At Talladega, Ala.

Stage at Talladega couldn't be more perfectly set for Earnhardt Jr.

jutter@charlotteobserver.com May 6, 2012 

NASCAR Talladega Auto Racing

Dale Earnhardt Jr. explains handling of his car to crew chief Steve Letarte during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series auto race at Talladega Superspeedway, Friday, May 4, 2012, in Talladega, AL. (AP Photo/Autostock, Brian Czobat) MANDATORY CREDIT

BRIAN CZOBAT — AP

— The stage has been set.

An unexpected – and somewhat unlikely – collection of circumstances has coalesced around Sunday’s Aaron’s 499 at Talladega Superspeedway, a race that has the potential to provide a significant spark to the NASCAR season.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., NASCAR’s most popular driver, will try to end his 138-race winless streak at the track where he has been the most successful. Earnhardt has more wins at Talladega (five) than any other track.

A victory would mark two additional milestones.

Earnhardt is second in the series standings – five points behind leader Greg Biffle – and a win also would more than likely make him the points leader. He has not been in that a position for nearly eight years (September 2004).

Also, a win by Earnhardt would provide team owner Rick Hendrick his 200th Cup win – an achievement the organization has patiently been waiting to celebrate since Jimmie Johnson earned victory last October at Kansas.

Earnhardt breaks his streak, takes the points lead and hands Hendrick Motorsports its 200th Cup win?

What would such a day do for NASCAR?

“If Dale Jr. was able to pull off the win at Talladega and with everything it would mean, we’d all stay in Talladega for a couple of days and celebrate,” said former series champion Darrell Waltrip, now a TV analyst with Fox and Speed.

“A win this weekend would mean the world to Rick Hendrick because Talladega is sort of the house (Dale Earnhardt Sr.) helped build, and it would be special to Rick if Dale Jr. could win there with his organization.

“And, of course, it would mean a lot to Rick if he could get that 200th win behind him. It’s become the 800-pound gorilla in the room.”

Waltrip’s colleague at Fox and Speed, former crew chief Larry McReynolds, believes fans who have reveled in Earnhardt Jr.’s success at Talladega would reap the biggest reward from a victory.

“To win at Talladega this weekend, where they already worship the ground he walks on and the pavement he rolls his race car on, and to break his winless streak and get the 200th win for Hendrick – there is no better scenario,” McReynolds said.

“If he wins, they better be half-prepared to put some temporary grandstands in at Darlington (S.C.) next weekend.”

The performance by Earnhardt and his No. 88 Chevrolet team this season provides plenty of evidence a win isn’t far away.

“You don’t run as well as he’s been running and not get to Victory Lane,” McReynolds said.

Through nine races, Earnhardt has four top-five and seven top-10 finishes. His top-five results equal last season’s total, when he qualified for the Chase after missing the cut the two previous seasons.

Earnhardt himself isn’t as confident about predicting a victory this weekend as perhaps his fans.

“There’s too many variables going into races at Talladega whether you feel confident winning or not,” he said.

Earnhardt does believe he and his team are knocking on the door to Victory Lane.

“The team is confident, we’re feeling good. We feel like we’re competing well (and) really close to winning a race,” he said.

It has been more than seven years since Earnhardt’s last victory at Talladega, which capped a streak in which he finished second or better in seven straight races at the track.

Will Talladega fans have forgotten what it’s like to celebrate a win by the sport’s most popular driver?

Not likely, says track President Grant Lynch.

“While it has been a while since Dale Jr. has won at Talladega, I have no doubt that the fans who are in our grandstands, our infield and all those hundreds of acres of camping will know how to cut loose and celebrate,” he said.

“I only hope we can keep the deed to the place by Monday morning.”

Utter: 704-358-5113; Twitter: @jim_utter

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