Stewart should shed 'bridesmaid' tag at Talladega

Apr 22, 2008 7:00 PM

Finish Line by Micah Roberts |

1. #20 Tony Stewart
2. #2 Kurt Busch
3. #18 Kyle Busch
4. #88 Dale Earnhardt Jr
5. #11 Denny Hamlin
TOP 10s 
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Itís worth a week off to receive a gift wrapped order of Talladega Superspeedway racing. This track is an absolute monster.

Itís the biggest, meanest, most intimidating track on the planet. Because of that danger, the race takes on a completely different realm for fans, drivers, and teams alike unequaled at any other racing facility. Talladega is the single most "edge of your seat" track for fans.

Talladega will be action packed and guaranteed to keep you entertained. All eyes this week will be on the No. 88 car driven by Dale Earnhardt Jr, the overwhelming fan favorite at the track. Junior makes his first start at Talladega with Hendrick Motorsports in his 300th career Cup race. In 16 Cup races at Talladega, Junior has five wins.

The feeling with most in the garages is that Junior is now ready to get back to that 2001-2004 level, when he posted all five wins. He now drives for the team that has the most recent success in restrictor plate races.

From 2001-2004, the DEI duo of Michael Waltrip and Junior won 11 restrictor plate races in 16 opportunities at Talladega and Daytona. During DEIís last true year of dominance in plate races, a new era was evolving for Hendrick Motorsports which was reacquainting themselves with success in plate races.

Jeff Gordon took two plate races in 2004 after going winless in 14 straight starts. They had much success in the late 1990s with five plate wins, including two Daytona 500 victories. Then it somehow got away from them. It coincided with Ray Evernham leaving as Gordonís crew chief and main source of data for the entire Hendrick team.

Whatever the case may be on why some teams have dominated over certain periods may always remain a mystery. Some teams adapted with certain required body templates sooner than others. Most say itís about whoís the most clever at getting more horsepower to the engine.

We say "clever" as another term to what others may call "cheating." Remember, it ainít cheatiní unless you get caught. I certainly believe it is a little of both and also part of the sport no matter what a raving steroid crazed media believes should deem okay.

As Junior embarks on his second plate start with Hendrick, his team will definitely be searching for edge to help break his 70-race winless streak. Heís run well this season and has been rewarded with sitting third in points.

Despite all the early good finishes, Junior wants to win at Talladega, the place his father dominated and won a track record 10 times. Should Junior win, it would make him the fourth driver in 5 consecutive Talladega races to win in a Hendrick car.

Gordon swept the two Talladega races last season, while Brian Vickers and Jimmie Johnson won in 2006. Their plate records may not be as impressive as the DEI run, but from 2004-2007, Hendrick cars have won 9-of-16.

The cycle for both DEI and Hendrick is almost similar. Here we are one plate race into the 2008 season and Hendrick doesnít claim it. In fact the craziest of occurrences happened in this yearís Daytona 500, where a Dodge won!

Since 2001, only two Fords have won plate races in 29 total events. Ryan Newmanís Dodge won at Daytona making a gap of 24 races between Dodge wins. I think you all get the point. The last Dodge to win at Talladega was Dave Marcis in 1976.

Clearly, Chevrolet has dominated the plate races, and most especially at Talladega. That said, it may come as a surprise that the favorites this week drive Toyotas. Even though neither Tony Stewart nor Kyle Busch won the Daytona 500, they dominated and were clearly the two best cars on the track. Give Busch the slight edge not only in horsepower, but handling. Thatís a combination hard to beat when both click at the same time. 

Stewart has finished second at Talladega six times without winning. That ties him with Alabaman Bobby Allison at Martinsville and Mark Martin at Pocono. Talladega remains one of four current Cup tracks that Stewart has never won on. Heís 0-for-18 at Talladega, three more than Darlington, four more than California, and eight more than Las Vegas. 

We look for Stewart to take his proven solid strategy of getting near the front at the end of the race and take his new Toyota to the winnerís circle for the first time. It would also allow him to join his two Gibbs teammates, Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin, as winners on the season. It is likely the "Bridesmaid" title doesnít suit Stewart too well.

The driver with a great Ďodds to win" opportunity is Kurt Busch, who pushed himself to a second place finish in the Daytona 500 while propelling teammate Ryan Newman to the win. He hasnít come close to that kind of run since and will be looking forward to getting the teamís plate program out there again.

In the last 10 years of racing at Talladega, no one has a better average finish than Kurt Busch with a 10.0 average in 14 starts. This could be the week you want to get to PTís Pub and enjoy all the rewards they offer should you be present when Kurt Busch wins.