Will crew chief Steve Letarte be able to get Dale Earnhardt Jr. back in victory lane at Talladega this Sunday for the first time in nearly 10 years? (Photo: Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

Talladega: Will Dale Earnhardt Jr. finally break 10-year winless streak at the track he used to dominate?

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As hard as it may seem to believe, it’s been nearly 10 years since Dale Earnhardt Jr., last won a race at Talladega Superspeedway.

That’s 10 years at a track where Junior once dominated so much that many of his fans started calling NASCAR’s largest oval “The House that Junior Built” (even though his father won 10 times there in his own career).

The younger Earnhardt won five of his first 10 starts at the massive and sprawling 2.66-mile layout at Talladega, including four wins in a row (fall 2001 through spring 2003, as well as fall 2004).

Junior was essentially the Jimmie Johnson of his day in the way he dominated at Talladega. It wasn’t just a track, it was HIS track.

It got to the point where the majority of fans that attended every Cup race there were decked out in some kind of red-and-white Junior regalia, be it a ball cap, t-shirt, jacket or similar, all proudly touting the driver of the No. 8 Chevrolet and the team he drove for, Dale Earnhardt Inc.

While toasting him with a Budweiser, of course!

But since his last win there in 2004, it seems like good fortune has turned its back on Junior.

In the 18 races since then, Earnhardt has managed just three top-five finishes (including two runner-ups) and two other top-10 showings.

That’s it.

In the 13 other starts he finished 20th or worst eight times, including recording four of his five career DNFs there.

What’s happened to Junior? Why can’t he go back to the way he used to be at ‘Dega, without question the most dominating driver there from 2001 through 2005 and when the now-defunct DEI was the crème de la crème of restrictor plate racing.

But it wasn’t all about Junior, either, at DEI.

During that same five-year period, Michael Waltrip earned all four of his career Cup wins (in 775 career starts). Three came at Daytona (including two in the Daytona 500 – with his first coming in the tragic 2001 race in which Dale Earnhardt Sr. was killed in a last-lap crash while trying to protect Waltrip’s and Junior’s 1-2 finish) and the other win occurred at Talladega.

The common denominator between Waltrip and Junior: 11 of their 12 combined wins came on plate tracks while both drove for DEI – and those 11 wins came in a span of four seasons (2001-04).

Add in the winless-yet-still-productive 2005 season and the former teammates also combined for five runner-up finishes and four third-place showings in those five seasons, for a total of 20 races between them.

All-told, Junior has eight wins on plate tracks, five at Talladega and three at Daytona.

So why has Junior struggled at plate tracks since moving from DEI to Hendrick Motorsports in 2008? How is it that he’s managed just one plate track win (this year’s season-opening Daytona 500) since 2004?

Or, looking at the glass half-full, with his win at Daytona two months ago, is Junior poised to go off on another DEI-like plate track winning run with another triumph this Sunday in the Aaron’s 499 at Talladega?

If he were to do so, it would make Junior the second driver (Joey Logano did so with his second win of 2014 this past Saturday at Richmond) to cement his entry into this year’s expanded and revised Chase for the Sprint Cup.

When Junior moved to HMS, predictions and expectations were both high. He had uncanny resources and something that he never had at DEI: an organization with a history of Cup championships.

At the time Junior changed his Cup address, HMS had seven championships to its credit. Today, it has 11.

If Earnhardt were to win Sunday’s race, he may finally be able to finish what he started way back in 2001 when he won his first plate race: win again at ‘Dega and end the season with his first Cup championship, as well.

He’s long overdue for both.

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Firestone: the tire that Indianapolis 500 and Verizon IndyCar Series ride upon

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More Indianapolis 500 winners have driven to Victory Lane on Firestone tires than all other tires combined.

The synergy and history between Firestone, parent company Bridgestone and Indianapolis Motor Speedway is nothing short of legendary.

MotorSportsTalk has compiled some very interesting facts about the relationship between Firestone, IMS and the Indy 500:

* Firestone has issued tires to all teams in Sunday’s Indianapolis 500 that will carry names of all the drivers who have won the 500 on Firestone rubber inscribed on the sidewalls of the tires.

* Other names included in the sidewall inscriptions include Louis Meyer (the first driver to drink milk in Victory Lane), and Mario Andretti (Voted Driver of the Century).

firestone indy 500 tires 2016

* Firestone produced over 5,000 tires with the commemorative Indy 500 sidewalls to be used during the month of may for practice, qualifying and the historic race itself on Sunday.

* Firestone has accounted for exactly two-thirds of the wins at the Indy 500 – 66 of 99 races contested to date.

* Firestone has won the Indy 500 in 1911, 1913, 1920 through 1941, 1946-1966, 1969-1971, 1996 and 1997, and 2000-2015.

