News & Media

Track Smack: For Gordon, Earnhardt, is winning enough at 'Dega?

October 20, 2011, ,

Writers debate if it's too little too late for the pair, or if a comeback is in the cards

1. Jeff Gordon leads all active drivers with six Talladega wins, while Dale Earnhardt Jr. is second with five. Would a victory Sunday vault either driver back into the Sprint Cup championship picture?

David Caraviello: Unfortunately for both guys, I don't think so. Jeff Gordon was somewhat prophetic last weekend when he said the Chase was a three-man race -- although now, it's between a different three than maybe he envisioned. I understand no one is mathematically eliminated, but Gordon and Junior are simply too far back to make any kind of a dent with so few races remaining. They'd not only need to win, but get a lot of help, and I don't see that happening -- not even at Talladega.

Dave Rodman: Vault is a bit strong of a term, I believe, particularly considering their competition's track records so far in this Chase. However, Talladega is called a wild-card race for good reason. If one of them wins and something happens that relegates all of the top-five contenders to finishes below 30th -- yeah, they'd be back in the frame.

Joe Menzer: I'm going to have to say no. It's a little too late for both of them, and there are too many good teams and drivers lined up in front of them that would all have to have a bad day Sunday while they're having a great one. If they win the race and someone like Kevin Harvick or Carl Edwards finishes second, they will not have gained nearly enough to say they're actually back in it.

David Caraviello: Man, Dave, that's asking a whole lot. Everybody kind of sees Jimmie Johnson as buried right now and needing a huge comeback of his own to get back into this thing, and even he's 25 points clear of the two drivers we're talking about. I know everybody likes to use the term "half the Chase is left," and they're right, but half of it is also over and it's tough to alter direction as drastically as would need to happen in the cases of Gordon and Junior. That's a lot of points, man, and not a lot of weeks to make them up.

Dave Rodman: Joe, in your scenario, either of them winning would do jack toward getting them back into contention. Either of them would have to do a carbon-copy imitation of Jimmie Johnson in 2006 -- and unfortunately neither of them has shown that capability in this Chase. While on the other hand, the top five -- and Edwards in particular -- have shown exactly that form.

Joe Menzer: I don't think I buy the three-man race theory, in part for the very reason you just pointed out Mr. Caraviello: Gordon couldn't even be certain which three he was talking about heading into last week, as it turned out. And Rodman, I believe you agree with my contention that winning alone is not nearly enough to get either driver back into Chase contention.

Chasers at 'Dega

(sorted by wins)
Earnhardt Jr.235912
Ky. Busch13112
Ku. Busch210613

David Caraviello: What's getting lost in all this is that Carl Edwards is showing almost a Johnsonian level of consistency. An average finish of 4.6 in Chase races is very strong, but because he hasn't won in the playoff, maybe it's not as obvious. Still, as far as the championship goes, there have been cases where the leader after Charlotte -- I'm thinking particularly of Jeff Gordon and Jeff Burton in recent years -- didn't win the thing. Of course, there have been other years where Johnson held on. As good as Carl has been in this Chase, clearly things could still go either way for him, especially with so many unorthodox tracks remaining.

Joe Menzer: I will say this: Any driver through eighth right now is not quite out of it. Don't count Jimmie Johnson out just yet, folks. He's eighth and 35 back and if he can make up significant ground in this race on the top three, he'll be squarely back in it. But like DC just said, that scenario involves Mr. Consistency (Edwards) and others encountering trouble. But as far as saying it's a three-man race, are you going to tell me that Kyle Busch -- in fourth and 18 points out with five races remaining -- is out of this thing? I think that's ludicrous, although he obviously questions if his Toyota engine has the horsepower and endurance to win this thing at this point.

Dave Rodman: I thought it was real intriguing that Jack Roush, in a manner that was very unlike most team owners, said post-race last week that ol' five-time was beyond the point of being able to race his way back into contention for the championship and he'd need help -- lots of it. Gordon and Junior would need it in spades at Talladega, and then again at Martinsville and Phoenix for good measure.

David Caraviello: I think if we've learned anything in this Chase, it's not to get too presumptive with this points system. Jimmie Johnson was out, then in again, then out again. It seemed a three-man race, and then it didn't. Kyle Busch has gone up and down like a yo-yo on a string. The point gaps are just so small, and thing can look so radically different even week to week, that we have to be real careful about making grand pronouncements. I think that's why Gordon's "three-man Chase" comments were such a surprise. This thing can turn on a dime. Tony Stewart has been all over the place, and at 24 back he can still win the title. This is new to everybody, and we're all learning as we go along.

