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 ETBy 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.
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."
AP Photo/Chuck BurtonWith crew chief Steve Letarte, right, in his corner, Jeff Gordon won both races at Talladega in 2007.
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