* Firestone has carried more drivers to Indy 500 wins than all other tire manufacturers combined. Goodyear has won 29 races, BFGoodrich won two, Michelin won one and Palmer Cord Tires won one.

* The first winner on Firestone rubber was also the first winner of the Indy 500 – Ray Harroun in 1911.

* Tires will also carry red and white Firestone “F shield” logos that are unique to the Indy 500 and indicate which tires will go on which side of each race car: red for right side and white for left side tires.

firestone racing logo* Firestone Racing joined the IndyCar Series in 1996 and has been at every race since. It competed vs. Goodyear for four years (1996-99) until becoming the exclusive tire provider for the 500 in 2000, a position it has held ever since.

* Firestone became the Official Tire of the IndyCar Series and the Indianapolis 500 in 2002. The current contract for both of those roles runs through the 2018 season (originally extended in Dec. 2012).

* Firestone also sponsors the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg and the Firestone 600 at Texas Motor Speedway. It is also the Official Tire of the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach.

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Simon Pagenaud has tunnel vision about Indy 500 — but that’s a good thing

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(Photos: IndyCar)
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To say Simon Pagenaud is a thinking man’s driver is an understatement.

The French driver has one of the most analytical minds in the Verizon IndyCar Series. It seems like he’s always thinking, always figuring out different scenarios, trying to outthink his fellow competitors.

He’s certainly had a lot to think of recently. He’s riding a three-race winning streak. He’s part of Team Penske’s 50th anniversary celebration.

But right here, right now, Pagenaud has just one race on his mind. As far as he’s concerned, Belle Isle next week is 10 years away, while Texas the week after that is 20 years away.

And don’t even ask Pagenaud if he’s thinking about winning the IndyCar championship.

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To say Simon Pagenaud is pumped up for Sunday’s Indianapolis 500 is an understatement.

The only thing on Pagenaud’s mind is winning Sunday’s 100th running of the Indianapolis 500. Not only would it be the biggest win in the Frenchman’s career, it would also extend team owner Roger Penske’s record to 17 Indy 500 victories.

“I’m thinking about the race itself, statistics are after the race,” Pagenaud told NBC Sports. “It’s hard on the last lap if you think about it! I’m always focused on the task itself. Prepare the best we can and try to win.

“When you step into the car, you have to think about how to do the best job you can with your machine. It’s you and your machine, you and your team, let’s get the best strategy possible, make the best pit stops and make no mistakes.

“So you have to be clear-minded and focused on the task. It’s a tunnel vision thing. I’m not thinking of anything else. I’m not thinking about the 50th anniversary of Team Penske, or it being the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500.

“If I was, I tell you what, they wouldn’t work really well. It’s about being in the moment and not thinking about anything else.”

Even with his three-race winning streak (Long Beach, Birmingham Grand Prix of Indianapolis), preparations for the 500 have not gone as well as Pagenaud would like.

“It’s not as good as I wanted to be honest,” said Pagenaud, who will start in eighth position, the middle of Row 3 on the starting grid. “We’re not as dominant as we were last year. It’s been tough. It’s not been easy to get speed out of the car. We’ve done a good job of trying, but we haven’t found the speed of the Hondas.”

But as concerned as Pagenaud may seem, Penske is more confident than concerned.

“Obviously he’s a hot hand right now and he’s shown how good he is,” Penske said of Pagenaud. “That’s the reason we hired him a year ago.

“I think he wasn’t as happy with his performance in 2015. This is a different race. This race is wide open. It’s a long-distance race. It’s four different corners, lots of strategy.

“Certainly executing in the pits, you saw how good he was last year and bumped into a back marker when he was trying to make a pass there. So I think he’s going to have a great chance. He’s certainly excited.

“John Menard (Pagenaud’s primary sponsor of Menard’s Home Improvement Stores) coming on board is probably one of the great things of the month for us because John has spent a lot of time and a lot of money here over the years.

“(It was) great to see his car in the Winner Circle at the Angie’s road race here a couple of weeks ago. I think (Pagenaud’s) on his way to a championship. We’ve just got to continue to stay focused.”

Winning the biggest race in the world would also help Pagenaud’s countrymen.

“It’s great news that there’s a lot of interest (in France) in IndyCar,” Pagenaud said. “They’re showing races there. It’s big. There’s also half a large plane coming to the race from my hometown (Poitiers, France).

“I know it’s an American sport, but it’s a worldwide event. The last time a Frenchman won in Indy was 1920. It was Gaston Chevrolet, and I’m driving a Chevrolet! Hopefully, it’s my year.

“What would it mean (if he won)? I don’t know, to be honest. It wouldn’t be a bad time. We’re having a tough time in France right now, so a little bit of joy from the sport would be good.