Joe Menzer: Just follow ol' Professor Joe's lead, fellas, and you'll learn all you need to know.

Dave Rodman: Some people threw Kurt Busch out with the bathwater a couple weeks ago and he won to inject himself right back in it. He's back where he was after Loudon, but it's same old soup -- you can't keep letting these races go by with a gap to make up, particularly with Edwards and Harvick averaging single-digit finishes in the Chase.

Joe Menzer: Regardless of how it turns out, I think this already has been a very cool Chase. I mean, Matt Kenseth -- if he can survive Talladega, a place he doesn't care for very much -- could easily win it all now. That No. 17 team has done a perfect Matt Kenseth/Jimmy Fennig stealth move to get right in the thick of this thing.

David Caraviello: All that said, Edwards and Harvick have clearly been the class of this thing, the two guys who have been the most stable. Everybody else has endured neck-snapping changes in momentum. And Joe would look good in a tweed sport coat with some patches on the sleeves. And maybe a pipe. That look would go great with his ever-present bright white Air Assault sneakers.

Joe Menzer: As for Kurt Busch, I think there is too much going on behind the scenes with that race team for them to get back up there and contend. But then there was turmoil behind the scenes with that team when they pulled out the Dover win, so they're professional enough to put all that aside, I guess, and keep on trucking. At some point, you've got to wonder if they can continue doing that under present circumstances, however. And those are Air Monarch sneakers that I wear, with orthopedic inserts, just for the record.

Recent history | Chasers at Talladega

Past five races (sorted by average finish)
DriverRacesWinsTop-fiveTop-10PoleLapsLedAvg. StartAvg. Finish
Dale Earnhardt, Jr.502209307210.413.8
Carl Edwards500109541316.814.4
Jimmie Johnson511309402711.815.0
Brad Keselowski511309092020.017.2
Jeff Gordon501218952610.818.0
Kurt Busch500209534910.818.4
Denny Hamlin501209016016.819.2
Kyle Busch500109109121.621.8
Matt Kenseth500009023116.224.2
Tony Stewart50000947220.424.4
Ryan Newman501109352015.824.4

David Caraviello: I stand corrected, Professor.

2. Which is more likely to happen: Jimmie Johnson gets back in the Sprint Cup title hunt, or Elliott Sadler catches Ricky Stenhouse Jr. for the Nationwide championship?

Joe Menzer: Hmm. That is a very good question. I think I'm going to go with Jimmie Johnson doing something to get back in the hunt for the Sprint Cup title, although, in the end, he will not be able to do enough -- and have enough go wrong for others in front of him -- to change his nickname from Five-Time to Six-Time. But Sadler impressed me by making up five points on Stenhouse at Charlotte.

Dave Rodman: I'd almost call them even-steven. On the one hand, JJ has a five-year legacy of excelling in this time of the season that no one else he's competing with can match; so even though his situation looks dire, I think there's no question he'll get back in with a shot at Homestead -- though it's gonna take some real work (and some help from his foes) to do it. Initially I would say ESad has shown us nothing that leads us to believe he can pull this off -- but that's dismissing the decent season he's had, and that's not fair.

David Caraviello: Jimmie Johnson getting back in the Sprint Cup hunt. Not that it would be easy, mind you, or even realistic given how far back he is after Saturday night's crash. His current 35-point deficit translates into about a 145-point gap under the previous system -- according to NASCAR -- and Jimmie made up a 146-point deficit with six races remaining to win his second championship in 2006. But that took an amazing run of second- and first-place finishes that I'm not sure is replicable. But getting back in it and winning it are two different things at this point.

Aggressive approach

With Elliott Sadler applying pressure, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. knows now is not the time to coast if he is to maintain his points lead and win the Nationwide Series championship.

Joe Menzer: ESad? I didn't know Sadler had a new handle, DRod.

Dave Rodman: We'll each answer to both.

David Caraviello: Dave, I think Elliott is just running out of races. He's got things going in the right direction, and he's recording top-fives while Stenhouse is recording top-10s, but it just doesn't seem like he has enough time left. In three weeks, he's shaved seven points off Stenhouse's lead. He has three weeks left to cut down the remaining 15. As well as Ricky has run this year, I just don't think Elliott has enough races to do it. And come on, JMenz. Get with the times.

Joe Menzer: ESad's season has been impressive in terms of consistency and how he bounced back almost immediately from a rough start at Daytona to open it. But you are selling RSten just a little short, DCar. Two of his past three finishes have been top-five as well.

