Commentary

Talladega likely Gordon's best shot to make a move in Chase

Keep an eye on Jeff Gordon this weekend at Talladega. If anyone can tame NASCAR's biggest track, it's the six-time Dega winner, writes Ed Hinton.

Updated: October 4, 2008, 5:32 PM ET
By Ed Hinton | ESPN.com

TALLADEGA, Ala. -- If Jeff Gordon is to surge in the Chase and gun for a fifth Cup championship, it will start here.

Troubled as his season has been, winless, currently a so-so sixth in the Chase, Gordon is a master of the drafting art. So he's always a major threat at Talladega Superspeedway.

He won both races here last year, including last fall's first appearance of the new car at NASCAR's biggest track, 2.66 miles with 33-degree banking.

Going into Sunday's Amp Energy 500, Gordon feels just as capable of winning again as he was last fall.

"Oh, yeah. Yeah," he said. "I felt like we had an opportunity to win this race last time we were here." He meant the April race, when, he said in retrospect, he made his move to win too early and got punted back to 19th in the wild drafting.

Here, especially in the late laps, place-swapping is such a scramble that the field is an ever-changing kaleidoscope. And Gordon is more in control of that -- or perhaps, less out of control -- than anyone else.

Getting his Chevrolets to handle has been a fitful endeavor for his team at many tracks this season, but "handling is a non-issue here at Talladega," he said.

"It's not even really about speed. It's just about picking the right line and drafting well, being smart, being patient, and then being aggressive when we need to most, which is with about 10 or 15 laps to go.

"Then, it's … it's … I can't even describe to you how crazy it is," he continued.

A win by Gordon, plus involvement by one or more of the Chase leaders in the "big one" -- the almost inevitable massive wreck here -- could catapult Gordon toward the front of the standings. He could conceivably even come out of here in the lead.

[+] EnlargeJeff Gordon/Steve Letarte
AP Photo/Chuck BurtonWith crew chief Steve Letarte, right, in his corner, Jeff Gordon won both races at Talladega in 2007.

Gordon is 143 points behind Chase leader Jimmie Johnson, his Hendrick Motorsports teammate and protégé. He's 133 behind second-place Carl Edwards and 123 behind Greg Biffle. But swings of up to 161 points are possible in every race.

Though the Chase at the moment appears to be a three-driver hunt, "I expect a shakeup in the points this weekend," Biffle said, "just because it [the race] is so wide-open, so to speak. Where there are now three battling for the lead, I think there's going to be more guys in the mix [after Sunday]."

"This is like nothing else you do all year long," said Gordon's crew chief, Steve Letarte.

But Letarte figures he has the best package for dealing with the craziness.

"Our Hendrick engines are always so strong when we come down here, and the driver is such a remarkable drafter, that we always have a chance," Letarte said.

Last spring here, Gordon said, "We had a car capable of winning, I felt like we were in position to win, I made the move down the back straightaway coming to the white flag because I had so much momentum … and I finished 19th. That's the nature of this car."

The new car is taller and wider than the old one, so it knocks huge holes in the air and makes drafting even stronger than before. So Gordon plans to wait longer -- perhaps much longer -- to make his move for the win.

"You can win this race off Turn 4 on the final lap," he said. "That's just how powerful the draft is here now. I hope I'm in position to make that move."

Letarte plans a race-long strategy to put Gordon in the position he wants.

You gotta race with your boxing gloves on. You gotta try to go to the front, be aggressive, make the moves to try to win.

-- Steve Letarte

"There are two races here," Letarte said. "There's a 400-mile race and a 100-mile race. The 400-mile race has nothing to do with the last one.

"So we'll probably ride around in the back a little bit, probably pit off sequence, do a lot of things to take ourselves out [of the big drafting packs that so often get into massive wrecks].

"But you can't race that last 100 conservative," Letarte said. "You gotta race with your boxing gloves on. You gotta try to go to the front, be aggressive, make the moves to try to win."

"Here and Martinsville are definitely two of our really good shots," Gordon said, referring to the Virginia short track where he's also perennially strong. "But at the same time I'm optimistic with how we performed last week at Kansas [finishing fourth]. That's a mile-and-a-half track, and we were a top-five car all day."

Four more 1.5-mile tracks remain in the Chase, and Gordon had been having fits with handling on that configuration this season. But a test session at Charlotte the week before Kansas got the No. 24 team back in balance for the intermediate tracks.

"We certainly didn't come out of Charlotte frustrated," Gordon said. The Charlotte race is next week, and "I'm looking forward to it."

And so Letarte allowed himself a bit of bright projection.

"If we can get a little momentum here," he said, "and take it on into Martinsville, there could be a pretty exciting finish at Homestead."

Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at edward.t.hinton@espn3.com.

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