Chase drivers have varied histories at Talladega's tri-oval Earnhardt Jr. the man to beat this week -- and to watch, on "60 Minutes" Jeff Gordon back out front -- barely Three of the drivers involved in the Chase for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup ...
Chase drivers have varied histories at Talladega's tri-oval
Earnhardt Jr. the man to beat this week -- and to watch, on "60 Minutes"
Jeff Gordon back out front -- barely
Three of the drivers involved in the Chase for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup have combined for nine victories at Talladega Superspeedway. The other seven drivers have combined for zero.
The stage seems set -- for an upset.
Sunday's EA Sports 500 at Talladega -- Round 3 of the Chase -- will spotlight that disparity, which adds yet another layer of intrigue to the championship battle that has eight races remaining. Some drivers will be out to maintain their Talladega status quo; others will strive to go where they usually don't at the 2.66-mile tri-oval -- toward the front, where in all likelihood they'll find Dale Earnhardt Jr. (No. 8 Budweiser Chevrolet), currently third in the Chase standings, only 18 back of leader Jeff Gordon (No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet).
Given the talent of his NASCAR NEXTEL Cup peers, it's perhaps inappropriate to call Earnhardt a prohibitive favorite. But it's safe to cast him as the definitive favorite when it comes to Talladega, or any restrictor-plate race for that matter. Earnhardt has four Talladega victories; he won four consecutive between October 2001 and April 2003. Since then, in the last two NASCAR NEXTEL Cup events at Talladega, Earnhardt has consecutive runner-up finishes. Overall in NASCAR NEXTEL Cup races at Talladega and Daytona International Speedway (the two tracks where cars run with carburetor restrictor plates), Earnhardt has six victories, including this year's Daytona 500.
"Talladega is so much fun," Earnhardt said. "It's not at all physically tough to race there, but the mental strain, the mental part of it is extremely exhausting. You have to be aware at all times about where you are, and where everyone else is. ... You're using every bit of your peripheral vision, while trying to watch the guys behind you in the mirror and not running into the guy in front of you. You can really use the air to your advantage."
Earnhardt leads all active drivers in Talladega victories, a remarkable statistic considering he has only nine Talladega starts in the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series. His average finish of 8.0 is another series-leading statistic.
He also has a tried-and-true theory on how to avoid any Talladega incidents:
"Just stay out front all day."
ON THE RIGHT TRACK
Aside from Dale Earnhardt Jr., two other drivers can boast Talladega victories:
• Chase points leader Jeff Gordon, who won at Talladega in April, has three victories there overall. Gordon has 13 top-10 Talladega finishes in 23 starts.
• Fifth-place Mark Martin (No. 6 Viagra Ford) has two victories and 21 top-10 Talladega finishes in 37 starts. Martin has, by far, the most Talladega experience among Chase drivers. Martin has the most restrictor-plate experience, overall, of the Chase drivers. He is one of six NASCAR NEXTEL Cup drivers who have competed in all 67 restrictor-plate events -- and the only Chase driver who has done so.
Earnhardt, Gordon and Martin notwithstanding, don't discount these drivers come Sunday:
• Kurt Busch (No. 97 Sharpie/IRWIN Ford) is second in the Chase standings, but he's winless at Talladega in seven starts. He does, however, have three top-five finishes, including a third-place run in his first NASCAR NEXTEL Cup start at Talladega (April 2001). Busch also is off to a fast Chase start. He's the only Chase competitor with top-five finishes in each of the first two Chase events.
• Fourth-place Jimmie Johnson (No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet) has only five Talladega races under his belt, but already has one pole and two top-10 finishes. Johnson has five consecutive top-10 starts at Talladega.
• Ninth-place Tony Stewart (No. 20 Home Depot Chevrolet) has a Talladega ledger similar to that of Busch. Stewart has five top-five runs in 11 starts, but no victories. At least not yet.
