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Rodman: Roush glad to close door on Johnson's title hopes

October 20, 2011, Dave Rodman, NASCAR.com

Could Chase points lead be in peril as Edwards arrives at one of his worst tracks?

NASCAR team owners generally take a circumspect route when it comes to critiquing their competition because they know -- all too often and sometime as soon as the very next weekend -- the proverbial shoe might be on their foot.

So it was a little odd last Saturday night when Roush Fenway Racing owner Jack Roush all but pronounced Jimmie Johnson's drive for six consecutive Cup championships over -- even if Roush was operating from the relative security of one of his drivers', Matt Kenseth's, victory celebration after the Bank of America 500.

"He won't race his way back in it. He won't finish high enough above the top four or five cars to beat them on the race track."

--JACK ROUSH

Roush Fenway Racing's Carl Edwards leads the championship by five points over Kevin Harvick, with Kenseth in third. Johnson crashed in Charlotte, which relegated him to 34th position, and eighth in the championship at the mid-point, 35 points behind Edwards.

"What happened to Jimmie Johnson is a sobering lesson for everybody," Roush said of. "You can't afford to break a part, you can't afford to put a wheel wrong, or a loose lug nut on pit road with an extra pass [through] at the wrong time to serve a penalty could be a championship losing event. There's just a lot that these guys have to do that has to be really done correctly.

"For anybody that has a wreck or breaks an engine or has a cut tire at the wrong time, you can't expect to get a mulligan. You'll be very lucky if somebody will give you a chance to make up the whole race. I thought that Jimmie Johnson would be a factor in it and he's definitely going to have to stand in line and wait for the other folks in the top five [in the standings] to have problems for him to get back in it.

"He won't race his way back in it. He won't finish high enough above the top four or five cars to beat them on the race track."

If this weekend's venue, Talladega Superspeedway, was the only standard Johnson had to meet, Roush would still be right, even though Johnson has the best average finish of everyone ahead of him in the Chase for the Sprint Cup standings over the past 11 Talladega races -- the period in which he's won his five titles.

Johnson's average finish is 11.45, including a win last spring and seven top-10 finishes in that time. Johnson's biggest problem, however, isn't how well he's run at each of the five remaining venues. To Roush's point, he's got to run far enough ahead of seven drivers to overcome an extreme deficit. So far in the Chase, Edwards has five top-10 finishes and Kenseth and Harvick have four each.

Harvick, in particular, is going to be a challenge for Johnson this weekend. In the same period at Talladega, Harvick's average finish is 15.09, including a win, second and fifth in his last three races. Kurt Busch, who is one spot, and seven points ahead of Johnson, has a 15.63 average finish and the same seven top 10s at Talladega as Johnson.

Of the other championship contenders, Edwards' average finish in the past 11 Talladega races is 19.45; Kenseth's average is 21.63, Kyle Busch 21.90 despite a win in 2008, Tony Stewart 20.09 despite a win in the other 2008 race and Brad Keselowski 17.2 in five races, which includes a win in his first Talladega start, in 2009.

Johnson's Hendrick Motorsports teammate, four-time champion Jeff Gordon, who's had an even more erratic start to this Chase than Johnson has, offers an opinion that might support a Johnson comeback.

"We're certainly in a different position than those top-five guys in points, the way they're approaching races right now, because they're looking at it as, 'yes, we have to stay competitive and win but we can't falter, we can't be too risky because we have a championship to win,'" Gordon said. "We're kind of on the other side of that where we can take a little bit more risk, we can try some new things out, more talking about when we get to Martinsville, Texas, Phoenix.

"Talladega is a little bit different. Restrictor plate racing, you got to go with the plan that you put in place and really look at the races we've run previously. There's not a whole lot that we're going to change based on what we've done there in the past."

Past statistics do show some hope for Johnson fans. Johnson's current 35-point deficit roughly equates to 145 points under the old point system. With five races to go in 2006, Johnson overcame a deficit of 146 points to win his first championship -- although the same slate of venues in 2011 was not in place, then.

