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Despite struggles, Earnhardt confident

Although Dale Earnhardt has struggled since winning the season-opening Daytona 500, he would have to be considered a favorite in today's DieHard 500 at Talladega Superspeedway.

"We showed at Daytona we've got our restrictor-engine program in pretty good shape and we've got a real good car," Earnhardt said. "I don't see why we can't win it."

Earnhardt, whose No. 3 Chevrolet will start from the outside pole position, is the series' undisputed leader in restrictor-plate racing.

He has eight victories and is the only driver to win three of four plate races in a season. In 1990, he won all but the Daytona 500.

CORRECT CHANGE ONLY: Randy LaJoie, who continues to fill in for injured Ricky Craven in the No. 50 Chevrolet, knows the cost of picking the wrong drafting line at Talladega.

"It's like interstate traffic when you get to a tollbooth and try to pick the right lane," said LaJoie, who will start 10th. "If you get in the wrong lane, you go back 10 spots.

"You might even get behind somebody asking directions."

ALABAMA GANG: The famed Alabama Gang, which at one time included Bobby Allison, Donnie Allison, Red Farmer, Neil Bonnett and Davey Allison, will be honored before today's race.

Bobby and Donnie Allison, both retired; Farmer, in his 50th year of short track racing; and Bonnett's widow, Susan, will serve as grand marshals.

THINK SKINNY: Drivers have tried mightily to put the treachery of racing at Talladega into terms the average fan can understand. Here is Mark Martin's best attempt:

"If you've ever driven between two 18-wheelers on the highway and pulled your elbows in to make yourself smaller, you understand what it's like to race out there three-wide."

GOING HOME: Veteran Geoff Bodine failed to qualify his No. 7 Ford Taurus, only the second time he did not make a race.

"This is just a little hiccup," Bodine said.

"We just need to go back and get stuff in order so this doesn't happen anymore."

FAST FINISH: Rookie Kenny Irwin posted the fastest lap of Saturday's Happy Hour, the final Winston Cup practice session.

In a string of 22 full-speed laps, Irwin's No.28 Ford Taurus was clocked at 195.237 mph. Others near the top of the chart included Jeff Gordon, Terry Labonte, Dick Trickle, Ernie Irvan, Dale Jarrett and points leader Rusty Wallace.

NUTS AND BOLTS: Bill Elliott has finished in the top 15 of all eight races this season. With today's start, Ricky Rudd would pass James Hylton for eighth on the all-time Winston Cup starts list with 603. Rudd's 515 consecutive starts is third all time. A Pontiac has never won a restrictor plate race.

_ JOANNE KORTH

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