• Tenth-place Jeremy Mayfield (No. 19 Dodge Dealers/UAW Dodge) has only one top-10 finish in 20 Talladega starts. But he also has three poles.
DALE JR. ON 60 MINUTES
Dale Earnhardt Jr. will be featured Wednesday on the season premiere of the weeknight edition of 60 Minutes. (CBS, 8 p.m. ET.) He will be the first NASCAR driver to be featured on the show in nearly 20 years. Earnhardt was interviewed by veteran correspondent Mike Wallace, who sat shotgun in a 2005 Corvette C6 as the two turned laps around Daytona International Speedway. Earnhardt also was interviewed for the feature at his home near Mooresville, N.C.
IT'S GORDON -- BY A POINT, IN CHASE STANDINGS
At the outset for the Chase for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup, the 10 drivers involved had their point totals "reset," with the leader set at 5,050, and five-point drops continuing through 10th position. That was expected to keep the standings close. But it would've been hard to predict they'd be this close: Four-time series champion Jeff Gordon leads Kurt Busch by one point in this week's Chase -- 5,371-5,370. It's the closest margin between first and second, with eight races remaining in the season, since 1982. That was when Bobby Allison led Darrell Waltrip by 18 points after 22 races in a 30-race season.
Tony Stewart has competed in 105 consecutive NASCAR NEXTEL Cup races without using a provisional starting berth. The last time he used a provisional? Oct. 21, 2001 -- at Talladega. ... Jeremy Mayfield won the pole last week at Dover International Speedway, giving him a season sweep of the two Dover poles. That marked the first time a driver had won both Dover poles since Cale Yarborough did so in 1980. ... Ryan Newman has the best average start in the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series this season, 8.25. ... There's no secret to Mark Martin's recent surge that first got him into the Chase, then up to fifth place in the standings this week. Martin has seven consecutive finishers in the top 15 ... Elliott Sadler (No. 38 M&M's Ford) has been running at the finish of 33 consecutive races, the longest such streak among active drivers. ... Jeff Gordon has led in 21 races this season, more than any other driver. ... Jimmie Johnson has led a series-high 1,034 laps this year.
• "I can't think of many things more fun than running three-wide at Talladega." -- Dale Earnhardt Jr.
• "I've been critical of [the Chase for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup] from one point of view. But I guess the bottom line is if it grows our sport, it benefits everyone. And that's a good thing." -- Jimmie Johnson.
• "I know there are a lot of teams in the Chase feeling a lot of pressure but for some reason, our team isn't feeling any more pressure than we normally would. I feel like we have as good of a chance as anyone to win Talladega and many other races this year." -- Sixth-place Elliott Sadler.
• "My philosophy in my 25 years of racing has been that if you win races then the points take care of themselves. The higher you finish the more points you get. It's a pretty simple theory." -- Tony Stewart, who is trying to battle back in the Chase standings, after a 39th-place finish at New Hampshire in Round 1 of the Chase.
What: EA Sports 500. (Round 3 of the Chase for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup/Race No. 29 of the 36-race NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series season.)
Where: Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway.
When: Sunday, Oct. 3, 2:30 p.m. (ET).
TV: NBC, 1:30 p.m. (ET).
Radio: MRN/XM Satellite.
Posted awards: $5,199,159.
Race length: 500 miles/188 laps.
Track layout: 2.66-mile tri-oval.
2003 winner: Michael Waltrip.
2003 polesitter: Elliott Sadler.
Chase for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup standings: 1. Jeff Gordon 5,371. 2. Kurt Busch 5,370. 3. Dale Earnhardt Jr. 5,353. 4. Jimmie Johnson 5,314. 5. Mark Martin 5,314. 6. Elliott Sadler 5,275. 7. Matt Kenseth 5,272. 8. Ryan Newman 5,264. 9. Tony Stewart 5,236. 10. Jeremy Mayfield 5,214.