Everyone fears 'The Big One' at Talladega

Posted: Sunday, October 03, 2004

''I think everybody says this race is pivotal because there's usually a big wreck here,'' said Jeff Gordon, who enters Sunday's EA Sports 500 -- the third race of the title chase -- as the Nextel Cup leader by one point over Kurt Busch.

''A big wreck here can change the chances for the guys who get caught up in it,'' Gordon added. ''And it might increase the chances for the guys who get through it.''

Even Dale Earnhardt Jr., whose last five starts on Talladega Superspeedway's 2.66-mile oval have resulted in four victories and a second-place finish to Gordon in April, worries about getting caught up in ''The Big One'' here.

''If a guy's got a six-shooter, there's only so many you can dodge,'' said Earnhardt, just 17 points behind Gordon in third. ''We've missed a lot of wrecks here. Two years in a row we were put to the rear after qualifying and drove through two big ol' crashes.

''I don't want to have to deal with that this weekend. The action that causes those big ones seems to start anywhere from eighth on back, so I'll just try to stay up front in the top five.''

At least at the start of the 500-mile event, most of the contenders will be up front, with Gordon starting fifth in the 43-car lineup, followed by Elliott Sadler, Matt Kenseth, Busch, Jeremy Mayfield and Earnhardt, all among the top 10 in points.

The other contenders will have to work their way to the front, with Jimmie Johnson starting 16th, Mark Martin 17th, Ryan Newman 19th and Tony Stewart 30th.

What sets Talladega apart from the other nine races in the Chase for the Nextel Cup is the use of carburetor restrictor plates to keep the cars under 200 mph on the fast, banked track.

NASCAR requires the horsepower-sapping plates only for races at Talladega and Daytona, its two longest and fastest ovals. The result at those tracks is lap after lap of two- and three-wide racing by huge packs of cars, leaving everyone vulnerable to a mechanical failure or the slightest miscalculation by a driver.

''There are four points-paying races at these type of tracks and it's something you have to learn to do,'' Busch said, shrugging.

With the cars always running so close at this track, though, it does put a premium on finding drafting partners who won't let you down.

''It takes time to develop the rapport with the other drivers and to be able to understand the moves on when your lane is going to go and when you can make a pass, or when you have to just stand on the brakes,'' Busch noted.

''There's a certain attitude that you have to have and a mind-set to draft,'' said Johnson, fourth in the standings, just 39 points behind Gordon, his Hendrick Motorsports teammate. ''You can't avoid something if it happens around you.

''I'd say until the first pit stop or so, you're worried about where you're at on the track and how guys are racing. But, after that, it seems that all reality and common sense goes out the window.''

Johnson noted that on other tracks drivers spend most of their time ''looking out the windshield and trying to pass people. Here, the mind-set is you have to look in the mirrors the entire time.

''You get passed once or twice and you realize you weren't doing a good enough job defending your spot and looking at the mirrors and you get switched into that.''

Speculation this week has centered on whether the drivers in the championship will change their tactics.

''I really don't see anything changing,'' Johnson said. ''You may have 10 guys that are a little bit more careful, but then you've got 33 guys who have nothing to lose and are going to be more aggressive. I think it will be business as usual.''

Joe Nemechek, who is not among the 10 contenders and will start from the pole on Sunday, agrees.

''The guys who are in the top 10 have the most to lose,'' Nemechek said. ''But I'm not going to race them any differently here. I'm 24th in the points and I have nothing to lose. I'm going to bump-draft them just as hard as I bump-draft anybody else.''

Even with so much riding on it this year, Busch expects a typical Talladega race.

''We've got to put on a good show for the fans, but the drivers have to be safe at the same time,'' he said. ''It's always a mix and match at the plate races.''

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