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Race could be turned upside down

A wild points chase is likely to get wilder with all contenders wary of "the big one'' at Talladega.

By JOANNE KORTH, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published October 4, 2002

TALLADEGA, Ala. -- Jimmie Johnson is thrilled to be the first rookie to lead the Winston Cup standings, but he's not too keen on this weekend's destination.

Talladega Superspeedway.

"It just scares you," he said.

With multicar crashes a constant danger, the final restrictor-plate race of the season could wreak havoc with title contenders in a points race already too close for comfort. At Talladega, "the big one" is always just inches away.

"You can look at all the other races left and say that your preparation and durability are the biggest factors involved," said Rusty Wallace, 137 points back in sixth place. "At Talladega, the most important thing you have to add to the equation is missing the big wreck.

"If you're in the big wreck, your day is likely done and you'll likely take a killer blow in the points. This late in the season, it could just take you right out of the picture."

For now, plenty are crammed into the frame. Johnson leads Mark Martin by 11. Tony Stewart trails by 36, and the top five are separated by 121, the closest margin with seven races left since the current points system was created in 1975.

Fifth-place Sterling Marlin, who led for 25 consecutive races, will not finish the season because he cracked a vertebra last week at Kansas Speedway. Jeff Gordon trails Johnson, his teammate and employee, by 109 in fourth, with rookie Ryan Newman 154 back in seventh.

It is a nervous group.

"This race has the most potential for a big shakeup in the point standings," said Gordon, who thrust himself into contention with a victory at Kansas. "I imagine everyone's goal is to come out of it without taking a significant hit. Talladega is anybody's race."

And anybody's wreck.

Each of the first three restrictor-plate races this season have featured multicar pileups that claimed not only guilty parties but at least a dozen more who had no way to avoid them.

At the Daytona 500, 18 cars were collected on Lap146 of 200 when Kevin Harvick tried to stop Gordon from taking second place. At Talladega in April, 24 cars were involved when Mike Wallace pushed Stewart into the backstretch wall with 22 laps left. And at Daytona in July, 14 cars were damaged less than 25 laps from the finish when Dale Jarrett blocked Jeff Burton entering Turn1.

Because restrictor plates make all cars relatively equal, almost the entire field travels in one huge pack. At Talladega, racing also is three- and four-wide. Giving up one position usually means giving up 10 or 12, sometimes more, as the draft of cars steamrolls past.

So, drivers block.

"It seems to be a necessary evil with the way the rules are and the way the cars drive," said Stewart, who has not finished a plate race this season. "The cars drive so well now that your only saving grace to keep your position is to turn down and block somebody. I hate having to do it, but I do it because everybody else does it."

Hoping to break up the pack, NASCAR has reduced the size of the fuel cell for Sunday's race from 22 gallons to 12.5. The theory is that more frequent green-flag pit stops will spread the field into several small packs rather than one large one.

Race strategy will be affected.

"Nobody really knows how far they'll be able to go and what strategies are going to play out," said Jarrett, out of title contention but hoping for a top-10 finish in points. "I honestly can't imagine ever putting four tires on in this race, because you're just barely going to need over a can of fuel. You just wouldn't want to spend that much time putting that many tires on."

Dale Earnhardt Jr. is among the few who look forward to restrictor-plate races. Of course, he has won three of the past five, including the past two at Talladega.

"I'm not in the points race, so I'm not quite as nervous about it," said Earnhardt, 13th in the standings. "You can't do anything about those big wrecks. You can't really avoid them. If I was in the points race and got crashed out and got a 35th-place finish, I'd be pretty upset about it."

With that in mind, Johnson's grip on the lead is fairly loose.

"I guess that whoever would be leading the points going into Talladega would be pretty carefree about it," Johnson said. "You just don't know what's going to happen at Talladega."

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