Speed should prevail again at Talladega

Apr 26, 2005 7:02 AM

After eight races in the 2005 NASCAR Nextel Cup season we’ve seen just about every kind of track other than a road course.

From here on out, we’ll be able to use recent 2005 performances from drivers on similar tracks for each of the upcoming races. Unless a team had an absolutely terrible weekend in practice, qualifying or the actual race combined, it’s likely they’ll bring the same car to similar tracks.

This week’s stop is Talladega Superspeedway, the biggest, baddest track in the world. Because of the speeds reached by these cars on the two Superspeedways (Daytona is the other) NASCAR places a mandatory aluminum plate that has four holes drilled in between the carburetor and intake manifold. This reduces the flow of air and fuel into the engine’s combustion chamber, thus reducing speed and horsepower.

Speed is the name of the game, but in 1987 that all changed. Bill Elliott set a Talladega track record going 213 mph. A few had concerns regarding the tires being able to hold up, but for the most part the fans loved it. However, opinions changed when Bobby Allison hit the catch fence going 210 and narrowly escaping death.

In the process, the accident endangered thousands of fans on the front stretch when Allison’s car exploded into little pieces. That scared NASCAR more than anything else ever had. The drivers know the risks of racing, but when fans start getting injured, that’s an entirely different story. The solution was a restrictor plate.

Since then, there have been dozens of variations from the aero package of the car to the size of the holes drilled in the plates. Prior to 2001 it had been rare to see any kind of consistency from any one team. Stock cars were truly equal, where just about anyone could win.

The one exception was the late Dale Earnhardt, who put a premium on drivers’ skills in the plate races because of what he was able to do. He won twice at Talladega without the plates prior to ’87 and then eight more times with them. Even though he was the most vocal against the rules, he had a decided edge against everyone. Earnhardt saw the air like some kind of M.I.T. physicist — calculating speed, resistance, angles, and trajectory at the same time. He was the master of the draft.

So it came as little surprise when Dale Earnhardt Jr came onto the scene driving for his father’s team and did so well on the Superspeedways. He had the master teaching him but, as Dale Sr said, "I taught him everything he knows, but not everything I know."

Whatever it was, it’s still clicking to this day. Ever since his father passed away in Daytona, there has been no one better on Superspeedways than Junior. In his last seven Talladega races, Junior has five wins and has not finished worse than second.

Junior’s teammate, Michael Waltrip, has had his best career runs with the restrictor plates on. Waltrip spent 16 full seasons in the Cup series without one career victory. Then in his very first race for DEI, on that fateful 2001 day in Daytona, he wins. Waltrip now owns four career victories with DEI as Junior’s teammate and they’ve all been with restrictor plates.

That shifted the balance to the equipment over the driver in regards to DEI’s success. Whatever the DEI team is doing, legal or not, no one has been able to duplicate — at least not until the start of the 2004 season.

Junior came away with another restrictor plate victory, this time the Daytona 500. But instead of sweeping the season of four plate races, DEI split with Hendrick Motorsports’ Jeff Gordon who won at Talladega and Daytona. Jimmie Johnson also had three top 5 finishes, while Waltrip didn’t even have a top 10.

The balance further shifted towards Hendrick this season starting in Daytona after Johnson won the Bud Shootout. Gordon followed up a week later by winning the Daytona 500, his third in the last four restrictor plate races. That’s why Gordon is the 4-1 favorite this week.

Junior (5-1) is still regarded as one of the favorites, but is nowhere close to being as intimidating as he once was. However, despite struggling for almost the entire Daytona race in February, Junior was able to use some of his learned drafting skills late in the race and almost come away with a win.

Waltrip (6-1) is the one to take a good look at this week. Last week’s second place finish at Phoenix had to give Waltrip a much needed jolt of confidence which should help immensely coming on a track he likes. His odds will surely vary at Las Vegas Sports Books. It’s quite possible he could end up with double digit odds.

We expect the big 4 from the Hendrick and DEI camps to be there in the end, but for some players, the odds are just too short. So here’s a look at a few drivers that could be candidates to win.

Scott Riggs (30-1): Finished fourth in the Daytona 500 racing up front for the entire race. Most of his success can be attributed to running Hendrick engines. It’s much easier to get in line and stay there at Daytona than it is at Talladega where they sometimes have four wide racing and positions are constantly shuffling.

Tony Stewart (12-1): Very strong at Daytona and Talladega over his career. In his 12 career starts at Talladega, he’s had seven top 6 finishes. Has finished second three times. If not for Junior, Stewart might have four plate wins between Daytona and Talladega.

Kevin Harvick (10-1): The Childress team has traditionally been strong at Talladega. Harvick has had some great plate runs, but has still yet to win. The last plate win for Childress was Dale Earnhardt at Talladega in 2000. Last season Harvick finished third and second in the two Talladega races.

Jeff Burton (18-1): Robby Gordon had a great Talladega season last year while driving Burton’s Childress car with a fifth and ninth. His best career finish at Talladega was third in 2001. Last season in split duty with Roush and Childress he had a seventh and 13th.

Kurt Busch (10-1): Roush Racing is not known for their restrictor plate packages, but Busch already has five top 6 finishes in eight career starts at Talladega. He’s also finished in the top 4 in his last two Daytona start, including second in February’s Daytona 500. The Vegas native can just about do anything he wants.

Casey Mears (60-1): Finished eighth in both Talladega races last season leading a few laps in each. He says the key to his success last season was that him and Kevin Harvick have good chemistry on the track together. On multiple occasions last season they hooked up and pushed each other to the front.