Johnson can win races in bunches, especially in pressure-packed situations like this one. In 2007, Johnson won four consecutive races -- at this exact juncture. Talladega could be considered the ultimate wild-card track, but Johnson has some bad finishes here to go with his seven high points. Phoenix, with its repave, is a complete unknown, but Johnson does have four wins there in his championship reign.

* Head2Head: Did Charlotte crash end Johnson's shot at six?

Pastrana ready to roll

Travis Pastrana definitely isn't shrugging off the foot and ankle injuries that kept him from making his Nationwide Series debut in 2011. But there's no way they've slowed the action sports star who'll now make his NASCAR national series debut early next season, down too much. Last weekend Pastrana was announced as the first of two members of Team USA in the annual Race of Champions, scheduled Dec. 3-4 in Dusseldorf, Germany.

"The year started off as one of my best but was cut very short after my crash at X-Games," Pastrana said this week. "It's an honor to be given the opportunity to represent the USA this year and look forward to being back in the car. It has been a long recovery but my ankle is ahead of schedule and I will be back in a car well before the ROC to practice driving some of the unique vehicles that we will be racing."

A Pastrana spokesman said the last piece of metal that was inserted into Pastrana's foot and ankle for support would soon be removed, involving "just a quick trip to the doctor." Pastrana's already been doing rehabilitation on his ankle and his next stock car test is in the process of being scheduled.

* Nationwide schedule released for 30th anniversary season | Pastrana heads to Germany

Talladega crapshoot

Any number of Sprint Cup competitors would call Talladega the biggest wild card in the Chase -- or the season, for that matter. Since Gordon swept both Talladega races in 2007, there have been eight different winners in the past eight Talladega Cup events.

"It really does [say it's a crap shoot] and it is," Gordon said. "I mean, we all look at it that way. You can work with the best driver and team out there to get hooked up together or find a drafting partner or whatever the rules are and the challenges are at Talladega -- and you never know who is going to win that race, who will get that push at the right time in the closing laps and find their way to Victory Lane.

"It is absolutely to me one of the most challenging places to win because any car really out there and driver combination can win this race. It's just about getting yourself in position, staying out of trouble, getting the push at the right time. That's usually on the last lap coming off of Turn 4 to win that race. There's no reason why any driver and team out there can't get that done, which makes it interesting, exciting and frustrating all at the same time."

* Track Smack: Is a win at 'Dega enough for Gordon | By the Numbers: Lead changes, close calls

Is Edwards' lead at risk?

Edwards doesn't need to be looking at any statistical analysis of Talladega before it's time for Sunday's green flag. The number show, Edwards has two worries.

For one, Edwards' statistics at Talladega pale in comparison to most other tracks. His Driver Rating of 67.8 makes Talladega his worst track in terms of the Loop Data stat, and by the way, his second-worst is Martinsville, which comes right after Talladega on the schedule, at 81.1. His career average finish of 20.9 also makes Talladega Edwards' worst track.

Talladega


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Edwards has scored just four top-10 finishes in 14 starts, which includes four DNFs. He has led laps in seven different Talladega races, but never more than eight in any given event.

Chase point leaders have a varied history at Talladega. Recently, the point leader has thrived. In the last three Chases, the points lead -- each time held by Johnson -- has grown after the Talladega race.

But prior to that, there was trouble. In 2004, Gordon lost the point lead at Talladega after a 19th-place finish. Kurt Busch took over and held on for the remainder of the season. That year, Talladega was the third race of the Chase.

In 2005, Johnson entered Talladega with a seven-point advantage over Rusty Wallace. After the race, in which Johnson finished 31st, he trailed Tony Stewart, the ultimate champion, by 82 points.

In 2006, Jeff Burton's point lead shrank from 69 before Talladega to just six leaving it, as his championship threat shriveled. In 2007, Johnson again lost a point lead at Talladega. He went into the race with a six-point advantage over Gordon, and left trailing his teammate by nine. But of course, Johnson went on to win his first championship.