Dave Rodman: If Stenhouse hangs on, I think Mike Kelley will assume the mantle of the Nationwide Series' Chad Knaus. Despite Ricky sounding a little frantic at times on the radio and hardly having any business being in the position he's in, all they keep doing is logging finishes. Week in and week out they've shown the ability to race head-to-head with Sadler and with Elliott's experience and that team's resources -- as we've said all season -- you would have expected better. And I don't mean Stenhouse and Kelley have been logging finishes as in just rumbling to the line. Their finishes have consistently been at a pretty high level, as their stranglehold on the championship lead indicates.

Joe Menzer: So even though Sadler shaved five points off Stenhouse's lead last week at Charlotte (it was 20 going in), Stenhouse has made it clear that he's not going to play it conservatively down the stretch. In other words, he's conscious of not driving like it's his championship to lose (which, of course it is) but instead driving aggressively like he has all season and like it's his championship to win.

David Caraviello: The way Johnson got back into the hunt in '06 is legendary. After getting inadvertently taken out by then-teammate Brian Vickers at Talladega, he finished second at Charlotte, won at Martinsville, second Atlanta, second at Texas, second at Phoenix, and then coasted home ninth at Phoenix. That's an average finish of 3.0. Think JJ, or anyone else for that matter, is capable of doing that this year given how close everything is? Long odds, gentlemen. And you don't need to be a professor to figure that out.

Dave Rodman: Stenhouse has continued to run at the front and lead laps, which he needs to do. As long as the status quo is maintained, he'll be fine. But again, if he has a problem of any degree, that 15-point lead he has could instantly become a 20-point deficit. And at this point, that would virtually be the end of the dream.

Joe Menzer: Check this stat on Stenhouse: since the mid-July race at Kentucky, he's had exactly one finish out of the top 10 on an oval -- an 11th at Bristol in August. Of course the pressure is on now like never before, but that's an impressive track record and one that portends a championship to come. Now if Elliott could get on his No. 2 horse and win one or two of these remaining races, it could change everything. But he just doesn't seem able to quite get there -- which is why, in my mind, he's not as deserving of the championship as Stenhouse, who has the two Iowa victories.

Dave Rodman: The cool thing is, this is gonna be a race, like it has been for the past several weeks. No one better blink. And with all the crazy stuff we've seen at Homestead -- in all three divisions -- I think across the board this might be the best championship finale ever.

Joe Menzer: All I can say is, in regard to the original question, I'm going with JJohn. You copy that, DRod and DCar? Geez, I'm starting to feel like I'm on my dad's old CB radio.

2012 Nationwide Series Schedule

DateTrack DateTrack DateTrack
3/3 Phoenix 6/16Michigan 9/1Atlanta
3/10Las Vegas 6/23Road America 9/7Richmond
3/17Bristol 6/29Kentucky 9/15Chicagoland
3/24Auto Club 7/6Daytona 9/22Kentucky
4/13Texas 7/14New Hampshire 9/29Dover
4/27Richmond 7/22Chicagoland 10/12Charlotte
5/5Talladega 7/28Indianapolis 10/20Kansas
5/11Darlington 8/4Iowa 11/3Texas
5/20Iowa 8/11Watkins Glen 11/10Phoenix
5/26Charlotte 8/18Montreal 11/17Homestead

Dave Rodman: 10-4, good buddy.

3. The margin of finish at Talladega in the spring tied the closest ever since electronic scoring was implemented. As polarizing as tandem drafting can be, is it worth the payoff?

Joe Menzer: Let's ask Carl Edwards after the race on Sunday. Not sure if young Trevor Bayne was supposed to reveal their strategy, but Bayne said after testing at Charlotte on Monday that the plan is going to be for him and the points leader to ride in the back and stay out of trouble for a good portion of the day, with the rookie pushing Edwards. Then with like 25 or so to go, they're going to attempt their tandem move to the front.

David Caraviello: Fans can be a fickle bunch -- they want racing to be exciting, but they want it to look a certain way. The want more brand identity on the cars and no potholes interrupting races, but don't like the kind of drafting those two changes can produce. So it's a very difficult mix. Lost in this outcry over tandem drafting is the fact that none of this was planned or intentional. It just evolved, as racing does, and over time it will evolve into something else. People get almost personally offended by this style of racing, it seems, and NASCAR is making changes to tweak it, but let's not act if it's here to stay. It's not.

Dave Rodman: There have been a handful of changes made. I hope everyone gets through practice Friday and analyzes them all. There are no guarantees, ever, in this sport. Right from the beginning, I said I liked this style of racing because 1.) it was different 2.) it took more precise skills 3.) it involved an even more intricate strategic element and 4.) you just didn't know what would happen.

