*The Chase, Race 4: Talladega Personifies Unpredictability *3 At The Top: Johnson, Edwards, Biffle Dominating Thus Far *Dale Earnhardt Jr. : The Rally Could Start Here *Jeff Gordon: Winless But Still In Title Mix *NASCAR Mourns Loss Of An Industry...
*The Chase, Race 4: Talladega Personifies Unpredictability
*3 At The Top: Johnson, Edwards, Biffle Dominating Thus Far
*Dale Earnhardt Jr. : The Rally Could Start Here
*Jeff Gordon: Winless But Still In Title Mix
*NASCAR Mourns Loss Of An Industry Institution -- Hal Hamrick
All Bets Are Off, As Chase Makes Annual Stop At Talladega
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- In days gone by, Talladega Superspeedway's second race each NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season was held in late July, with impressive competition meeting oppressive heat. Seeking to enhance the first but lose the second, NASCAR moved the event to October.
Then, starting in 2004, things got hotter than ever.
Credit the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, NASCAR's playoff-style championship-deciding format that encompasses the last 10 races of the season. When the format was instituted in '04 it placed tempestuous Talladega in the middle of the mix.
Sunday's AMP Energy 500 is Race 4 in the 2008 "Chase." As always, the only thing predictable about Talladega is the track's unpredictability.
Credit the banking of 33 degrees in the turns.
Or maybe the overall track length of 2.66 miles, conducive to serious speed.
And don't forget the close-quarters racing resulting from carburetor restrictor plates that reduce horsepower and put a premium on handling, drafting -- and teamwork. Or in lieu of teamwork, cooperation between non-teammates.
Talladega's tough -- particularly on drivers who roll into town leading the Chase standings. In the four years of the Chase thus far, only once has the leader coming into Talladega been the leader leaving town -- Jeff Burton (No. 31 AT&T Mobility Chevrolet) in 2006. And that was a close call; Burton's lead was sliced to six points after a 27th-place race finish. He ended up a disappointing seventh in the final point standings.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. (No. 88 AMP Energy/National Guard Chevrolet) has five Talladega wins to his credit. Earnhardt, eighth in points and in need of a late-season rally, isn't convinced a big points shake-up is inevitable this week.
But that's not to say he would be surprised.
"[This race] has the potential to do that," Earnhardt said.
"It's going to be tough to gain on everyone in this race. It will be tough for it to really jumble up the points. I think you just have to try to win the race.
"The only way to really gain points on anybody right now, for anybody who's outside of the top five in points, is to be first when the checkered flag falls."
Earnhardt's five Talladega wins happened between 2001-04, part of an overwhelming Chevrolet dominance at the track this decade. Since the start of the 2000 season Chevrolet drivers have won 15 of 17 races there. The two exceptions: Dale Jarrett's victory in a Ford, in the 2005 fall race and Kyle Busch's win in the No. 18 Pedigree Toyota this past April.
Current series points leader Jimmie Johnson (No. 48 Lowe's/KOBALT Chevrolet) has one of those Chevrolet victories since 2000 -- in the spring 2006 race.
The two drivers immediately behind him in the points -- second-place Carl Edwards (No. 99 Office Depot Ford) and Greg Biffle (No. 16 DISH Network Ford) -- have average Talladega finishes of 24th and 25th, respectively.
On The CAM: Dale Earnhardt Jr. Talks About 'Dega, Chase On NASCAR CAM Video Teleconference
Dale Earnhardt Jr. was this week's guest on the NASCAR CAM Video Teleconference, held on Monday afternoon, from the NASCAR Research and Development Center in Concord, N.C.
Some excerpts from the teleconference follow .
"Talladega has been a good track for us. Always run good there .... got a lot of fans there.
It's just a good track. We look forward to it. It's always a lot of fun, more of a mental race than a physical race. It's not really who has the best car; it's the guy who makes the best moves and makes the right decisions there at the end of the race. ...
"My dad was a real good restrictor-plate racer. So I loved going to the plate tracks to watch and to be a part of his success. You always knew going into Daytona or Talladega, if you were at the track or at home watching, that you were going to have a lot of fun because he always ran well, led laps, made a lot of incredible moves. It just made it a lot of fun to watch. ...
"[Talladega and Daytona], those tracks are really intimidating when you're young, when you go to them for the first time. They're the biggest tracks on the circuit. So when you're a 15-year-old walking around in the garage area, you see all the preparation that goes into it, you see the speeds those cars are reaching, what not, you just get a big amount of respect for it early on. ...
"Obviously winning races at the track yourself, you're going to get a great relationship with the race track and feel good about going back to it because you're having success there. ...
"To me Talladega is special. I don't think everyone gets that sensation going into the race. But to me it's a pretty important place just 'cause my family's done so well there. And the way the fans treat us there makes it exciting, makes it a place you look forward to. I think that's probably the biggest key, the fans and how they've treated us at that track. It really gets you excited when it's coming up on the schedule. ...
