Track a headache for Jeff Gordon

Published: Sunday, May 1, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, May 1, 2005 at 1:58 a.m.
TALLADEGA, Ala. - With all the success that Jeff Gordon has had at Talladega Superspeedway, you'd think he would look forward to racing here.
But Gordon, who has won three times and has 13 top-10 finishes in 24 starts on the 2.66-mile oval, says that driving in Talladega's constantly shifting, two- and three-wide packs of stock cars for 500 miles at close to 200 mph is far from his favorite form of racing.
''It's not as bad as it used to be with the roof rail and the wickerbill in the back,'' Gordon said, referring to aerodynamic devices that NASCAR no longer requires. ''But it definitely still gives me a headache.
''This is a race that you never stop to take a breath, really. Even though the track is easy to drive, it's the draft and being around all those other cars that makes it so challenging. You're just sitting there running wide open, nothing you can to do to run away from anybody.''
Gordon, the defending race champion, will start next to pole-winner Kevin Harvick in the front row Sunday at the Aaron's 499. But being out front at the start is no guarantee he'll be there long.
''It's hard to stay up front, even at Daytona,'' said Gordon, who won the Daytona 500 in February on the only other track at which NASCAR requires carburetor restrictor plates to slow the cars. ''I ran second and third and fourth most of the day (at Daytona) until we finally had to get out of line to make a move because we were running out of laps.
''But, when you're in that bunch like that all day long, it's sometimes hair-raising because you see accidents and stuff. They don't always materialize, (but) sometimes they do. Your hands are somewhat tied behind your back. You're trying to do your best to pay attention to every little detail going on, and there's a lot going on. It gives me a headache.''
  • NO FEUD: Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart traded barbed comments last week after Johnson hit Stewart from behind and ignited a multicar crash at Phoenix. But Johnson says the hard feelings are long gone.
    ''Tony and I have been great friends and we always will be,'' the series points leader said. ''I hate that what happened did happen and we got together. It's just natural that after events, everyone's emotions are high. Things are said and, when microphones are in your face immediately, your emotions come through."
    ''I think there's been a lot more attention brought to it than what really is there.''
    Referring to Stewart by his nickname, Johnson added, ''It's behind us and over, and Smoke and I are friends and always will be.''
  • THAT'S BETTER: Bobby Labonte is feeling a lot better this week after finishing sixth last Saturday night in Phoenix, his first top 10 of the season.
    It was only the third time in eight races this year that Labonte completed all the laps and only the second time he has finished among the top 20.
    ''It kind of felt like a career-best finish,'' Labonte said. ''Everybody's doing hard work. Sometimes it's just hard to finish a race without a problem.''
    It may not be easy to get a streak going, though.
    The Joe Gibbs Racing driver won at Talladega in April 1998 and has 10 top-10 finishes here. But Labonte hasn't finished better than 10th on Talladega's oval in the last seven races.
  • STORMY WEATHER: A severe storm, with heavy rains and wind gusts over 40 mph, swept through Talladega Superspeedway early Saturday morning.
    Track president Grant Lynch said there were no weather-related injuries reported among the thousands of race fans who were camped out in and around the speedway overnight.
    ''We are very happy and relieved to report that everyone seems to have weathered the storm successfully and we have no injuries to report,'' Lynch said. ''We were very fortunate that we seemed to miss the worst of the storm line as it moved through. Storms can be especially volatile in this area, and we thank our fans for heeding our warning and taking precautions to protect themselves.''
    Aware that the storm was heading this way, the track made frequent public address announcements Friday asking fans to take necessary precautions to secure their areas and be prepared to take shelter.
    Most of the drivers also stay at the track, sleeping in luxurious motorhomes rather than the tents used by many of the fans.
    ''That was crazy,'' Elliott Sadler said. ''It definitely woke me up. I felt sorry for the fans. I saw of bunch of tents and stuff in the infield yesterday and I just hope nobody got flooded out or anything.
    ''They're so committed to being at the race track, but I've never seen that many lightning flashes at one time and that loud and that heavy of a rain. It was definitely a night to just kind of sit up and wait until it passed over.''
  • SPARK PLUGS: Jimmie Johnson, who leads runner-up Kurt Busch by 173 points in the season standings, has only one top 10 in his last five Talladega starts. ... Mark Martin has been running at the finish in 30 consecutive races, the longest current streak. ... Reigning Cup champion Busch has been among the top 10 in the standings for 43 consecutive races, dating to the Rockingham race in February 2004. ... Ryan Newman, who will start fifth Sunday, is the only driver to start among the top 10 in each of the nine races this year.
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