Kenny Bruce, NASCAR Scene
Crazy In Alabama
The locals call it Tal-a-DEE-guh. Hard on that third syllable, son. Say it like you mean it. Ain’t nothing easy here – not the track, certainly not the racing. They take the final 10 races of the season to determine the NASCAR Nextel Cup champion, but just one – this one, in fact – maybe says more about the teams and the drivers than the other nine combined.
It’s SLAM-drafting. Not bump-drafting, the act of pushing the car in front of you forward with a nudge from your own machine. Bump-drafting, that’s so last year. This is pedal-to-the-floor, steering-wheel-strangling, by-gosh SLAMMING! into the other fellow.
It’s 2.66 miles of mayhem, times 188. Or in this case, times 190. That’s how many times they circled this gargantuan cut in the earth, the one just off Interstate 20 between Atlanta and Birmingham. Surrounded by grandstands and steel and campers and 155,000 or so folks antsy for some racing action.
Supposedly the wildest wild card in NASCAR’s 10-race Chase For The Nextel Cup, the Oct. 2 UAW-Ford 500 at Talladega Superspeedway produced a day full of stunning three- and four-wide moves, violent end-over-end crashes and in the end, surprises galore.
Dale Jarrett, the race winner, may have been the biggest surprise of all. Not because he’s 48 and gray-haired and winless since 2003 – a run of 98 races. Well, partly because of that. And partly because he’s on his third crew chief of the year, shadowed everywhere he goes by folks trying to put him out to pasture, and – up until now – just didn’t seem to have the team that had the makings of a winner.
Twenty drivers led at least one lap, and Jarrett’s total of two pales beside the gaudy 65 circuits led by Tony Stewart and the 38 paced by Jamie McMurray. Jarrett, who along with Robert Yates Racing teammate Elliott Sadler was shut out of the Chase this year, doesn’t care. He’s led his share of laps before, here, there and everywhere. Of more importance, he admitted afterward, is the end result.
“I’ve been very fortunate in my career to win a lot of important races ... big races, a lot of them with this guy [crew chief Todd Parrott],” Jarrett said afterward. “And to win a championship. But at this point in time in my career I’m not sure there’s anything that was more important than getting that push down the backstretch from Matt Kenseth and taking the checkered flag here.”
It was a push that vaulted Jarrett past Stewart on the final lap of an extended green-white-checkered run. He didn’t come from nowhere as some imagined, he came from fourth on the race’s final restart. He watched as Stewart and McMurray went side by side, careful to keep Kenseth and Ryan Newman in his sights as he searched for a line, a groove, a push. Shooting to the outside, past McMurray and Newman and Kenseth until he’s beside Stewart and the white flag’s out and, WHOOSH, he gets a push from Kenseth that thrusts him into the lead.
Stewart wasn’t ready to concede defeat, but had little choice when a crash by Kyle Petty on the backstretch brought out the 10th caution of the race. The race was over at that point, one green-white-checkered run all NASCAR officials are willing to offer.
Stewart finished second and first – No. 2 on the track but atop the point standings with seven races remaining. He leads Newman by a scant four points, and Rusty Wallace – who finished 25th – by 76. Kenseth, Newman and Carl Edwards completed the Talladega top five.
“I kind of had a plan with Tony there to go with him on the green-white-checker, and that worked for a while,” Jarrett said. “And I did help him by the 12 car [of Newman] there as we got the white flag, but he dove to the inside of the 17 [Kenseth], and I couldn’t make that move. I was on the outside and [Edwards] was pushing me, and I got in front of the 17 and then he pushed me by the 20. It’s just incredible.”
Stewart’s runnerup effort was impressive in light of the considerable amount of time he spent on pit road, his Joe Gibbs Racing crew doing its best to cool down the overheating engine in the No. 20 Chevrolet.
“We just kept coming in and kept peeling a strip of tape off [the grille] at a time,” Stewart said. “We finally ended up peeling all the tape off the car. I’m sure that slowed it down a little bit, but at the same time at least we got the heat issue under control.
“When we came in on the stops, we knew we were going to have to give up track position, but they filled it back up with water and cooled it off each time. We just kept a positive frame of mind like we did last week at Dover when we were struggling. We knew we were going to have to do it the hard way today.”
With the movement going on at the end, drivers dipping and diving and looking for the least opening to advance, Stewart said he felt fortunate to wind up where he did. A push at the end from Newman helped, but he said, “I don’t know if we could have caught DJ there at the end.”
It was a stunning end to a day that most described as “typical Talladega.” The fortunes of Chase racers varied widely – Mark Martin (41st) and Jimmie Johnson (31st) were involved in the day’s first multicar crash on lap 20. Stewart, Kenseth, Newman, Edwards and Kurt Busch (eighth), on the other hand, escaped intact for the most part.
Martin’s day was done after his car took hits to the front and rear, caught in the middle of the melee that began when Johnson got into the back of polesitter Elliott Sadler. Michael Waltrip, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Mike Skinner and Joe Nemechek were involved as well, with Waltrip’s Chevrolet barrel-rolling through Turns 1 and 2.
Johnson returned only to become mired in a second multicar incident on lap 66 that also featured a car leaving the pavement, this time the No. 10 Chevrolet of Scott Riggs. Wallace and Greg Biffle were the unfortunate Chase victims in that particular frontstretch misadventure.
Thankfully, no one came away injured, only disappointed in the fact that the series’ biggest track continues to provide some of its tightest racing conditions.
Still, Talladega provides ample action for the fans, and that’s why they continue to return. This year’s race had 50 lead changes; the previous three, at Dover, New Hampshire and Richmond, featured 56. Combined.
“Racing is what we get paid to do,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “We’re all together, so it’s hard to miss something when we’re going so fast. ... It’s just frustrating.”
It’s frustrating, but it’s Talladega. It’s a part of the Chase because three other times during the year – here and twice at Daytona – it’s a part of the regular season.
“A champion is a champion at all the race tracks,” Newman said, after admitting he felt “happy to be alive.
“I had the car pretty crossed up a couple of times in the middle of the trioval and I thought, ‘Man, this is it. I’m going to be in the third Big One of the day.’”
Jarrett, stopping long enough to collect the checkered flag before beginning a slow drive up the frontstretch, managed to miss the Big Ones. And the little ones. He didn’t falter on the track, and his crew didn’t let him down on pit road. Maybe they didn’t seem like a winner before, but now ...?
“To go through things that we did this year – [for] neither one of our teams to make the Chase,” said Parrott, who helped lead Jarrett to the 1999 championship, “we all know how important that is and what it means to Robert Yates Racing and just racing in general. ...
“I told Robert before Dover, I went out on a limb and promised him that I would get this ... car back in victory lane before the end of the year. I just didn’t know it was going to happen this quick. Me and this guy [Jarrett] have worked a lot of magic together, and we’re not done.”
After Talladega, it’s sure starting to seem that way.