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?

3 Comments

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

Ricky Taylor makes his IndyCar test debut today at Homestead

BRASELTON, GA - OCTOBER 03:  Ricky Taylor, C, sits with member of his crew before qualifying for Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta on October 3, 2014 in Braselton, Georgia.  (Photo by Brian Cleary/Getty Images)
Getty Images
1 Comment

It seems to be the winter of all-stars from other racing disciplines testing in IndyCar.

Today Ricky Taylor joined the list of those stars from the closed-top sports car or touring car world on the winter IndyCar test list, with a one-off guest test for Team Penske in defending Verizon IndyCar Series champion Simon Pagenaud’s No. 1 PPG Chevrolet.

The older of two Taylor brothers, who completed a star turn at this year’s Rolex 24 at Daytona en route to delivering the No. 10 Konica Minolta Cadillac DPi-V.R an overall win with brother Jordan, Max Angelelli and Jeff Gordon, made his maiden laps at the Homestead-Miami Speedway road course.

Chevrolet and General Motors extended the test offer to Ricky Taylor for this opportunity. Fittingly for Pagenaud, it’s the second time in not even a year he’s given up his seat to another member of either the GM or Penske family; Brad Keselowski made a similar out-of-nowhere one-off test at Road America last year.

“Every driver dreams to be an Indy car driver,” Taylor said, via IndyCar.com. It can’t hurt to be involved with (Team Penske); there are no negatives to that. To get to know all the guys and get to drive the car and get an actual feel for it in a low-pressure environment is a great opportunity for me. Even if it doesn’t lead to anything, it’s a big learning opportunity.”

With Ricky Taylor completing this test and with Robert Wickens and Pipo Derani set to test next week at Sebring’s short course, there’s been a sudden series of additional interest in the final few runs before the IndyCar season opens on March 12.

And with Ricky Taylor in Homestead today, it was left to Jordan Taylor and the Konica Minolta team’s new third driver, Englishman Alex Lynn, to run solo today as part of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship February test at Sebring’s full course. Lynn will make his U.S. race debut in the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring, to be held March 18. Ricky Taylor will be back at Sebring for the second day of the IMSA test, held Friday.

Great to see @simonpagenaud and @rickytaylor_10 today good job both!!

A post shared by Helio Castroneves (@heliocastroneves) on

Alexander Albon moves up to GP2 with ART Grand Prix

2016 GP2 Series Test 3
Yas Marina Circuit, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.
Friday 2 December 2016.
Alexander Albon (THA, ART Grand Prix) 
Photo: Zak Mauger/GP2 Series Media Service.
ref: Digital Image _X0W3990
© GP2 Series
Leave a comment

2016 GP3 Series runner-up Alexander Albon has announced that he will move into GP2 for 2017 with ART Grand Prix, completing the team’s line-up.

Albon, 20, finished second behind Ferrari junior Charles Leclerc in GP3 last year with ART, racking up four race wins through his rookie campaign.

The Thai youngster will now continue with ART in GP2, partnering McLaren youngster Nobuharu Matsushita through 2017.

“I am really excited to be working with ART Grand Prix for a second year. I learnt a huge amount last year and we have become one big close family,” Albon said.

“Moving up to the GP2 series is an important step in anyone’s career and I am extremely fortunate to be with a top team who already understand me.

“There’s a lot to learn coming from GP3, and the experience and method of working at ART Grand Prix is the reason they have won so many titles. I hope I will continue to proudly wear Thailand’s colours and those of my faithful Thai partners.

“I look forward to the new challenge and cannot wait for the season to begin!”

The new GP2 season will begin in Bahrain on April 15.

Sergey Sirotkin set for more F1 practice chances through 2017

SOCHI, RUSSIA - APRIL 28: Sergey Sirotkin of Russia and Renault Sport F1 in the Paddock during previews ahead of the Formula One Grand Prix of Russia at Sochi Autodrom on April 28, 2016 in Sochi, Russia.  (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)
© Getty Images
Leave a comment

Sergey Sirotkin is poised to enjoy more Formula 1 practice opportunities through 2017 with Renault after the team confirmed he would continue in a reserve role.

Sirotkin, 21, joined Renault in 2016 as a test driver after previously working with Sauber and falling short in a bid to be on the grid for 2015.

The Russian enjoyed two practice run-outs through 2016 behind the wheel of the Renault R.S.16, but will enjoy an expanded program in the forthcoming campaign.

“For Sergey, stability is important and we are happy to continue the development program after a very good GP2 season,” Renault F1 managing director Cyril Abiteboul said.

“He will continue to focus on his development role as a reserve, and he will have more opportunities to run in the car on Friday.

“His attention to detail and his appetite to be at the factory, looking at the simulator, his focus and his mentality, we’re happy to maintain at the team.”

Sirotkin is yet to confirm his racing plans for 2017, having spent the past two seasons in GP2, but has his sights firmly set on an F1 race seat next year.

“I don’t think anyone would be surprised if I said that my main target for the 2018 season is to have a seat as a Formula 1 race driver and that’s what I’m working towards,” Sirotkin said.

“I’m here to learn and be an asset to the team as well as show that I am worthy of further opportunities.”

VTB Group becomes title sponsor for Russian Grand Prix

SOCHI, RUSSIA - MAY 01: Nico Rosberg of Germany driving the (6) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO7 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo leads Kimi Raikkonen of Finland driving the (7) Scuderia Ferrari SF16-H Ferrari 059/5 turbo (Shell GP), Valtteri Bottas of Finland driving the (77) Williams Martini Racing Williams FW38 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo and the rest of the field at the start during the Formula One Grand Prix of Russia at Sochi Autodrom on May 1, 2016 in Sochi, Russia.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
© Getty Images
Leave a comment

Russian finance group VTB has been named as the new title sponsor for the Formula 1 Russian Grand Prix for 2017, set to take place on April 30.

Russia first joined the F1 championship calendar back in 2014, with the Sochi Autodrom being constructed in the city that hosted the Winter Olympics earlier that year.

For 2017, the race will feature a title sponsor for the first time, with an announcement being made by the VTB Group and F1 officials on Thursday.

As per a statement on the official F1 website: “The company’s branding has been included in the race’s logo and VTB has obtained additional advertising, marketing and communication options.”

“The right to be the title sponsor of such a major international project opens up new opportunities for both VTB Group and the Russian round of the FIA Formula One World Championship,” first deputy president and chairman of VTB management board Vasily Titov said.

“I am confident that our cooperation will become an example of an effective sponsorship in the area of motorsport for many companies. We are looking forward to seeing everyone at the 2017 Formula 1 VTB Russian Grand Prix in Sochi on 28-30 April.”

“The 2017 Formula 1 VTB Russian Grand Prix is not only a great event to attend to enjoy high-tech sporting battles and a wide range of entertainment, but is also a business platform of the highest level,” race promoter Sergey Vorobyev added.

“We are grateful to Bernie Ecclestone for making the decisions necessary for the development of this partnership and look forward to successfully working with Chase Carey and the new Formula 1 management team.”

Carey became F1’s new CEO last month following Ecclestone’s resignation, and was pleased to confirm the deal for VTB to become the Russian Grand Prix’s title sponsor.

“We are delighted to welcome VTB into the Formula One family as it becomes Event Title Partner of the Formula 1 Russian Grand Prix,” Carey said.

“VTB’s involvement will only add to the continued success of the event and we look forward to this being the start of a long and successful relationship.”