Saturday, October 07, 2006

Talledega: Order and Chaos

There are only two words for any Cup race at Talledega: "Order," and "Chaos."
This is the one race in the final ten that stresses teamwork more than driving ability. Driving ability is still important, but winning is going to count on the setup of the car, perfection in the pits, and having someone to draft with.
Because of these factors, there are certain teams that have a reputation--a dynasty, if you will--of dominance at the restrictor-plate races. Hendrick, DEI, Gibbs, and Roush all have, at one time or another, been dominant at Talledega, and Childress Racing, which "owned" the track in the days of Dale Earnhardt, is making a comeback.
Actually, while I'm writing this, I am watching the ARCA race, to see Juan Pablo Montoya in his first stock car race. That means that I am missing the most famous science fiction television program which deals with chaos--Dr. Who. Yes, the all time Captain of Chaos, the Time Lord, is back in a new edition of the old BBC television series, updated, but still campy. Even though the special effects have advanced from the cheap, flakey special effects we saw in the original series, they are still obviously phony, which is the trademark of the show and part of what makes that so fun. Those of us who remember the original series also remember that more than one actor played the Doctor, forcing us to get used to a different face and personality of the character every few episodes. That tradition has carried over to the revamped series, and my assessment of the new version is, over all, it is just as good as the original.
But that has nothing to do with what I'm writing about, except to illustrate chaos.
Chaos at Talledega occurs often. It is known, in fact, as the most chaotic track on the NASCAR circuit. There is good reason for this. The track is wide, and it allows for four- and five-wide racing, which, especially in a restrictor-plate race such as this, is often pretty chaotic in itself. The cars run so close together, at such high speeds, that one little burp in the activity of one car can cause utter chaos in which many cars crash. Add to this that this is the first race on a new surface, and that in itself can cause chaos. None of the ten drivers in the Chase have tested on the new surface, so practice on Thursday was their first experience on the track. At 2.66 miles around, it is the biggest oval on the NASCAR circuit, which means average speeds of close to 200mph, which is another good reason for the chaos. So, finding order in the chaos is tantamount to success at Talledega.
Finding order in chaos
It is not a given that one of the "dynasty" teams will field the winning car at Talledega. In the fall race last year, Dale Jarrett, who hadn't won any races in over a year, took the checkers in a hard fought battle with Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman. There are more teams this year with a potential to win than there have been in recent years. The racing and competition has become that much better. Robby Gordon had the fastest time in final practice, and Bobby Labonte, driving for Petty Enterprises, had the second fastest time. Qualifying isn't until Saturday afternoon, so it is hard to determine where these two will start in the race, and there is no telling if they will be able to do what's necessary to stay in front, but it does show that other teams aside from the usual suspects have brought some good equipment to the event.
Jimmie Johnson always has good equipment for the restrictor-plate (rp) races, and he is part of one of the strongest teams in rp racing. The #48 team, and the entire Hendrick Motorsports organization, have been able to prove themselves at Daytona and Talledega, time and time again. Johnson is still a possible for the championship, but he needs to finish in the top five to stay there, and finish in the top five for all of the seven remaining races. The current top five in championship points--Jeff Burton, Denny Hamlin, Mark Martin, Matt Kenseth, and Kevin Harvick, are only 86 points apart in the standings, and the most that can be made up in one race are 125 points. Johnson, who is mistake prone, cannot afford any more mistakes, or hope like hell that mistakes happen to someone else.
The same goes for the #8 team. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. is usually strong at rp races, and he almost always has help--if not the very capable help of DEI teammate Martin Truex, Jr, then from anyone on the Childress team, and often from Tony Stewart. He can also make up points in time to be a viable contender, but, again, currently seventh in the points standings, he needs a lot of luck Sunday and in the ensuing races.
