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White knuckler

NASCAR heads to controversial and dangerous Talladega

• Lugnuts
• On the track
• In the pits
• Stop 'n' Go
• Finish Line

By Stephen Thomas and Mark Spoor,

At about five o'clock Sunday afternoon, if you turn the TV down and listen, you just might be able to make out the slight sounds of a whole bunch of people exhaling all at once. That is, barring the unfortunate but not entirely unexpected.

Once the checkered flag has been waved at Talladega Superspeedway, you can bet that the 43 very relieved drivers who white-knuckled their way through another eventful afternoon at the notorious tri-oval will pull themselves out of their cars and finally realize that, hey, it's OK to breathe.

That's how anxious some people are about the upcoming Talladega 500, a level of anxiety no doubt exacerbated by an off-week that left the media with too much time to ponder the likelihood of the next "big one." True, because NASCAR's modified rules resulted in a mind-blowing 49 lead changes in last fall's race at Talladega and one that even most drivers acknowledge was a barn-burner -- "I think everyone pretty much would agree that they arguably saw the best race in the history of NASCAR. It was fun for me as a driver and fun to watch," said Michael Waltrip -- the proliferation of stories debating the safety of racing at the 2.66-mile track are justified.

But, if the current rules package has at least some of the drivers concerned about racing at Talladega, it's also true, as Waltrip said, that it makes for some of the best darn racing of the year, albeit with an undercurrent of doom. "Talladega lends itself to crazy racing," the 2001 Daytona 500 winner said. "There's a lot of room to race there. [But] the thing I keep coming back to is if we have that big wreck, generally it's 'cause someone caused it."

Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Little E makes no secret of his love for restrictor plate tracks. He led 28 laps in last season's fall race at Talladega before a daring move near the end dropped him to 14th place. He also finished second this year at Daytona -- another restrictor plate race.
Bill Elliott
His qualifying record of 212.809 mph in 1987 still stands. He won that race -- then known as the Winston 500. However, that was his last win at Talladega. So far this season, Elliott is ninth in the points standings despite just one top-10 finish.
Jeff Gordon
Gordon is one of just five active drivers with two wins at Talladega. He also holds the mark has the driver who has won there from the furthest position (36th). By the way, his first career victory was also at Talladega in 1996.
Terry Labonte
Labonte is another active driver with two wins at Talladega. He won in 1989 and again in 1997. In total, Labonte has 21 top-10s and 13 top-5s at Talladega. So far this season, he has a pair of top-10 finishes.

Dale Jarrett snagged his third victory in four weeks at Martinsville two weeks ago. Again, it was a late pit decision that sealed the win. The victory was his first in 29 starts at the short Virginia track. He now enjoys a 123-point lead over Jeff Gordon in the points standings.
After a pair of third-place finishes at Darlington and Bristol, Jeremy Mayfield hasn't reached the top 20 since. Particularly damaging was Mayfield's performance in Martinsville two weeks ago, where he started sixth and finished 30th.
Pretty quietly, Ricky Rudd is putting together quite a season. He posted his fifth top-10 of the season with a second at Martinsville two weeks ago. That showing lifted Rudd, who recently made his 500th Winston Cup start, into the top 10 in points.
Mark Martin had another dismal week at Martinsville two weeks back, dropping out after 268 laps due to another accident. Martin's average finish so far this season is a dismal 25th.

By all accounts, Johnny Benson has put together a pretty impressive Winston Cup campaign in 2001. While he continues to sit third in the points standings, he's still looking for his first Winston Cup victory.
Greg Biffle was on top of the heap in the Craftsman Truck Series last year. This year, he's been one of the best rookies on the Busch Series. Last week in Nashville, he won his first Busch Series race in just his seventh start.
Speaking of the new Nashville Superspeedway, it received good reviews last week in its debut. The concrete surface, however, wasn't as popular. Drivers said slick spots on the track contributed to the 11 cautions Saturday.
Jarrett, the only multiple winner in Winston Cup this season -- with three victories in eight races -- led the first quarter Driver of the Year voting by a national panel of motorsports writers and broadcasters.

Talladega 300 -- Noon Saturday (FOX): 300.58 miles, 113 laps. 2000 pole winner: Todd Bodine. 2000 winner: Joe Nemechek.
Talladega 500 -- 12:30 p.m. Sunday (FOX): 500.08 miles, 188 laps. 2000 pole winner: Jeremy Mayfield. 2000 winner: Jeff Gordon
  • It's amazing how much of a disadvantage the Taurus' have, according to Dale Jarrett ... unless he wins the race. Quit your crying D.J., there are about 40 drivers who would trade places with you instantly. -- Joe, Jacksonville, Fla.

  • Dale Jarrett has been crying all year about Chevys having an advantage. He sure is being quiet now. Steal some more of [Jeff] Gordon's pit crew, cry baby. -- Tim, Georgetown, Ohio

  • This whole Earnhardt tribute needs to come to an end. It's a loss, but it does not need to be drug on throughout the year. -- Tim, Atlanta

  • Even though I pull for DJ88, every time the words are said, "start your engines," I feel a lump in my throat and a big pain in my heart for the Man in Black. I gave him credit; he was a great driver. And today, he is a driving force who will stay with us for a long, long time. -- Frances, Castlewood, Va.

  • Just a comment on Rusty Wallace's season: Imagine what we would be saying if he did decent at Darlington and still hadn't led a lap. He would be around second or third in points. -- Mike, Boca Raton, Fla.
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