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DaleJr. suffers a new setback at Talladega

Saturday, September 27, 2003

TALLADEGA, Ala. -- Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s right foot was still hurting, but that wasn't the problem Friday. An illegal car ruined his qualifying run at Talladega Superspeedway.

Earnhardt, who has won a record four straight Winston Cup races at the high-banked Alabama trioval, was set to start 10th in Sunday's EA Sports 500. Then his No. 8 Chevrolet didn't get by the inspectors, who discovered the right quarter-panel was too low.

"A clear violation," NASCAR spokesman Jim Hunter said.

Earnhardt's time was disallowed and he had to take a provisional spot in the 43-car field. He'll start among the back-markers in 38th.

It was another setback for Junior, who hobbled into Talladega still feeling the effects of a rather benign-looking crash near the end of last weekend's race at Dover. He severely sprained his right foot, lapsed into unconsciousness with a mild concussion and wound up dropping from second to fourth in the Winston Cup standings.

Not to worry.

"I'm good to go," Earnhardt said. "Sharp as a tack."

Elliott Sadler won his second career pole with a speed of 189.943 mph, but qualifying is a rather meaningless pursuit at Talladega. In restrictor-plate racing, mastery of the draft is more important than speed. A car can jump up -- or fall back -- dozens of places in the matter of a few laps.

Jamie McMurray (189.395) will start beside Sadler on the front row. The rest of the top five was Jimmie Johnson (189.189), Sterling Marlin (189.137) and Jeff Gordon (189.085).

Earnhardt wasn't the only big name to take a provisional.

Matt Kenseth, who has a huge lead in the point standings, will start alongside Junior in 37th after a plodding run of 185.913 mph, which placed him 43rd out of the 49 cars that attempted to qualify.

Accepting the blame

Tony Eury, Earnhardt's crew chief, took the blame for sending out his driver in an illegal car.

"This is restrictor-plate racing, and you have to get everything you can get," Eury said. "We were just a little too low."

Like his father before him, Earnhardt is the undisputed king of this style of racing. No matter where he starts, everyone expects him to quickly make his way up front.

"I'm sure he's the guy we have to beat," Sadler said. "He may have to take his time the first few laps."

NASCAR, which is tinkering with its restrictor-plate rules, has come up with a new set of guidelines for this race.

The plate opening has been changed from seven-eighths of an inch to 29/32nds of an inch -- a barely detectable increase that will increase horsepower and maybe spread out the cars a little. The height of the spoilers also was raised a half-inch, offsetting some of the extra speed but providing better handling.

Jeremy Mayfield was the top Talladega qualifier in April at 186.489 -- 3 1/2 mph slower than Sadler's pole-winning speed.

NASCAR was responding to driver complaints of unsafe conditions at Talladega and Daytona, the only tracks where restrictor plates are required. Without them, cars would easily top 200 mph -- speeds that have been deemed unsafe ever since Bobby Allison's car nearly flew into the stands at Talladega in 1987.

But the slower speeds lead to more tightly bunched fields, which give the drivers little room for error. One minor mistake can cause big problems. That was evident at the first three restrictor-plate races this year, all marred by major crashes.

"I don't think it will make much difference," said Ryan Newman, who qualified 12th at 188.285 mph. "You're still going to see the same strong guys up front."

Earnhardt certainly falls into that group. Junior is an expert on the subtle drafting tactics that make all the difference at Talladega. He's won the last four Winston Cup races -- not to mention a Busch series race -- but is still a long way from chasing down his father. The Intimidator, who died in 2001, won 10 races at Talladega.

Junior is carving out his own niche.

"I feel real confident that we can get five in a row," Earnhardt said before his qualifying debacle. "Winning four in a row was the hardest part because we were trying to break the record (he shared with Buddy Baker). But the five in a row doesn't bother me as bad. I'm feeling really confident."


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