"I think as far as our position now in the Chase, we just kind of got to go for broke, really throw it out there and take some chances, really take some risks. I don't know if we can take any more than we're taking now. We can only get what we can get out of the car each weekend. ...
"At Talladega you can make some pretty ridiculous moves, and some of them pay off, some of them don't. We'll just have to see what kind of position we're in on any given lap to be able to try to take advantage of some things happening around us. ...
"Talladega is just impressive, the size of the track, the speed, how close we run together. I mean, we're running 190 miles an hour in the draft, tight door-to-door, bumper-to-bumper. There's literally no room for any error whatsoever. It's just really, really exciting. It's an amazing adrenaline rush for four straight hours. You got that feeling constantly throughout the whole race. "
Talladega Loop Data: The Stats Align To Favor Former Champions Gordon and Stewart
Jeff Gordon (No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet) and Tony Stewart (No. 20 Subway Toyota) have combined for six NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championships -- and zero 2008 wins.
Both are perilously close to ending a prolonged career win streak. Gordon has won a race in each of the last 14 seasons; Stewart in each of the last nine.
The "slump" has reached 34 races for Gordon and 43 for Stewart.
But Talladega Superspeedway, though unpredictable as it may be, should be a solid opportunity for either to end their slide.
Both have strong statistics at the 2.66-mile Alabama track, topping most of the Loop Data categories over the last seven Talladega races.
Gordon is Talladega's most successful active driver with six wins, 13 top-five and 16 top-10 finishes. He swept both Talladega races in 2007.
Since Loop Data's inception in 2005, Gordon has a series-best Driver Rating of 96.9, an Average Running Position of 13.8 (second-best) and a Laps in the Top 15 percentage of 65.4% (second-best).
If Gordon's the most successful at Talladega, Stewart's the most consistent -- and least lucky. Stewart has six runner-up finishes at Talladega, but no wins. It is one of four tracks at which Stewart has yet to win (Las Vegas, Auto Club Speedway and Darlington are the others).
Still, Stewart's statistics rank among the best in the series.
Over the last seven Talladega races, Stewart has a Driver Rating of 94.4 (third-best), a series-best Average Running Position of 12.2 and a Laps in the Top 15 percentage of 65.1% (third-best).
Also watch for a strong run from Stewart's Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin (No. 11 FedEx Toyota). Though Hamlin struggled to start his Talladega career (three consecutive finishes outside the top 20), he has adapted to the tricky terrain. In his last two Talladega races, Hamlin has posted finishes of fourth and third, respectively.
In his five-race career there, Hamlin has a Driver Rating of 96.8 (second), an Average Running Position of 12.4 (second) and a Laps in the Top 15 percentage of 63.0 (fourth).
Among the three-way battle at the top of the standings, Johnson clearly outclasses Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle at Talladega.
Johnson, a winner there in 2006, has a Talladega Driver Rating of 86.7. Edwards has just a 70.5 and Biffle has a 68.0.
Gordon 'Hanging Around' In Chase Battle, Looking For Late-Season Surge
Jeff Gordon seems to be in the same high-banked boat as Dale Earnhardt Jr. this week. Like Earnhardt, Gordon needs to rally quickly if he is to have a viable chance at winning the series championship.
And like Earnhardt, he has history on his side.
Gordon has won six times at Talladega, including a sweep of last season's two events there. That victory total is second all-time behind the 10 wins posted by the late Dale Earnhardt.
While Earnhardt seems reluctant to predict a serious points shake-up Sunday, Gordon sounds like he's planning on it.
A lot can happen points-wise in this race," said Gordon. "Hopefully, there are no big accidents, and if there are, we are able to avoid them.
"I feel this is a race we can win. We just need to be in a position at the end to challenge for the victory."
Leading is the best way to avoid trouble at Talladega, Gordon said, adding, "if you get shuffled out of the lead, you have to survey the situation and make the best decision at that time. If there are plenty of laps left, do you try and stay in the lead pack to draft back up to the front? Or do you clear yourself of the main pack and just ride around until the closing stages to make your move? Last year in this race, I hung back away from the big pack for much of the day and was still able to win. While I hate that strategy, it worked in that instance."
Closing In On Cale; Johnson Has 'Threepeat' In His Sights
We've seen this before.
A late-season lead in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series points belongs to Jimmie Johnson, a driver who has developed a decided knack for "closing the deal" when presented with the opportunity to win the series championship.
This is Johnson's time of year. Consider:
In 2006, he finished the season with six consecutive top-10 finishes. Included was a five-race stretch in which he had four second-place finishes and a victory at Martinsville.
In 2007, he won four consecutive races during the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup to win the title going away.
