Holding back works at Talladega

Race drivers love going fast and hate slowing down to conserve gas &

or worse, hanging back to try to avoid crashes.

That, though, is what some drivers have been doing in races at Talladega Superspeedway, one of only two NASCAR tracks where horsepower-sapping carburetor restrictor plates are used to keep the cars under 200 mph in the interest of safety for drivers and the fans in the grandstands.

The plates keep the cars bunched in huge freight trains, often running two- and three-wide inches from each other at speeds approaching that dreaded 200. Even the slightest mistake can, and often does, produce "The Big One," a huge, multicar crash. Or two.

Four-time champion Jeff Gordon, who leads all NASCAR drivers with 12 restrictor plate victories, won both races last year at Talladega. But they were achieved in very different ways.

In the spring, he started from the pole and led 71 of 188 laps, running at or near the front all day.

But, in the fall, at the debut of the new Car of Tomorrow on a plate track, Gordon started 34th and was in the top 15 for only 45 of the 188 laps on the 2.66-mile oval. His average position during the race was 28th and he led only the final lap.

"We didn't want to lay back during the fall race, but there were a lot of unknowns with the new car at the track," Gordon said. "Our qualifying position played the biggest part in determining our strategy. Starting so far back, we thought it would be best to play it safe and work our way into contention near the end of the race."

That didn't make it any easier on Gordon, though.

"As uneventful as it was in back, I was concerned every single moment of every single lap," he said. "I was concerned that we would wreck amongst ourselves. I was wondering if we were going to lose the draft."

Gordon added, "I've never had to do that before and it was difficult to get into that mind-set. I want to be up front, battling for the lead and leading laps from the drop of the green flag."

Hendrick Motorsports teammate Casey Mears used the same strategy to finish sixth in the race last fall, his best showing at the Alabama track.

"I see both sides of this strategy," Mears said. "We were smart by using it in the fall race at Talladega last year. It worked for us. We missed some of the big accidents because we were far enough back where we had reaction time to avoid them.

"But, honestly, it's not fun. Basically, all you're doing as the driver is riding for three-quarters of the race. Hanging back takes the fun out of restrictor-plate racing. I'm sure the fans aren't real thrilled with it, either, because it makes the race a little less exciting if their driver is just hanging at the tail of the field."

Mears, who picked up his first Sprint Cup victory last May at Charlotte, said, like Gordon, he would rather be racing up front. But that doesn't mean he won't use the same strategy in Sunday's Aaron's 499.

"At the end of the day, if everyone did this strategy, we could race a quarter of the laps and make it just as good of a race, just shorter," he said. "In the grand scheme of things, it's not fun for the fans or the drivers, but it's kept us out of trouble and left us with some pretty good finishes. So I shouldn't complain."

Loving Talladega

It took Michael Waltrip 36 tries to finally win a Cup race at Talladega in September 2003. And a third-place finish in May of 2005 is the closest he has come since.

But the two-time Daytona 500 winner really enjoys plate racing, and particularly the big Alabama oval.

"What I love about Talladega, especially now, is that you can go all over the place," Waltrip said. "You are going to see four- and sometimes five-wide racing. It is not out of the question.

"I think Talladega is the closest thing to a video game I have ever driven. That's basically what you are doing. You are setting there and barely moving the wheel. That's what you do in a video game and that's what you do at Talladega."

Waltrip said the race is all about positioning, because just about everyone has a fast car and a good handling car at Talladega.

"What's also great about Talladega is all of the drivers have a shot on Sunday," he added. "You have a banked track with the smooth surface and anyone can win."

What about "The Big One?"

"What I know is there has never been a race where just 20 cars finished a Talladega race," Waltrip said. "So there is a 50-50 chance that a driver can miss "The Big One." I don't worry about it."

But he acknowledges it isn't an easy race to run, surrounded by other cars virtually the entire distance.

"It used to be all about the car," Waltrip explained. "Now, the cars are so equal that it is about who can set on the fire and sweat ice cubes. It's that intense for 500 miles."

Way to go, Danica

The way John Andretti sees it, Danica Patrick's first IndyCar victory last week in Japan was good for everyone involved in the sport of auto racing.

"The way I look at it is that it was a huge win for motorsports," said Andretti, who raced, and won in, open-wheel cars before moving to NASCAR.

"She's extremely talented and everybody knows that," Andretti said. "She's already brought a lot of attention to motorsports because of the package. She has it all, sort of like a Dale Jr. She draws excitement and attention wherever she goes.

"For herself, more so than anyone else, it was important for her to win that race. In the overall scope of things, people who don't know a lot about motorsports, or maybe that followed only one kind of motorsports, are going to follow all of it now. It's a big win for the whole motorsports community."

Stat of the week

It's good to have a bow-tie on your hood at Talladega. Chevrolet's iconic logo has graced the hood of 16 of the last 17 Cup winners at Talladega, including the last four. Even in the Nationwide &

formerly Busch &

Series, Chevys are dominant, having won five in a row.

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