Nerve-Racking Weekend Ahead For Cup Drivers
Posted September 30, 2004 2:34 a.m. EDT
TALLADEGA, Ala. — The public relations staff at Talladega Superspeedway dubbed the next stop in NASCAR's new playoff-style championship, White Knuckle Weekend. It would be hard to find many drivers who would argue with the label.
There will be frayed nerves all around, and not just because of the importance of Sunday's EA Sports 500 to the 10 drivers competing for the title. There's also the inherent danger of racing 500 miles with carburetor restrictor plates that slow cars, creating big packs that often lead to big crashes.
Jeff Gordon, who won both the April race at Talladega and the July restrictor-plate event at Daytona International Speedway, finds the races at NASCAR's two biggest ovals excruciating.
"I never finish one of those races without a headache from concentrating so hard for so long," he said.
And don't think Gordon has changed his mind because of recent success on the only tracks where NASCAR requires the horsepower-sapping plates to slow cars.
"You never know what is going to happen at the plate tracks, and that's where the tension comes in," said Gordon, who leads Kurt Busch by a point after the first two races of the 10-event title chase. "You can be leading on one lap and 25th on the next lap. Or you can be in the wrong spot and wind up in somebody else's wreck. You're on edge pretty much the whole race."
Heading into practice and qualifying Friday on the steeply banked 2.66-mile oval, there are four drivers bunched within 57 points of Gordon. Even 10th-place Jeremy Mayfield, 157 points off the pace, is not completely out of the title picture.
Third-place Dale Earnhardt Jr. is followed by Jimmie Johnson, Mark Martin, Elliott Sadler, defending series champion Matt Kenseth, Ryan Newman and Tony Stewart.
Martin and Busch called the Talladega race the "wild card" in the championship, but Gordon doesn't want to put too much emphasis on this event.
"Every race in the final 10 is crucial," the four-time Cup champion said. "To be honest, I think Martinsville (on Oct. 24) is more of a wild card than Talladega - that is, unless the 'Big One' occurs."
A win for Gordon on Sunday would do more than assure him of keeping the points lead. It would also match the late Dale Earnhardt's feat of three restrictor-plate wins in the same year. The seven-time champion won both Talladega races and the July race at Daytona in 1990.
But Gordon is more concerned with the championship battle than personal records.
"At Talladega, it's a matter of staying out of trouble and being in the right place at the right time," he said. "There's just so much tough competition that anything in the top 10 is a real good finish."
Among the competition, the drivers most likely to give Gordon a battle are teammates Earnhardt Jr. and Michael Waltrip.
Until Gordon won the last two races, those two had been almost unbeatable on the plate tracks.
From the season-opening Daytona 500 in 2001 through this year's 500-miler at the Florida track, the DEI duo had won 10 of 13 plate races. That included four in a row at Talladega by Earnhardt during one stretch, as well as a win by Waltrip here last October. And Earnhardt didn't miss extending the team's dominance by much, finishing second to Gordon in the last two plate events.
It figures that Junior, who like his father seems to use the draft better than anyone at the two big tracks, is one of the few drivers who claims to love racing at the plate tracks. But he admits it isn't easy.
"It's not at all physically tough to race here, but the mental strain, the mental part of it is extremely exhausting," he said. "You have to be aware at all times about where you're at and where everyone else is."
Waltrip, whose four career victories all were at Daytona or Talladega, isn't part of the 10-man championship chase, but he would love to get his first win of the season Sunday.
"There are several races that anything can happen and Talladega is one of those places for sure," Waltrip said. "At the same time, the fast guys usually wind up in the front and some of the guys that get shuffled back will wind up in a crash.
"You understand what you are faced with when you come here, and everyone knows this is a track that can put a wrench in your plans."