Friday, September 30, 2005
Chase drivers trying out glass-half-full approach
By Rupen Fofaria Special to ESPN.com
It's no secret that Talladega Superspeedway is a fierce and unforgiving track. Many of the elements to a smooth ride are out of the drivers' control, leaving them at the mercy of this fickle, sometimes cruel and sometimes sweet, superspeedway.
That's why racers tend to have a love/hate relationship with this Alabama 2.66-miler. And that, as much as anything else, can have a bearing on how a driver fares.
"I think you need to go in with a good attitude," driver Rusty Wallace said. "And I think we are."
That's not necessarily an easy thing to do for all of the Chase drivers, particularly Wallace, who comes to Talladega with just one top-five finish in 44 starts.
"We're coming in there with the attitude that we can win," said Wallace, who also has 12 top-10s at Talladega. "If you can stay in the draft and keep the car in one piece all day, you can come out of there on top."
Points leader Jimmie Johnson, Ryan Newman, Greg Biffle, Jeremy Mayfield and Carl Edwards join Wallace as drivers who've had their hands full with Talladega, each posting average finishes below 20th at the track.
For Johnson, the struggles have been especially troubling in the fall race -- which he has never finished.
For the first time in my career, I'm looking forward to going to Talladega. ”
— Ryan Newman
"I'm very nervous," said Chad Knaus, crew chief for Johnson and the No. 48 Chevy team.
But Knaus agreed that a positive attitude is essential at Talladega, and said Johnson and Co. are confident because the Hendrick organization has been running well and he believes that means Johnson will have some strong drafting partners at a track that puts a premium on teamwork.
"With some teamwork and some cooperation from our friends," Knaus said, " we'll be in good shape."
Newman is similarly optimistic.
"For the first time in my career, I'm looking forward to going to Talladega," he said.
Interestingly, the only Chase racer to actually win at Talladega is the one who likes it the least.
"Everybody knows that I'm not the world's biggest fan of restrictor-plate racing," Mark Martin said. "I know that it's really exciting for the fans and I know that if I were at home you couldn't pry me away from the TV, but for the drivers it can be pretty frustrating, because nothing is really in your control. If you make a move, whether or not it's a good or bad move, completely depends on what happens with the other people around you.
"You might go to the front or you might go to the back, but it depends more on what they do than what you do. On top of that you ride around hoping to avoid the big wreck and it can just make for a frustrating day."
It remains to be seen exactly how attitude coming into the race will play into attitudes coming out of the race. But with the six of the Chase drivers qualifying well on Friday, and the rest not far off, they'll all have a good shot at keeping these playoffs as tight as they already are.
The favorite Tony Stewart may not have a win at Talladega, but he's got four runner-up finishes, as well as four other top-10 finishes. Only once has he finished outside the top 30.
"You can say the track hasn't been kind to me with as many second-place finishes as we've had, but there's 41 guys who didn't have it as good as we had it those days," Stewart said. "There have been a lot of days where we ran second and it was as good as a win for us. The spring race was a perfect example. We knew we didn't have the best car, but we ended up with a second-place finish. That was the best we could do and we left the track with smiles on our faces."
Incidentally, Stewart's one of those guys who comes into Talladega with a smile on his face.
"The Talladega weeks are always fun weeks for me," he said, "because I go fishing and it's a week where I don't turn my cell phone on and I don't worry about the race car. It's just a week to kind of hit the reset button, and by the time I get to the track, I'm fresh and ready to go. I always have fun when I come to Talladega."
Riding the wave
Newman has been on a tear ever since starting his run to make the Chase. He won the first Chase race in New Hampshire and finished fifth last weekend at Dover, Del. Talladega has never been really good to him, but Newman believes that he can use the momentum the No. 12 team has built up to reverse his fortunes.
"If we can stay clean, I think we can win," he said. "We're going there thinking we can win."
History on their side
It truly is history that's on Martin's side at Talladega because his recent runs have not been so smooth. Though Martin has two victories at Talladega, those wins came more than 15 tries ago. And though Martin has 10 top-five finishes at Talladega -- more than any other Chase contender -- he has none in his last eight tries, and only two in his last 15 tries.
Mindful of Martin's up-and-down history at Talladega, crew chief Pat Tryson has a strategy.
"I don't think there is really any trick to it, we just need to run well and hope that we don't find ourselves in the wrong place at the wrong time," he said.
Cause for concern
Wallace's issues are well-documented at Talladega. Forty four tries, no wins, one top-five and 14 DNFs.
"We went through a period where it seemed like we either crashed or blew up in almost every race at Talladega," he said.
Still, the retiring racer who is ranked second in the standings isn't willing to let history affect his future.
"During the last five to seven years, our luck has really done a big turnaround," he said. "We've been running strong, led a bunch of laps and really had genuine chances of winning many of the races. That's what we're looking to continue there this weekend."
Dale Earnhardt Jr. has five Talladega wins, and he's got new-found confidence following his reunion with crew chief Tony Eury Jr. He could play spoiler for any Chase driver -- particularly Stewart -- looking to win. Still, with the way the Chase has gone so far, there's no reason to count any of the Chase drivers out when it comes to finding a top-10.
Rupen Fofaria is a freelance writer living in Chicago and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.