Jeff Gordon, in 8th place, is the last of the chase drivers who has a reasonable chance to win the championship. Teaming with Johnson, Kyle Busch, and, perhaps, Brian Vickers, he has the ability to move up to the front and stay there, Sunday. Vickers is a "perhaps," because he has been locked out of the team meetings, since he will be racing with Toyota next season. Gordon may be the favored driver among the HMS teams to win at Talledega, and he may be the designated championship winner between the Hendrick drivers, but when it comes down to the last few laps, it's every driver for himself.
Kyle Busch and Kasey Kahne, in ninth and tenth places respectively, need much more than wins to get back into championship contention. Therefore, already guaranteed spots in the top ten at the end of the season, they have nothing to lose, and can concentrate on racing without as much pressure as they would have to if they were still in reasonable contention. Kasey Kahne has some great teammates in Elliott Sadler and Scott Riggs, and can very well be one of the top five finishers, Sunday. However, their Everham Motorsports teams have yet to show genuine strength at the rp tracks, though, this season especially, that could change suddenly.
Not only is Jeff Burton on a hot streak, he has teammates who can keep him there. Burton, Harvick, and Bowyer have become like family, and that attitude coupled with their skill will make them hard to beat, Sunday. It is a good bet that Harvick, Burton, or possibly Bowyer will once again put Richard Childress Racing in Victory Lane.
Denny Hamlin could be a spoiler, though. He finished this race last year in twentieth, place, but not until after he had shown, in only his second Cup race, some amazing ability. It was a flat tire at the wrong time and place that caused him to finish so far back. He may have some trouble finding drafting partners, which are so important in rp races, because he does not yet have enough experience on rp tracks to gain the trust of partners. However, if he can find Tony Stewart to team up with, which he probably will, he also has a very good chance of finishing in front.
Matt Kenseth has been showing some real stuff at the rp races this year, running well and having good finishes in spite of set backs. His team-mate, Mark Martin has tons of experience at the rp tracks, and can bring them both up front, if they can team up. Both these drivers are very well trusted to draft with among the other drivers, so they should not have trouble finding drafting partners, which has been their strength in past rp races. It will be fun watching these two race--it always is. Expect to see a line of Roush cars--Kenseth, Martin, Biffle, and McMurray--make a very strong showing throughout the race, Sunday, strung together like a high speed passenger train.
All in all, anything could happen. JJ Yeley might not crash this time, and show that he does have the ability to win rp races. Bobby Labonte could bring Petty back to prominence, and return to his winning ways at Talledega. Tony Stewart could get his first Talledega win. This is all not only possible, but can be considered likely.
During practice, on Talledega's new, smooth surface, the drivers found that they could move anywhere on the track. Tire wear was good, meaning that green flag stops will mostly be for fuel, because, unless the wheel alignment is bad, the tires will last as long as the fuel, and nobody should have to stop early for new rubber. That doesn't mean it will be a fuel mileage race though--that type of racing is unwise on such a large track, but there probably will be some who will pit out of sequence to gain an advantage. I have never been a big fan of rp races--I like races that are wide open and flat out, and I don't much care for having the cars packed so close together at nearly 200 mph--but the racing at Talledega has been good in spite of all that. With the new surface, and for the fact that there were no accidents during practice, the racing should be even better this time.
Mesanwhile, Juan Pablo Montoya got a bunch of experience in Friday night's ARCA race. He finished a respectable third after spending most of the race in conversation with Chip Ganassi and crew chief Brad Parrot, asking for insrtructions on how to race at Talledega. He started the race from the outside front position, and immediately took the lead. He had a problem in the pits, due to a dropped tire, and had to wait until the team recovered the tire before he could leave the pits. He learned how to bump draft, when he and Steven Wallace joined their efforts to get to the front, after Montoya had been penalized for another pit incident, and had to restart from the back of the longest line. The race was called due to darkness witrh fourteen laps to go, but the experience for Montoya and for the people who who probably very thrilled to race him was productive, and impressive.
This is a report on the ARCA race from

No comments: