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Talladega showcases plates, Earnhardt

Sep 28, 2004 11:06 AM

Only eight races remain until the championship is decided. The drama has been thick with each anticipated race telling another compelling story.

Last week at Dover everyone’s favorite rock, Matt Kenseth, found himself trouble and ended up with a poor finish while Jeff Gordon reclaimed the points lead by the slimmest of margins over Las Vegan Kurt Busch.

Ryan Newman expected to win at Dover and he did, but gained little ground on the leading trio of Gordon, Busch, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. Newman moved up one position past Tony Stewart but still remains 107 points behind.

Newman, who was as high as 18-1 1 last week to win the title, has been dropped to the 10 to 1 range. Jeremy Mayfield, who is currently 30-1 to win it, didn’t gain any ground and is 157 points behind the leader.

This week’s race at Talladega should shuffle the deck even more. There is an obvious edge for some of the drivers, particularly Junior, Gordon, and Jimmie Johnson.

Their restrictor plate programs have been by far superior. Up until this season the DEI team of Michael Waltrip and Junior had dominated the last two seasons of plate races.

Junior led off the season with an emotional win in the Daytona 500, but the last two restrictor plate races were won by the Rick Hendrick horsepower of Jeff Gordon’s DuPont Chevrolet.

In all three restrictor plate races this season only Earnhardt Jr and Jimmie Johnson have finished in the top 5 in all of them.

While Waltrip has faltered this season, Junior is still one that can be expected to dominate which is why he still is the favorite this week despite a two race losing streak on the tracks everyone expects him to win on.

Earnhardt probably would have won the earlier Talladega race back in April had the race not ended under caution. That was the race where every piece of garbage at the track was thrown at Gordon’s car as he did his burn out after taking the checkered flag.

In each of the last two races that Gordon has taken from Junior, he had the luxury of his teammate Jimmie Johnson right next to him throughout helping him with the draft. Junior usually has that luxury himself, but Waltrip has been a no show this season.

There is a huge edge with teammates working together down the stretch in these type of races and if it comes down to both Johnson and Gordon being together again in the same scenario, we could see another plate race won by someone other than Junior again.

With the championship chase now becoming part of the equation, what does that mean for the loyalties of teammates in this scenario, particularly Gordon and Johnson.

Jimmie J is chasing Gordon in points and if the opportunity comes late to leave Gordon in the draft and get behind someone else or take the lead himself, he probably will.

At Daytona in July Johnson had a few opportunities to do just that, but didn’t in part because Gordon is his teammate and boss. With two laps to go, all alliances are likely to be off. If this is true, this definitely gives Junior an advantage down the stretch. Junior has to be hoping that Johnson’s greed for more points than his boss will weaken the team.

Mark Martin, Matt Kenseth, and Kurt Busch are teammates in the chase that could definitely help each other down the stretch as well, not to mention Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle who are out of the chase.

The Roush program has really made some strides in their restrictor plate program over the last few years. In the last 17 plates races at Talladega and Daytona, Roush racing has claimed the only two Ford victories.

Chevy has won all the other with exception to Ward Burton’s 2002 Daytona 500 win. Busch appears to be the most accomplished of the group at Talladega, but Martin has two career victories on the track, the last being in 1997.

With drafting and alliances being so important in these types of races, look for a serious stakes game of friend or foe to be played this week.

We know that no one wants to help Junior because he wins all the time, but many follow him just because he’s so fast, which in turn helps him any way. There is a strong possibility that Waltrip could be ready to finally lend a hand to his teammate in this race in this most crucial juncture of the season.

If Waltrip is able to come to the rescue, say good night to the 2 race win streak of Gordon. If Waltrip struggles again, then Earnhardt will have much more work to do.

Richard Childress racing doesn’t have anyone in his stable going for the championship but does have a great restrictor plate program. Both Kevin Harvick and Robby Gordon had a top 5 finish at Talladega in April. Throw in Jeff Burton to the mix and they will present a formidable opponent. Early odds on Burton should be 30-1 to win.