tampabay.com

First priority is finishing

The nerve-wracking Talladega Superspeedway is even more worrying for those whose Chase hopes could end in a big wreck.

By BRANT JAMES
Published October 8, 2006


TALLADEGA, Ala. - Talladega Superspeedway elicits only strong sentiments from drivers. Some love it, as many loathe it. It often depends how many times they've ended races in Victory Lane or in the infield care center.

For Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon the memories have been very good. They are the kings of restrictor-plate racing since Dale Sr.'s death in 2001. For Jimmie Johnson, not so much. As recently as last year he keyed a wreck 18 laps into the race that wiped out championship contender Mark Martin. Before that, finishes of 37th twice, 34th and 31st in the fall. But a win in this year's Talladega spring race, after a win in the Daytona 500, has changed his outlook on restrictor-plate racing.

And his outlook for a first championship. Talladega is a daunting place when you're eighth in points, 165 behind the leader, and just hoping to get out unscathed.

Earnhardt, Gordon and Johnson enter today's fourth race of the Chase for the Championship very much hoping positive past results can be duplicated.

Gordon is sixth in points, 120 back, Earnhardt seventh and 123 behind leader Jeff Burton, and all need this place to be a springboard into contention.

"That's the way I'm entering the weekend," Johnson said. "I, like everybody else, know the risks coming into this track, and I could leave here in the middle of this points race if some things take place. I can't count on them. I just hope that I stay clean through it and I'm able to get some good points out of here. We need to get some points."

Earnhardt leads all active drivers with five wins at Talladega - four in a row from October of 2001 to the spring of 2003 - most recently in October 2004. He finished first or second seven consecutive times, including April 2004, when the race ended under caution. Earnhardt's last victory at Talladega produced such a burst of exuberance that he uttered an expletive during a television interview while referring to his father's record 10 wins at the track. Instead of leading the standings, he left tied with eventual champion Kurt Busch after being penalized 25 points by NASCAR.

Earnhardt downplays the importance of Talladega, maybe because he has finished 31st and 40th in three races since his last win here, maybe because he wants to be known for more.

"Going into Talladega, I mean, it's important that we run good because it's in the Chase," he said. "It's a part of the championship. It doesn't really matter that it's a restrictor-plate track to me. I don't really care to be the most dominant restrictor-plate team out there. I want to run good everywhere."

Gordon, who co-leads active drivers with 11 top-five finishes at Talladega, has won five times here, most recently in May 2005 when he led 139 laps. Gordon's win in the 2004 spring race produced a hail of beer cans from angry Earnhardt fans. Soon after, NASCAR instituted the rule that became known as the green-white-checkered. He has won four of the past 11 restrictor-plate races since Earnhardt's run ended.

Johnson had languished at Talladega, failing to finish four times in nine tries before winning in the spring. Three of those DNFs came in the fall, when he gained a reputation as being reckless on plate tracks.

With his recent success on plate tracks, he would like to enter with the lofty goals he takes to places such as Lowe's Motor Speedway. But until he gets a few laps behind him, he'll wish small.

"The fall has been a tough one on me," Johnson conceded. "We know that as a race team. Our biggest goal is to leave here finishing the race."