars. That is definitely showing the results.’’
That was never more evident than at Daytona, where Earnhardt and Letarte seemingly arrived hitting on all cylinders. The result was Earnhardt’s second career victory in the Daytona 500 (he also won in 2004).
“There are times when you show up here [at Talladega] sometimes and you have great racecars that do a lot of good things and are very effective when you are moving around in the draft,’’ said Earnhardt, who on Friday announced a three-year sponsorship agreement with Nationwide Insurance, which will be coming aboard in 2015.
“There are times when you show up and for whatever reason the same car that I ran second with at Daytona a year or two ago wouldn’t hardly run down here for some reason,’’ Earnhardt said. “It just depends on whether you hit everything just right and it all starts with preparation at the shop and I think we have been doing a real good job at that here lately.’’
The motorsports world Thursday marked the 20th anniversary of the death of three-time Formula One world champion Ayrton Senna. The Brazilian driver was killed May 1, 1994, when he crashed into a concrete barrier while leading the San Marino Grand Prix at Imola, Italy. Senna’s death was preceded by that of F1 pilot Roland Ratzenberger during race qualifications the previous day.
A public memorial service, which was part of a four-day tribute, was held at the circuit where Senna was killed. With thousands looking on, Senna’s family as well as current and former F1 drivers in attendance observed a moment of silence at the exact moment of his death: 14:17 p.m., Central European Time. Said two-time world champion Fernando Alonso, “For a lot of us, he was our idol.’’
Two for the road
NASCAR driver Kurt Busch, who will pull double-duty on Memorial Day weekend by becoming the fourth driver to attempt the Indianapolis 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 Sprint Cup Series event in Concord, N.C., began preparations in earnest Tuesday for his Indy 500 debut in an Andretti Autosports entry. Busch turned 66 practice laps at the 2.5-mile Brickyard, where he recorded a fast lap of 220.844 miles per hour. “This attempt is something serious,’’ Busch said. “It’s an amazing challenge. It really makes you think. Overall it was a good day just to settle in with the team and advance further than rookie orientation. It felt good to give feedback to the team from the car and have them explain things to me how we’re going to move forward.’’ . . . After voicing his opinion on the changes to Indy’s former F1 road circuit, reigning Indy 500 champion Tony Kanaan was allowed to turn the ceremonial first lap on the Brickyard’s new 2.439-mile, 14-turn road course, where the Verizon IndyCar Series will stage the inaugural Grand Prix of Indianapolis May 10. The next day drivers, who drove clockwise around the track, will jump in their cars and go counter-clockwise on the high-speed oval to begin practice for the 98th Indy 500. “That is going to be a little bit weird,’’ Kanaan said . . . Mitchell E. Daniels Jr., president of Purdue University and the former Governor of Indiana, has agreed to join the Hulman & Company Board of Directors, which oversees the operation of Indianapolis Motor Speedway. “I spent many a Memorial Day weekend at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway growing up in Indianapolis, and there’s no more iconic racing facility in the world,’’ Daniels said. “Anything a Hoosier can do to help this priceless state asset, he should do.’’ . . . The 10th annual Norwood Arena/New England Dragway Reunion will be held June 1 at Bezema Motors on Route 1, the AutoMile. The celebration will bring together legendary competitors who raced at the short track oval from 1948 to 1972 and at the ⅛-mile drag strip. Last year’s event drew 1970 Daytona 500 winner Pete Hamilton, a native of Newton, who started his career in 1962 racing in the street division at Norwood Arena.