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Fan projectiles not funny

Published April 27, 2004

TALLADEGA, Ala. - Winner Jeff Gordon and runnerup Dale Earnhardt Jr. seemed willing to laugh off or rationalize the behavior of fans at Talladega Superspeedway on Sunday. A multitude threw cans and other items on the track in protest of a correct NASCAR ruling that placed Gordon in the lead of the Aaron's 499 Nextel Cup race. NASCAR then ended an otherwise exciting race under caution because the preset red flag cutoff lap had passed.

This was Talladega, after all, where the masses hold Earnhardt, who is immensely popular everywhere, most dear.

"You can't change our fans, the passion, especially here at Talladega," Gordon said. "They are as avid as avid can get. I think they are amazing, and I would not want to see us try to take that away from them, because why would you? And I don't think they can."

Gordon joked that perhaps his fans drank Pepsi (his sponsor) while Earnhardt's drank Budweiser (his sponsor) and thus were capable of making better decisions.

The jokes will end when a driver or fan is injured by a projectile.

In 2002, seat cushions were thrown on the track at the Pepsi 400. Hard to drive over, but not lethal. Sunday it was beer cans, increasingly more dangerous depending on their fullness.

Both of those incidents came under caution when cars were traveling roughly 70 mph. Certainly someone eventually will launch a projectile over a catch fence during green-flag conditions, with cars going from 100-200 mph. It will be hard to excuse what could be a deadly result, either to a driver or to a fan, when an object is sent hurtling back into the grandstands at high speed.

FULL PLATE: With the winner and fourth-place finisher (Jimmie Johnson) on Sunday, Hendrick Motorsports appears to have made some progress catching up to a Dale Earnhardt Inc. engine-building program that has won 10 of the past 14 restrictor-plate races.

"I think we've closed the gap," Johnson said. "We've formed a crew of people at Hendrick Motorsports that are focused exclusively on building speedway cars - something like DEI has had for a while. They're making us all go to work a lot harder for four races. We're all tired of getting beat up."

Johnson and Gordon also had top-10 finishes in the Daytona 500 in February.

CAUTION AHEAD: A track record 11 caution periods over 55 laps created two odd statistics. First the average speed was 129.396, the slowest in a NASCAR Winston/Nextel Cup race at Talladega. The record (130.892) was set in 1975 in a race won by Buddy Baker. Second, the leaders never pitted under green, except when Brian Vickers, at that point running in the top five, came in to have a bent fender assessed midway through the race.

OUTSIDER: One might think Mark Martin would be pleased with a sixth-place finish, his third top 10 of the season. Martin's No. 6 Ford was the highest-finishing non-Chevrolet, he ran in the top 10 most of the day and led once for six laps. The 45-year-old was anything but pleased, however.

"That wasn't much of a race to me," he said. "We put ourselves in position up in second place right at the end and we did everything we could, but we were just too slow for about five of those guys. There wasn't anywhere I could put it and not get swallowed up. That's all the effort we had."

SPARK PLUGS: Bruno Junqueira will drive Newman/Haas Racing's first Indianapolis 500 entry since 1995, the team announced Monday. The 27-year-old Brazilian won the pole at Indy in 2002. Jim McGee, the team's special projects director, will run the program. Newman/Haas has contested 13 Indy 500s, finishing second with Mario Andretti in 1985. The Indy 500 will be May 30. ... Eric McClure, a nephew of team owner Larry McClure making his first Nextel Cup start on Sunday, elected to go to the back of the field to start after qualifying 35th. The reason: to get out of the experienced drivers' way. It worked out. After missing the big wreck on Lap 83, he was the last to pit under caution and picked up five bonus points for leading a lap. He finished 26th and on the lead lap.

[Last modified April 27, 2004, 01:05:33]


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