“It’d be awesome to go back to France with that trophy and that ring on my finger.”

Tony DiZinno contributed to this report

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Honda bullish ahead of pivotal Indy 500

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MAY 27:  James Hinchcliffe of Canada, driver of the #5 ARROW Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Chevrolet,  drives  on Carb Day ahead of the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motorspeedway on May 27, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
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Honda Performance Development president Art St. Cyr feels bullish about the manufacturer’s chances in the 100th Indianapolis 500, believing all of its cars stand a serious chance of winning Sunday’s race.

Schmidt Peterson Motorsports’ James Hinchcliffe ended a long drought for Honda in qualifying last weekend, claiming its first pole position since Simon Pagenaud won the Verizon P1 Award at Houston in 2014.

Sunday’s ‘500 is a pivotal one for Honda given the occasion and its standing among its numerous motorsport programmes, and is made all the more crucial given its winless start to the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series season.

“We weren’t expecting the outcome of the first few races that we got this year,” St. Cyr conceded.

“We thought we were going to be OK. But obviously when we first came out at St. Pete, especially Phoenix, we had to focus on those, as well.

“I wouldn’t say the beginning part of the season went according to plan. But we kind of know what we have right now and where we’re going with this one.

“We’re working and the other side is working as well to try to improve as much as you can.”

The Honda-powered cars impressed throughout practice and qualifying at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, appearing to make a significant step up in performance from the Angie’s List GP of Indianapolis two weeks ago.

Besides Hinchcliffe getting pole, the Andretti Autosport cars regularly ran quickest through the speed trap with Ryan Hunter-Reay qualifying third, while Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s Graham Rahal has looked strong in race trim.

“The Indy 500 is a major focus for Honda. We really worked hard for 12 months on this particular race,” St. Cyr said.

“We used two of our three allocated boxes from an aerodynamic standpoint on this race. We have a pretty major upgrade of our engine specification for this race.

“As you’ve seen, it’s fairly competitive at this point. Really our whole goal is to get all of our teams with a package that is capable of winning this race.”

And providing such a package is something that St. Cyr believes Honda has achieved.

“It’s pretty great,” he said. “The Andretti guys, the whole Andretti team, all five of their cars, have been fast. They unloaded fast. They typically do really well here. We expect good things out of them.

“The Schmidt Peterson Racing group, all three of them have just had stellar months. You want to give some shouts out to Dale Coyne and those guys who have shown pretty good speed, with people that don’t have a lot of experience running around this track.

“A.J. Foyt and Takuma Sato showed something at the end of qualifying. They qualified third in the last group, right? Graham, we expect him to have a real good race, as well.

“All of our teams have legitimate contenders to win this race, so we’re actually really thrilled about that.”

PWC: Bentley confirms Andrew Palmer sustains head injury

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Photo: Bentley Team Absolute
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Following an accident in practice ahead of today’s Pirelli World Challenge race at Lime Rock Park, Bentley Team Absolute driver Andrew Palmer has sustained a head injury following contact with another car, an Aston Martin driven by Jorge de la Torre.

Just after 6:30 p.m. ET, Bentley released the following statement:

“Bentley Motorsport can confirm that Bentley Team Absolute driver Andrew Palmer will remain in hospital following an incident at Lime Rock Park in Connecticut earlier today. He has sustained a head injury and is being closely monitored after treatment by specialists.

“Bentley’s Director of Motorsport, Brian Gush, comments: “Everyone at Bentley Motorsport is thinking of Andrew and we all send him our best wishes. We are a close-knit community and we have team members at the hospital with him and his family. We will continue to offer our support to them at this difficult time. Our thanks go to the trackside team at Lime Rock Park and the medical professionals who have helped Andrew so far.”

“No further update is expected today. Bentley Motorsport will release another statement in due course.”

An additional statement came from WC Vision just before 10 p.m. ET:

“As an update to the earlier released news on Andrew Palmer and Jorge De La Torre:

“Both drivers remain under treatment at Hartford Hospital. Bentley has provided the statement below regarding Andrew Palmer. WC Vision will release further information on the condition of both drivers when Hartford Hospital provides any updates.

That came after the first update issued by World Challenge officials which read as follows, and was released after 1 p.m. ET:

“Both Andrew Palmer and Jorge De La Torre were transported to Sharon Hospital where they were stabilized for transportation to Hartford Hospital.  That is all we know at this time.”

K-PAX Racing driver Alvaro Parente won his second race of the weekend in his No. 9 McLaren 650S GT3 in the afternoon, although the results of which matter little in the face of Palmer’s accident and injuries.

Our thoughts and best wishes go out to the drivers and their families affected at this time.