Dead End Ahead?
Mark Martin cuts Jeff Gordon's point lead, but the superspeedways loom
With two victories in the last three races, including Sunday's crash-filled UAW-GM Quality 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Mark Martin has seized momentum from points leader Jeff Gordon in their duel for the Winston Cup championship. But Martin fears his late surge will come to a screeching halt in the next two races, the Winston 500 at Talladega this Sunday and the Pepsi 400 at Daytona on Oct. 17. Talladega and Daytona are the two longest tracks on the circuit and the only ones at which NASCAR requires carburetor restrictor plates to hold speeds below 200 mph.
Martin and his team owner, Jack Roush, know that their Taurus will be at a disadvantage against Gordon's Monte Carlo on the two superspeedways because Roush's restrictor-plate engine development isn't as advanced as that of Gordon's Hendrick Motorsports team. "We don't have much of a chance at Talladega and Daytona," Roush said Sunday, after Martin had cut Gordon's points lead by 25, down to 174, with six races remaining. "I'm afraid this is going to throw ice water on our championship hopes."
But the Roush-Martin team shouldn't give up yet. The engine-stifling restrictor plates often force drivers to run in huge packs because they have difficulty accelerating away from one another. That causes crapshoots that can leave the hares wrecked and the tortoises with the spoils.
Martin finished 38th in the Daytona 500 last February and 23rd in the DieHard 500 at Talladega last April. Though Gordon finished 16th and fifth, respectively, in those races, he dominated at Daytona before hitting some debris and damaging his front air dam just past the halfway point.
Says Martin, "We did test at Daytona before the July race [the Pepsi 400, which was postponed until October because of raging summer wildfires in Florida], and we made significant progress with our car. But since then we're not sure we've made any progress. We should be in better shape than we were, but we're certainly not where we want to be."
IRL Odd Couple
Brack, Foyt on Verge of Title
Swedish driver Kenny Brack and Texan-to-a-T car owner A.J. Foyt are one of the oddest winning combinations in auto racing. The IRL began in 1996, with Foyt as a founding member, partly to give American dirt-track drivers opportunities on big-league ovals. Foyt was the leading proponent of that notion. Brack, who need only finish seventh or better in Saturday's Las Vegas 500K to win this year's IRL championship, has a road-racing background, in the European Formula 3000 series, and thus is an example of the imported drivers who, the IRL charged, had become too dominant on its rival circuit, CART.
Furthermore, to make room for Brack, Foyt last year fired just the sort of driver the IRL supposedly wanted to help: Idaho native Davey Hamilton, a short-track, supermodified veteran, who's now second to Brack in IRL points, 312-281, as the driver for Nienhouse Motorsports. But in the World According to A.J., there was no contradiction in his hiring of Brack. "The first thing Kenny had to do before we signed a contract was move to Texas," Foyt says. "He lives in Houston [ Foyt's hometown] now. After he got settled, he was a transplant."
Foyt still won't hesitate to blast CART for the U.N. look of its driver standings. Other than Americans such as Michael Andretti, Bryan Herta, Al Unser Jr. and Jimmy Vasser, "the other guys in CART, hell, I can't even pronounce their names, much less spell them," Foyt says. As for Brack, after he took the checkered flag for an IRL-record third straight win, in Atlanta on Aug. 29, Foyt summed up the league's attitude adjustment by bellowing into Brack's helmet radio, "We love you, you foreigner!"