This year, he has rallied again. Pre-Chase victories at California and Richmond secured the Chase's second seed. In the three Chase races thus far he has a second, a fifth and, this past Sunday, a victory at Kansas.
And as a result, he now has the series points lead. Once again.
Johnson is trying to become only the second driver in history to win the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship three consecutive years. Cale Yarborough did so from 1976-78.
Only five drivers have won the title three or more times: Yarborough, Darrell Waltrip (3), Jeff Gordon (4), Richard Petty (7) and Dale Earnhardt (7).
NASCAR Loses Long-Time Friend, With Passing of Hal Hamrick
Hamrick, 79, was around for all of NASCAR's 60 years to date and was integral through those years in helping build a grassroots sport into a national sport.
For years he was a renowned announcer, having worked the first Daytona 500 in 1959. He excelled in promoting races. And among his many contributions was the creation of FasTrack Magazine, one of the industry's most popular publications, in part because of the space devoted to covering NASCAR's short-track and touring series competition.
"Hal Hamrick did, indeed, do a lot for the sport, especially in its formative days," said NASCAR Vice President of Communications Jim Hunter, a longtime friend of Hamrick's.
"He built a lot of excitement into the sport as an announcer and was a contributing member of the National Motorsports Press Association. His publication in his twilight years has certainly been a huge boost for stock car racing's grassroots local tracks."
Hamrick's family will receive friends on Wednesday from 2-3 p.m. at Parkwood Baptist Church, 1729 East Garrison Blvd. in Gastonia (704-864-3930). A celebration of Hamrick's life will follow, starting at 3.
In lieu of flowers, the family has asked that contributions be made to one of the following:
Parkwood Baptist Church, 1827 Dixon Road, Gastonia, N.C., 28054
Victory Junction Gang Camp, 4500 Adam's Way, Randleman, N.C., 27317 (www.victoryjunction.org)
American Heart Association, 222 S. Church Street, Suite. 303, Charlotte, N.C., 28202
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, Etc. -- Skinner's Back, Earnhardt Has Unique Fan Support
Mike Skinner is back -- again.
The No. 84 entry is currently 33rd in the car owner points, just inside the top-35 cutoff for automatic entry into this weekend's event.
"The schedule we put together is in the best interest of both Red Bull Racing Team and AJ's plans for the future," said RBRT Vice President and General Manager Jay Frye. Allowing Mike Skinner and Scott Speed to share the No. 84 for the balance of the season helps our team continue developing our program for the future."
Skinner, who drove the No. 84 Red Bull Toyota for five races earlier in the 2008 season, will take the reins of the No. 84 at the NSCS races in both Talladega and Charlotte. Red Bull development driver Speed will drive the No. 82 Red Bull Toyota at Lowe's Motor Speedway on Oct. 11 -- the same weekend he attempts to clinch the ARCA RE/MAX Series championship in Toledo, Ohio. Speed will then take over driving duties of the No. 84 at Martinsville, Atlanta, Texas, Phoenix and Homestead-Miami. ...
Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s No. 88 AMP Energy/National Guard Chevrolet will be adorned with 73,000 signatures this weekend, as part of a "Ride With Dale Jr." promotion. One lucky fan, Dewayne Bennett of Pickens, S.C., will be the last signature on the car. Bennett will sign just before Earnhardt's qualifying laps.
Up Next: Chase For the NASCAR Sprint Cup, Race 5 at Lowe's Motor Speedway
Lowe's Motor Speedway in Concord, N.C. once again has the honor of hosting the Chase's "halfway" event -- the Bank of America 500 on Saturday night, Oct. 11. (7 p.m., ET; ABC)
Kasey Kahne (No. 9 Budweiser Dodge) may not be in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, but he does have a chance to sweep all three of this year's races at LMS. In May, Kahne pulled off a sweep of the NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race and the Coca-Cola 600.
No one has ever won all three LMS events in a season.
But there's precedent to predict a Kahne trifecta. In 2006 he won both of LMS' points-paying events.
On the other hand, it's always tough to pick against Jimmie Johnson at LMS. He has a knack for maximizing his sponsor's visibility, by taking the No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet into LMS' Victory Lane. Johnson has five points-paying victories there plus two all-star victories.
Jeff Gordon is the defending Bank of America 500 champion.
The Race: AMP Energy 500
The Place: Talladega Superspeedway
The Date: Sunday, Oct. 5
The Time: 2 p.m. (ET)
The Track: 2.66-mile tri-oval
The Distance: 500 miles/188 laps
TV: ABC, 1 p.m. (ET)
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS Satellite. (Locally on WTDR-FM 92.7).7
2007 Winner: Jeff Gordon
2007 Polesitter: Michael Waltrip
Pre-Race Day schedule (all times local / CT):
Friday -- Practice, 1-2:15 p.m. and 2:45-3:30 p.m.
Saturday -- Qualifying, 11:15 a.m.