Keselowski votes for Talladega, kind of ...

Keselowski said last weekend that, despite his success at Talladega he would not want to see it -- or any restrictor-plate race -- become the Chase finale.

"It's a great race track -- I got my first win there, but I think if you polled every driver in the garage, over 95 percent of them would tell you that they don't think Talladega should be in the Chase," Keselowski said. "I think there's a lot of people that feel that way because of how that race plays out. It certainly takes skill to win there and I don't ever want to take away from anyone who's won there -- myself included [laughing].

"But that same skill that might get you a win the next day very easily gets you a 40th. There's a skill set in between that's going to make you finish fifth to 25th and those guys have that locked down. It can be very frustrating and a lot of people, a lot of drivers, don't feel good about that style of racing determining a champion."

But Keselowski said there was no question about Talladega's place in NASCAR.

"You're in a car, you're going fast -- it's real racing, absolutely," Keselowski said. "It's just a matter of is it a real champion, that's the question?"

Keselowski did say there was one major difference between Charlotte, or most other unrestricted tracks, and Talladega -- offering the example of racing on consecutive days at the respective venues as proof.

"At least we'd get probably eight of the top 10 the same, I'm going to guess, unless it was a fuel-mileage race," Keselowski said. "At least it'd be close. Obviously, you would not get eight out of the top 10 if you did Talladega twice. I think most people would agree with that."

Watch all the highlights from the April race at Talladega:

Gordon: Swapping positions key to Talladega

NASCAR has tried to eliminate tandem racing, in which two cars align in a nose-to-tail attachment that enables them to go much faster than cars running in larger, single-file packs. Gordon said it isn't going away, and it's one more aspect that makes racing at Daytona and Talladega exceptionally nerve-wracking.

"Well, there are a lot of things to be concerned about, about swapping," Gordon said. "To me, I think that we get to focus a little bit more on what's going on ahead of us when we don't swap and we can just focus on trying to get the position, trying to get ourselves in position to win the race or get the best finish we can.

Carl Edwards should expect to see a lot of Trevor Bayne in his rear-view mirror at Talladega. (Getty Images)

'A compliment'


Carl Edwards -- the current points leader in the Chase for the Sprint Cup -- has apparently entrusted Trevor Bayne with being his drafting partner of choice heading into this Sunday's race at treacherous Talladega Superspeedway.

"When you are also having to concern yourself with swapping to keep yourself from overheating, not only do you break the momentum -- which is eight to 10 miles per hour, so it's a huge speed drop when you do the swap -- you're trying to do it quickly, get back connected, then not to mention the cars that have momentum that are coming, it's as if you lost 20 miles an hour because they're traveling 10 miles an hour faster than you at the time, then you lose speed. It really shakes things up and causes some safety issues, there."

Tandem racing hasn't seemed to lessen the possibility for hair-raising incidents at either of NASCAR's biggest tracks.

"I think, especially late in the race when things intensify, you have bigger packs racing for position, racing for the win," Gordon said. "Nobody wants to give an inch. The swapping can definitely be something that is concerning for us as competitors."

But Gordon said he wasn't sure he really favored mass-pack racing versus tandems, either.

"Well, I think there's pluses and minuses to both," Gordon said. "I can remember being in the middle, three-wide, four rows back, not being very comfortable, not thinking this is the best situation to be in, yet that's kind of where you're forced to be. As a race car driver, as a competitor, you've got to put yourself in positions at times. It doesn't matter if it's you and one other car, you dive inside of them, you know you're going to get loose at Charlotte, at another race track.

"You have to take risk. You try to make sure those risks are calculated. But on the spot, at the moment, sometimes it's a split-second decision, and it can work out to win you the race or it can cause you to lose the championship."

Gordon said the two-car draft at Talladega was "actually a little bit safer than what we've had with the big packs and a little bit less stress. But when it comes down to winning the race with 20 or 25 to go, it is as intense as it can possibly get for a race car driver inside of a car, especially if you're pushing. It's no fun to go through there somewhat blind."

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.