Playing Head Games

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LOUDON, N.H. –- The hottest topic at New Hampshire International Speedway this weekend will undoubtedly be the use of restrictor plates in the Dura Lube 300 by Winston Cup teams. Some drivers, however, have something else on their minds – like the race for the Winston Cup championship. Just ask Dale Earnhardt.

"The Intimidator," searching for a record eighth Winston Cup title, is 158 points behind Bobby Labonte heading into Sunday’s event at NHIS, a place where Earnhardt has never won during his illustrious career.

In fact, Earnhardt has only two top-five finishes in his previous 10 starts at the 1.058-mile, New England oval. But with his second-place finish in the Chevrolet Monte Carlo 400 at Richmond last Saturday night, Earnhardt says he feels momentum should be on the side of his No. 3 GM Goodwrench Chevrolet team this weekend.

"At Richmond, getting a little breather in some points, and gaining on some points, really helped us," Earnhardt said. "Still, we’re some 150 points behind, and just a couple of front of the rest of the guys. The points race is important. We’re getting more and more excited about it.

"We can race 'em. We can beat 'em. We can do it. We’ve just got to keep the pressure on and go into the last race with a chance. If it came down to neck-and-neck (in the season finale at Atlanta) like it did in the spring, it would be alright with me if there was just five points difference.

"I want to get close enough to play head games. Really, the pressure is on now. The pressure is on them (Labonte’s team) not to make mistakes and break something like they had at Richmond. They had a power-steering problem. They can’t make mistakes like that, and I can’t make mistakes to beat them. The pressure is on both sides big-time right now. The pressure is on."

Not that the earlier fatalities of Adam Petty and Kenny Irwin, nor the fact that NASCAR has mandated the use of restrictor plates for Sunday’s event, haven’t crept into Earnhardt’s thoughts. It’s just that he’s got a championship – one that he’s coveted since earning his last one in 1994 – to win, and he’s trying not to let anything distract him.

"That race track (New Hampshire) is no more dangerous than Indianapolis or any other track we race at," Earnhardt said. "Those walls are there to protect the fans. We’ve got to do the best we can to protect ourselves in the cars with safety equipment or whatever else we can do.

"New Hampshire is a good track. There’s nothing wrong with that track. There’s an element of danger in any form of motorsports. I take that risk. This is Winston Cup racing, an elite sport. It’s not Late Model Stock racing. We race on all kinds of tracks, and they’re all dangerous if you look at them right. The job we have is racing, and to me, racing is to go as fast as you can go."

Following Dale Jarrett’s demise at Richmond last Saturday night, Labonte now enjoys his largest points advantage of the season. Jarrett is 177 points behind Labonte in third, while fourth-place Jeff Burton trails Labonte by 183.

Any kind of slip up at Loudon, and Labonte knows that lead could shrink just as quickly as it swelled.

"We actually have a good package for running well at Loudon," said the driver of the No. 18 Interstate Batteries Pontiac, who has but one career top-five finish at NHIS, a third-place run in last year’s fall event. "Unfortunately we’ve had some things happen there that have prevented us from showcasing how good we can be.

"Since they added on the second event here a couple of years ago, we seem to be getting a better handle on the track… what our cars need to get around there. If last year was any indication, we should be able to unload an be pretty decent."

Burton, on the other hand, has been a dominant figure at New Hampshire in recent years. He did finish 11th in the Jiffy Lube 300 in July, but he has also posted three victories at NHIS since 1997, and has six top-five finishes there in his past eight starts.

"I always say last year was last year, but it was a long day in July," Burton said. "We didn’t handle as well as we needed to handle. Hopefully we can overcome that this time around.

"I’m very comfortable racing there (at NHIS). Clearly, it’s a challenging track, but one we’ve won on before. We know what type of car we need to have to be successful. I don’t know what to expect this weekend as far as the (restrictor) plate is concerned. We’re all in the same boat, that’s for sure. We’ll see what happens."

It may seem like a long time until the season ends in November, but what happens at New Hampshire Sunday could make some drivers realize it’s a lot closer than they thing.

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