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?


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.

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

Williams to announce 2017 F1 line-up on November 3

AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 23: Valtteri Bottas of Finland driving the (77) Williams Martini Racing Williams FW38 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo on track during the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 23, 2016 in Austin, United States.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Williams Martini Racing will announce its line-up for the 2017 Formula 1 season on November 3 following the Mexican Grand Prix.

Williams will change its line-up for the first time in three seasons next year when Felipe Massa retires from F1.

The Brazilian will be replaced by 17-year-old Lance Stroll, who won the FIA F3 title in 2016 with Prema Powerteam.

Stroll is set to join Valtteri Bottas, who, despite being subject to interest from Renault, is set to extend his stint as a race driver with Williams into a fifth season.

Stroll will become the second-youngest driver to make his F1 debut at the start of the 2017 season, and the youngest since the FIA introduced a lower-age limit of 18 to F1. The Canadian turns 18 this Saturday.

Williams currently sits fifth in the constructors’ championship with three races remaining in the 2016 season, with one podium to its name so far courtesy of Bottas in Canada.

Force India move ‘definitely an option’ for Ericsson in 2017

AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 23: Marcus Ericsson of Sweden driving the (9) Sauber F1 Team Sauber C35 Ferrari 059/5 turbo on track during the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 23, 2016 in Austin, United States.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Marcus Ericsson says that a move to Force India for the 2017 Formula 1 season is “definitely an option”, but is also excited by the prospect of remaining at Sauber.

Ericsson is currently embarking in his third season in F1 and his second with Sauber, having scored nine points during his stint with the Swiss team.

Sauber currently sits at the foot of the constructors’ championship, with neither Ericsson nor Nasr scoring a point after a turbulent financial period for the team.

Sauber’s long-term future was secured over the summer when Longbow Finance completed a takeover, its backers allegedly having links to Ericsson.

However, the Swedish driver is open to a move away from the team at the end of the season, and believes that the vacant seat at Force India is the most lucrative on the grid.

“I think all the drivers that don’t have a contract for next year yet are looking at the [Force India] seat,” Ericsson said.

“Force India is a competitive car at the moment so it’s definitely an option.

“Sauber is an exciting option for me for next year because they have a very strong project building.

“Hopefully sooner rather than later I will know what’s happening next year for me.”

Gutierrez strongly considering alternatives to Haas F1 for 2017

SINGAPORE - SEPTEMBER 15:  Esteban Gutierrez of Mexico and Haas F1 walks in the Paddock  during previews ahead of the Formula One Grand Prix of Singapore at Marina Bay Street Circuit on September 15, 2016 in Singapore.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Esteban Gutierrez says that he is strongly considering alternative options to Haas for 2017 as the American team continues to wait before making a decision on its Formula 1 line-up.

Gutierrez returned to F1 full-time in 2016 after one year away, joining NASCAR team co-owner Gene Haas’ new racing operation.

Gutierrez has failed to score any points in the opening 18 races of the year, while teammate Romain Grosjean has 29 to his name.

Haas is known to be currently considering its line-up for 2017, with Grosjean poised to stay.

Gutierrez’s future is less clear, but said in Thursday’s FIA press conference ahead of the Mexican Grand Prix that he wanted it to be resolved in the next two weeks.

“I think Gene has been very clear in the media. They want to wait a few races,” Gutierrez said.

“Fortunately we have other options which we are now considering strongly.

“I think it would be important to close something soon because we cannot risk to just wait a few more races to the end of the season, and risk falling between two chairs.

“Things are looking good for next season.”

When asked if he had a personal deadline for firming up his 2017 plans, Gutierrez said: “The deadline should be in the next two weeks.”

Should Gutierrez leave Haas, drives at Force India and Renault are likely to be on the Mexican’s radar, with both teams having one free seat.

Tony and Lauren Kanaan welcome new baby Max into the world

SONOMA, CA - SEPTEMBER 17:  Tony Kanaan of Brazil drives the #10 NTT Data Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet Dallara during practice for the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma at Sonoma Raceway on September 17, 2016 in Sonoma, California.  (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)
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Tony Kanaan and wife Lauren have welcomed a new baby into the world, with “TK” announcing the birth of son Max on Thursday.

Max joins other sons Deco and Leo in the Kanaan family. Kanaan reported both mom and baby are doing well.

This is the latest new arrival to the Verizon IndyCar Series, with Ryan Hunter-Reay and wife Beccy welcoming their third son Rhodes (after Ryden and Roczen) in September, and with Will Power and wife Liz expecting their first child in December.

Kanaan has re-signed with Chip Ganassi Racing and will drive the team’s No. 10 NTT Data Honda once more in 2017.