The early spring Alabama heat wave has had people talking all week about how the heat was going to effect the cars at Talledega this weekend. How will they keep the engines cool? Will the drivers be able to handle the temps inside the cars? Will the heat cause engine issues in the pack or when they break to a 2 car push? Jeff Gordon had concerns about engine management, and how much tape there was on his front grille, but all of his worrying paid off in the end with him setting the fastest lap around NASCAR’s biggest and fastest racetrack in the circuit. With a time of 49.973 seconds at a speed of 191.623 mph posted the only sub 50 second lap time of the day, taking his 71st pole (third most of all time), and marking 20 straight seasons with at least one pole tying the record set by David Pearson.
“The temperatures are being managed from the moment that car goes on the track [Friday] till the end of that race,” Gordon said. “So even in qualifying we’re trying to manage ’em and not get ’em too hot. We chose to do that bottom lane, because we feel like it saves about three seconds of time, which is how much longer the engine’s running, building temperature.
“Plus, I feel like this track is big enough that you don’t have to run up high, like Daytona.”
With temperatures hovering around 86F during qualifying and expected temperatures predicted to be even higher for today’s race, keeping cool, both under the hood and under the collar, will definitely be a challenge.
“It’s so warm out, that I think most of the cars down pit road had to leave open a little bit of tape [on the grille], because they were going to push water too much,” said A.J. Allmendinger, whom Gordon knocked off the pole with his fastest lap. “I didn’t see if [Gordon] was fully taped up, or how much tape he had, but I think that’s kind of the idea that he had, that if you can fully tape up, you’re going to get a little bit of an advantage on everybody, and the only way you can do that is run low the whole time.
“It’s definitely a new strategy, but those guys are fast no matter what, so it’s not like they snuck up on us. We knew that was going to be one of the cars to beat there at the end. But it’s something to think about the next time we’re here.”
When it comes to restrictor plate tracks the names of the usual suspects begin to get tossed around. Dale Earnhardt Jr. hears it every time he comes here. Is this your best place to try and break the streak Jr? Is it your best chance?
“I never really took anything for granted. A lot of people have said that this weekend at the race track, but I don’t pay much attention to it,” Earnhardt said. “I know how this sport can be brutal and great all at the same time. You just hope you’re prepared and try to run a smart race. Hopefully then you can make the right moves and beat the odds and win the race.”
“This is probably one of our better shots,” Earnhardt said. “How the drafting and everything was changed before Daytona [this year], that suits me better. And it’s hotter, and I think that leans toward favoring pack racing over tandem racing, too. That’s kind of in my favor, so I’m looking forward to the race. I just don’t think our odds have necessarily increased because I’ve run so well this year.”
“I feel like I’m in the best equipment that’s out there, and that gives you a lot of confidence. I feel like I know what I’m doing when I come here,” Earnhardt said. “I feel like if I could create the best scenario for me to come to Talladega and win a race, this is it. I’ve got the best car and I know how to get around the race track.”
The other drivers seem to agree for the most part that Jr. knows his way around this track and will definitely be a contender at the end of the race.
Opponents like Denny Hamlin recognize the potential. “I think he’s obviously got a ton of experience and a ton of wins on this track. When you look at this schedule and you look at opportunities to win, I would say that this is one of his best shots to do it.”
Jimmie Johnson seemed to be in the minority with his opinion. He feels that while Jr may be really good at Talledega, his chances here have too many factors to be wary of.
“I think his best chance to win is on non-plate tracks, to be honest with you,” Johnson said. “Here, there are so many circumstances to deal with. We don’t know if you’re going to overheat, get the push at the right time, whatever it may be. What I’ve seen out of him, if you just look at this year alone and where he is in points and how fast his cars have been and how great he’s been driving, I put this lower on the list of where I would expect him to win.”
But when it comes right down to it, the driver who is going to win this race will be the one who has the best equipment at the end of the race, and a partner who can push them away from the pack where timing will be everything.
“I think the chemistry Junior and I both have, that our shop has, it was just another example of how strong that chemistry is and how much it continues to grow,” Johnson said. “I’m very happy to see how fast the No. 88 car has been week in and week out. Naturally, you think of him as a favorite here at this race track — but that No. 88 has been pretty strong everywhere. He is rising to be a favorite everywhere we go.”
Earnhardt Jr. tends to agree with his Hendrick Motorsports teammate.
“I maybe feel the same way because when you come to Daytona and Talladega, the cars are so equal,” Earnhardt said. “And even though pack racing definitely puts more in your hands and you definitely control your own destiny more when you’re just dealing with yourself and looking for No. 1 and being greedy and selfish, there still are so many things that can happen.
“Somebody could get the right push and do the right thing at the right time and win the race, and there’s nothing you can do about it. It’s a lottery, really. I’ve said that before, but it really is when you come to Daytona and Talladega, trying to win these races.