Print and Go Back ESPN.com: Sprint Cup [Print without images]

Saturday, November 1, 2008
Blue skies in Cowtown and plenty of seats available

By Ed Hinton
ESPN.com

All times Eastern

3:00 p.m.

And Jeff Gordon winds up Happy Hour as … a little soap opera organ music, please … 33rd-fastest of the session, at 175.718 mph.

Carl Edwards was fastest of the hour, at 182.082 mph. And whatever became of Kyle Busch? Well, he was second-fastest at 181.397.

Jimmie Johnson was 12th-fastest of the final practice at 179.892, but again, I don't think he and Knaus were showing their cards yet.

The Nationwide race starts at 3:30 p.m. ET on ESPN2 and ESPN360.com. Enjoy, but watch for a slippery track, because the midday sun has beaten down fiercely on the surface.

2:35 p.m.

Now this is what makes blogging so … uh … interesting. So … uh … real.

You write all day about Jeff Gordon and his shot at finally winning at Texas, and how an oil-field roughneck can win $1 million and be happier than even Gordon if he wins Sunday, and then comes …

Happy Hour. Gordon is struggling something terrible, only 32nd in the final practice, calling his car "junk" now, and explaining to his crew on the radio, "now it won't turn at all in [Turns] 1 and 2."

Stay tuned …

1:25 p.m.

First Cup practice Saturday was red-flagged shortly after 1 p.m. when Tony Stewart's Toyota blew a right rear tire. He held it off the wall, but the blowout ripped out his right-rear fender and he'll have to go to a backup car.

Stewart had qualified eighth in time trials Friday, but will now have to start at the rear of the field.

Greg Biffle was quick up to the point when practice was stopped, with a fast lap at 184.780 mph. Roush teammate Carl Edwards was second at 184.458.

Third-fastest was Jimmie Johnson at 184.420. Considering that he and crew chief Chad Knaus rarely like to show their hand in Saturday practice, Johnson is plenty quick enough to win.

Stewart had been fifth-quickest at 183.405, and polesitter Gordon was eighth at 182.346.

12:30 p.m.

Eat your heart out, Joe the Plumber.

The only guy who will be happier than Jeff Gordon if he wins Sunday will be Hale Hughes, an oil-field roughneck from Woodville, near Houston.

Race title sponsor Dickies selected Hughes as its American Worker of the Year, and he's been on a whirlwind tour that included the Professional Bull Riders World Finals in Las Vegas on Friday night and will continue through the weekend here.

Hughes will be grand marshal of the Dickies 500 and will get $1 million if polesitter Gordon wins the race. He already has received a new pickup truck and other prizes.

Oh, and by the way, Hughes attended Texas Tech, whose seventh-ranked football team hosts No. 1 Texas tonight in what is being billed as the biggest game ever played in the West Texas tumbleweed town of Lubbock.

All Joe the Plumber got was a few lousy minutes on CNN.

Maybe Dickies ought to consider making Gordon the NASCAR Worker of the Decade if he can pull off a win here, after 11 years of struggling at this nemesis of a racetrack.

11:47 a.m.

To sit amidst the opulence of Texas Motor Speedway is to remember your Coleridge and apply it to track mogul Bruton Smith: "In Xanadu did Kublai Kahn/A stately pleasure dome decree." …

And if you've been around NASCAR long enough, you can't help remembering the sad tale of old Texas World Speedway, a track that was 40 years ahead of its time, in a bad location, south of College Station, about 180 miles from here.

It was built as a nearly identical twin to Michigan International Speedway. But lying too far from any of Texas' major cities, TWS always was ill-attended and by the late 1970s had fallen into disrepair and by the '80s into dilapidation.

It still lies there, restored enough to serve as a testing facility.

But the tragedy is, that old track is a significantly better configuration for NASCAR racing than the dipsy-doodle 1.5-mile TMS, with its abrupt transitions into and out of the turns. Bottom line here, you run out of banking before you're finished turning, and drivers still can't get comfortable with that.

***

The Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex's enthusiasm over TMS since '97 -- this weekend's lagging ticket sales notwithstanding -- has sort of belied one of the inimitable A.J. Foyt's classic malapropisms.

"Texas," Foyt said to me, while we were driving from Houston to the old Texas World Speedway, "just never has been much of a racin' town."

***

What has amazed me among the crowds here on Sunday mornings, all these 11 years, is the dearth of cowboy hats. You see maybe one on every 10,000 heads. You actually see more at places like Talladega. One veteran student of Texas race fans opines that they don't wear hats here because the dern things are so big and wide they'd block the views of people in the seats behind them and cause trouble in the grandstands.

11:08 a.m.

Talk about salvaging a season. Jeff Gordon would be like the beleaguered college football coach who saves his job by beating the archrival in November.

Texas Motor Speedway has been a gorilla on Gordon's back since it opened 11 years ago, but now he's on the pole for Sunday's Dickies 500 (3 p.m. ET, ABC).

This track and Homestead-Miami are the only places on the Cup tour where Gordon has never won. Plus, he's only three races away from his first winless season since his rookie year, 1993.

"I wasn't expecting to get the pole. I can tell you that," he said. And here's how hard this place has pounded him: "I'm definitely not expecting to get the win either, but it doesn't stop us as a team and me as a driver from trying to make that happen and putting out every bit of effort we can."

***

Desperation Dept.: "It's Not Too Late!" screamed an ad on the front of the sports section of Friday's Dallas Morning News. The body copy continued, "To get great frontstretch seats for Sunday's Dickies 500."

Frontstretch, mind you. Not the vastly overbuilt backstretch grandstands whose empty seats have been covered up by huge commercial banners for a few years now.

Hard times can humble even a speedway that, when it opened in 1997, was charging fans four-figure sums just to reserve the right to buy seats. Ticket prices were on top of that.

Just more evidence that this horrific economic downturn might at least have the silver lining of knocking NASCAR and all its tracks right slap off their high horse.

Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at edward.t.hinton@espn3.com.