Art of Draft tough to master at Talladega

April 17, 2001 6:23 AM
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The biggest, baddest track in the world, Talladega Superspeedway, is this week’s NASCAR tour stop. The only driver who has ever been able to consistently tame this monster of a track was Dale Earnhardt Sr.

The void left by him will be felt moreso this week than perhaps any other race since his tragic death at Daytona. He was the track’s old wise man who knew all there was to know about the art of racing at Talladega.

He was "The Master of the Draft."

He greedily kept all the knowledge and wisdom he had gained from his experiences at Talladega to himself and wouldn’t divulge any secrets, even to his son. "Nobody taught me anything, I had to learn for myself so everyone else should too," Earnhardt said before last year’s Talladega race on why he was so secretive with his knowledge.

NASCAR’s new aero-package will be implemented for the third time. As evidenced by the previous two, each and every car will be at equal strength. Anyone will have a legitimate shot at winning, but the advantage lies with those who understand the art of the draft. The engine, chassis, or tires aren’t going to give the drivers any special edge. The winning edge will be given to the driver who uses the air best. In Last October’s race, Earnhardt gave a lesson in Drafting 101 on how important the air is. With five laps to go, he moved up an unprecedented 18 positions to win the race.

This years Talladega race takes on a whole new approach when handicapping because "The Master" will not be involved. When he made a move, all followed in hopes of bettering their chances because they all knew that he knew the way.

There was a level of respect for him (at Talladega) by the drivers unlike any other. One of the scenarios that will be interesting to see unfold is who takes on the respected "You know best, so I’ll follow" role. The list is short of candidates, but there were a few disciples of Earnhardt Superspeedway theory that will command respect.

The driver who has gained the most by observing "The Master" over the years is probably Jeff Gordon (6-1). When talking about the physics of air, he never divulges much; one of his first lessons learned. The thing he always openly talks about is how much he has learned by watching Earnhardt on the track.

Gordon has done well at Talladega. Last season he came from a 36th starting position to win the spring race and in the memorable fall race, finished 4th. He set a track record last season by winning from the farthest start position. With the new aero-package, it is likely that record could be broken. Start position has little importance in this race. Most drivers will play it safe for the first 178 laps and then you’ll see a mad scramble in the last 10 laps with several drivers in contention.

Station Casinos has two props they’ve been putting up every week that should have some added interest this week. The over-under on lap leaders is 19.5 and the over-under on cautions is 3.5. Last October, in the first race of the new aero package, there were a record 21 drivers to lead a lap. In the preceding spring race, there were only 10 lap leaders.

The cautions seem relatively low, considering the high speeds, but 3 to 4 cautions have generally been the average over the last 20 races. How the aero-package plays into the mentality of the drivers will determine the fate of this prop.

If the drivers choose to play it safe until the final 10 laps, chances are both the unders will occur. However, if some of the drivers that normally don’t have good runs are feeling frisky for lap leader bonus points, an accident could be near.

With this race being up for grabs, you can’t go wrong with Dale Jarrett (6-1). Jarrett has proved himself a worthy driver in restrictor plate races, understanding the drafting rules well. In eight races thus far, Jarrett has taken over three of them with wins, and nearly two others.

Sterling Marlin (10-1) after a fast start on the season has had some difficulties of late. His Dodge was the most impressive car at Daytona Speed Weeks, the last race where this aero-package was used. Marlin led or was near the lead for most of the Daytona 500. The performance of his car following Daytona has been what has raised some brows. Chip Ganassi has obviously made his impact on NASCAR. Look for a great day from Marlin.

Bobby Labonte (5-1) is a past winner at Talladega and has always been at his best when going near 200 mph. His demise on the season may make his attitude less cautious than what made him a champion last year.

It’s time for Labonte to rebound with a great performance and anything but a win at this point for the Interstate Batteries team will be disappointing.

Let us not forget about the son of "The Master", Dale Earnhardt Jr. (9-1). The spirits of Junior have been lifted of late and he appears focused. The drama if Junior won this week at a track only his father could tame, would be matched by something only of pure fiction.

Talladega 500
Top 5 Finish Prediction
1) No. 8 Dale Earnhardt Jr (9-1)

2)  

No. 18 Bobby Labonte (5-1)

3)

No. 40 Sterling Marlin (10-1)

4)

No. 55 Bobby Hamilton (30-1)

5)   No. 26 Jimmy Spencer (20-1)