Talladega speed right up Earnhardt’s alley

April 16, 2002 9:34 AM
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One week after racing on the Winston Cup Series smallest and slowest track, the tour moves to the biggest and fastest this week.

Over a dozen Martinsville Speedways could fit on the infield of the monster Talladega Superspeedway. The actual 2.66-mile track with 33 degrees of bank produces the fastest and some say most thrilling races of the season.

Last season’s fall race winner, Dale Earnhardt Jr (4-1), is one who concurs.

“I love Talladega’s three-wide racing,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “I mean, I love racing and the best racing is when you are side-by-side, bumper-to-bumper. That’s what it’s all about to me and that’s what Talladega is about. I don’t understand anyone who doesn’t love that kind of racing. Look at all the chances you have to pass at Talladega.”

Over the last three races at Talladega, passing has set a record pace. There have been 118 lead changes in those races, which is more than the last five seasons of Formula-1 racing. Those records are all likely to be in good standing, considering the elimination of the short-lived aero-package which ran in those three races.

The intention was to slow the cars for safety precautions because of a series of fatal accidents two seasons ago, none of which were on superspeedways. The racing was way too tight for the near 200 mph speeds and serious accidents were far more inevitable.

Now it’s basically back to the restrictor plate, which many drivers don’t like either. We can use this year’s Daytona 500 as a tool to handicap this week’s race. Daytona is the only other track that requires a restrictor plate and it’s likely that this week’s winner did well during Daytona Speed Weeks.

The entire Daytona test sessions must be used because they are pivotal to show how consistent a particular team’s restrictor plate package is. An important note from Daytona was that all the drivers were having trouble getting enough push to pass, so the cars in front may be able to separate as they had done in the past.

Though Tony Stewart (5-1) finished last in the Daytona 500, he impressed everyone during the whole Daytona experience. Stewart won the Bud Shootout and was considered by some as the one to beat in the Daytona 500. One of the only areas Stewart was raw in coming into NASCAR was the superspeedways. He had raced in all facets of nearly every kind of racing imaginable that prepared him for nearly every Winston Cup track, except for the superspeedways.

Last season, Stewart finished second in both Talladega races. This season, Stewart has done what it takes to become a Winston Cup champion except the luck part that is absolutely Âí­essential. Stewart has five Top 5 finishes in the eight races, but if it weren’t for a 43rd and 36th finish, he’d be leading the points right. As it stands, Stewart is fifth and still in perfect position to become champion.

The current points leader is Sterling Marlin (8-1) and he loves superspeedways. Before his re-birth in the series last season, the superspeedways were always kind to Marlin and he had his most glorious moments as a driver on them including a 1996 win in this race. In this year’s Daytona 500, Marlin had another classic moment that he’d just as soon forget.

Marlin had dominated the race until a red flag came out stopping the race. Marlin got out of his car to pull his fender away from his right front tire, despite it being a rules infraction. That cost him the possible win.

The Ganassi Coors Light team is one that doesn’t have any questions this week and will be one of the teams to beat.

Two seasons ago, Jeff Gordon (7-1) was mired in a career long slump of not winning a Winston Cup race to start the season. Gordon won at Talladega in dramatic fashion using some hot shot moves late in the race and then held off the Intimidator for the final five laps. One year removed from his championship season, Gordon finds himself in even worse of a slump.

Gordon has gone 16 straight races without a victory, the longest streak of his career. At Daytona, Gordon was in the lead late until Marlin got a bit rough on a restart that caused the Red Flag incident. Look for Gordon to bounce back this week with a good run. As bad as things have been, it’s amazing to see him still in the Top 10 in points.

Dale Earnhardt Jr (4-1) is this week’s favorite and there really is no explanation needed. He is the heir to the throne as “Master of the Draft.” If not for a cut tire at Daytona, the victory may have been his giving him three straight restrictor plate wins.

It pained him to lose that race too because of the Daytona 500 link to his father, but that’s what made winning at Talladega last year special.

“I was really surprised when we won here last year,” said Earnhardt Jr. “We had run up front several times, and led a bunch of laps here last April. But winning here, that’s hard to put into words. My father won here a lot and always ran well, so that makes it extra special.”

A few drivers to watch include several who performed well at Daytona in February. Michael Waltrip (18-1) seems to only get it together on the Superspeedways. Ward Burton won the Daytona 500, but based on his practice times there, it came as no surprise. Burton will run well again this week.

The Roush team has been very impressive thus far. Mark Martin (18-1) has two career victories in this race, while Kurt Busch (18-1) finished third here last year and contended at Daytona this year.

Chevrolet has failed to win a race this season. General Motors has two wins thanks to Joe Gibbs Pontiacs, but the Chevy omission is startling. During Daytona Speed Weeks, team owners for Fords and Dodges were saying they weren’t being allowed to be competitive with the Chevys.

With the united front, NASCAR took it to be true and gave the Fords and Dodges some advantages that now definitely appear too generous.

TOP 5  
TALLADEGA PREDICTION 
1)#20 Tony Stewart   5-1
2)#24 Jeff Gordon   7-1
3)#8D Earnhardt Jr   4-1
4)#40 Sterling Marlin   8-1
5)#97 Kurt Busch   18-1