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.

David Caraviello: Now, that preamble leads into my answer -- yes, it's worth it, but not because of the finishes. Finishes are almost always spectacular at Talladega, where the margin of victory is usually a half a second or less, regardless of what the racing looks like. No, I don't mind the tandem drafting because it breaks up those infernal packs that made racing at the big Alabama track so perilous, those situation where one guy in the middle lane bobbles just enough to take out half the field. The specter of the Big One will still loom, I understand that, but give me tandem drafting and less pack racing any day of the week.

Joe Menzer: Here's the thing: I've talked to drivers and even legends, such as Richard Petty, who hate it -- and I've had folks such as Richard's right-hand man Robbie Loomis say that he kind of likes it (or at least did back earlier in the season when we talked about it). Same with fans. I've talked with many who hate it, but others, and I would include myself in this group, who find it kind of fascinating and cool precisely because it IS something different and new. So wow, I guess I agree with DRod!

Dave Rodman: JMenz, my man! And to DCar's point, it's a fleeting point in time, so I'd say enjoy it and look forward to the next fundamental change.

Joe Menzer: And seriously, that's kind of cool that DRod and I are on the same page -- because I would consider DRod more of a racing purist than me. Certainly he's been involved in it and around it longer, if mainly because, well, he's just really old. It just goes to show that this style of racing isn't necessarily the worst thing ever to happen to Daytona and Talladega. It's just another chapter and like DCar has said, it isn't likely here to stay. Hopefully, neither are our new nicknames!

David Caraviello: I don't know, Joe. I don't think the fan base is exactly split 50-50 on this. People react to this tandem drafting as if NASCAR had rolled out 43 fuchsia Kia Sportages and told the boys to have at it, and I think that's obvious in the sanctioning body trying to make some tweaks to mitigate it. People love that Roman Colosseum style of racing at Talladega, the huge pack buzzing around the big oval. This delivers something a little different, and a lot of folks seem turned off by it.

Joe Menzer: Well, I have to respectfully disagree. It may not be 50-50, but it's not a 90-10 split, either. I've talked to folks who don't mind it and find it sort of fascinating. The thing is, those who don't like it are the most vocal about it -- as always is the case. That makes it seem worse than it really is.

Dave Rodman: If the current Bristol is any indicator, it seems like the Colosseum analogy certainly fits a large portion of the fan base. As Bristol's attendance has dwindled, so has Talladega's; so it'll be interesting to see what the next step in this evolutionary process will be. Like most of the guys have said, I don't see the racing being much different this weekend; and whenever they decide to get after it -- whether it's with 25-to-go or whenever -- it'll definitely be worth the wait.

David Caraviello: By the way, nobody should have an issue with how the spring race ended, with all the intrigue over who would go with who, and how it might turn out. I know Mark Martin fans feel like their guy got rooked a little bit, but late in the race, that's the way the draft works -- everybody is for themselves. Still, it was fun watching Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jimmie Johnson work together, with Jimmie winning by .002 seconds to tie the famous Ricky Craven/Kurt Busch mark from Darlington a few years back. And Joe, your survey sample size needs to be more than just your kids!

Joe Menzer: The end, as it always is at Talladega, is sure to be spectacular. As for the rest of it, I think I'd rather see tandem drafts and the strategy that involves than too much single-file racing for several hours. That's what MMenz and I think, anyway. That would be Michael Menzer, my 12-year-old.

Dave Rodman: I appreciate you calling that Darlington race a few years back, DC. That seems like so long ago, it might have occurred in chariots. You know what else is interesting? The $100,000 bounty that's been posted for 100 lead changes -- I just hope all that swapping doesn't lead to inevitable mistakes.

David Caraviello: Dave, you may be on to something there. As NASCAR has well learned, its fans can be very resistant to change. And yet, the cars have to change from time to time. The tracks have to be resurfaced. Racing does evolve. All of those things are absolutes, and clearly they affect the competition. I totally get that fans love things the way they were, but all sports go through this, and you hate to see certain tracks suffer at the gate as a result. Heck, I loved ACC basketball much more in the 1980s, but that doesn't mean I'm going to stop watching games. Change is a part of life. It has to happen, like it or not, and NASCAR is no different.

Joe Menzer: Right. DRod's so old he remembers riding a chariot to the races. You still got the keys to that thing, old man?

Dave Rodman: Right next to the set of galley oars.

David Caraviello: Dave, this time, just remember -- your toga does not meet garage clothing policy.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writers.

Watch all the highlights from the April race at Talladega: