Earnhardt Hoping For Return To Past Glory

Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s Daytona 500 ride for Sunday. (HHP/Rusty Jarrett Photo)
Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s Daytona 500 ride for Sunday. (HHP/Rusty Jarrett Photo)

Side-drafting has become a tremendous tool for drivers who experience success in the restrictor-plate races because drivers have now discovered how to use airflow from a driver beside them to utilize the technique of drafting. The traditional style of drafting would be using the wake of air created by a driver in front of them but with the current shape of the NASCAR spoiler the wake can also be created when the cars are side-by-side.

The spoiler has been reduced to decrease downforce.

“You used to use a side-draft as an offensive move, where you would get up on the guy’s quarter panel and stall him out and it would give you a boost and you’d pull away like jumping a boat wake and get out away from him so he could not do the same thing to you and you would make a pass,” Earnhardt explained. “That was how we used to use that with success. But now, there’s an extreme stall when you side-draft a guy and it really kills his car. But before you can get out and get away from him, it starts to kill your car and you sort of sit there and just fight on each other’s quarter panels until somebody tucks-in behind one of you and pushes you through. So that’s more frustrating. You’d rather just make the move on your own and move on to the next guy. But you’ve got to be open to those things changing. And when the do change, recognize it and understand it.

“The thing about it is that one of the things I hear from people who watch these races, and that I see myself and my spotter sees is a car will get a run out of nowhere almost seemingly. We’ll be running along in the pack, and somebody in the middle of the pack will just find something draft-related that will just shoot their car up into a hole. You always could pre-determine what lane was going to move; how they were forming; how close they were together and you could almost pre-determine where you needed to be by seeing how people were lined up around you.

“But with this car, and the way we sort of get stuck side-by-side in the side draft, guys are sort of finding big gaps of air, and their cars and just getting theses boosts out of nowhere and they’ll come running up on you. The other day in the Unlimited, I never knew the No. 9 (Marcos Ambrose) was on the outside of me or trying to go to the outside of me. I wasn’t really paying attention n to him because I didn’t think that him pushing me was keeping his car connected to mine. I didn’t think he had enough power to push me, and then pull out and go around me.”

Because of his personality and how it appeals to a different segment of fans Earnhardt often does not get the credit he deserves for his thorough understanding of how to drive a race car. But it’s fairly obvious from his previous explanation regarding drafting and side-drafting that he truly is a thinking man’s race driver.

In this ever-changing sport drivers have to continually learn or they get left behind.

“You are always trying to learn, and every time I go out on the track, I want to be around a pack of cars that I can learn from every time we practice,” Earnhardt said. “Every time we practiced this week, I want to go out there and try to learn my car. Maybe we’ve changed something that makes my car do something it couldn’t do. Maybe it does something better or worse that I need to pinpoint. So I am eager every time we get an opportunity to go on the track to do that.

“As far as trying to win one of these races, or not run second again, I think we need to be up front. We’re not far enough toward the front. When we’ve run second; we’ve come from third, or fourth, or fifth, or sixth I those last few laps. You are not going to win the race from back there. You might run second, but you aren’t going to win. You need to be leading the race.

“I would much rather be leading the Daytona 500 inside of five laps to go than be anywhere else.”

And just because he was once dominant at restrictor plate tracks Earnhardt is pragmatic enough to know that it’s not a fair comparison from then to now.

“Those were different cars,” Earnhardt said. “Those cars were pretty amazing that I was driving back then. I will be honest. Those cars should have won. Those were pretty fast cars. I can’t as much credit as I would like for how good those cars were back then, and how we had ourselves separated from the competition I think.

“Under the current rule package, and strict guidelines with the rear shocks and springs; really there is no area that the teams are able to work in to set themselves apart from anybody. So everybody pretty much has the same car these days. It is a lot harder to win these races and rightfully so. I definitely appreciate the challenge we have today. But if it were the same playing field, I would be asking myself a lot of questions. But it has changed so much since then.

“At least that is my story.”