NASCAR & Auto Racing

Half the battle: 'Still Middle! Still Middle!'

EDITOR'S NOTE: With plans for the project to turn into a book, motorsports writer David Poole of The Charlotte Observer and spent the final portion of last season following Jeff Burton and his team in the Chase for the Nextel Cup. The book deal never was finalized, but the access the No. 31 team allowed provided a behind-the-scenes look of the battle for a NASCAR title:

TALLADEGA, Ala. - To Jeff Burton, “luck” is a four-letter word.

Race teams sometimes use the concept as a crutch to absolve themselves of responsibility when things go badly, Burton believes. But some things are out of your control – for instance, competing in a Nextel Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway.

The Alabama track, located a little less than an hour east of Birmingham, is the biggest oval in NASCAR, measuring 2.66-miles in length. It is also, by a considerable margin, the facility the sport’s competitors dread the most. Some might not come out and admit that, especially in the days leading up to a race. But when you see the sense of relief felt by drivers who reach the end of a Talladega race with themselves and their car still in one piece, no words are necessary.

Since the advent of the restrictor-plate era at Talladega and its sister track in Daytona, racing with the air-choking, horsepower-robbing plates in place has developed into a high-stakes game of three-dimensional chess.

It’s not enough to be careful of what you’re doing; the driver also must be wary of what every other car in the seething pack surrounding him is doing as well.

One bobble by anyone can – and often does – take out 10, 15 or 20 cars.

Talladega, then, loomed as a wild-card in the Chase for the Nextel Cup. The men driving for the championship had to worry about their fellow contenders and about the other 33 cars on the track each weekend, but at Talladega, those worries are compounded.

“There is probably going to be a multicar wreck on Sunday, that’s just how it is” Burton said before heading to Alabama. “And one way to avoid it is to be damned lucky. That’s just all there is to it.”

But, Burton said, it’s not as if a driver is completely powerless.

“The first thing you should do is don’t start the wreck,” he said. “If nobody ever starts ‘The Big One’ then it doesn’t happen. And the way you do that is to understand what your car isn’t capable of doing and don’t ask it to do that. The guys who have the fastest cars can just make moves that you can’t make, and that makes you mad. And if you try to win the race with the 30th-best car, chances are going you’re going to wind up worse than 30th. You have to protect yourself, you find ways to get stuck between the right cars and the right time and then you protect that spot and get the best you can get.”

Burton is proud of his record of doing just that. In the spring race at Talladega in 2006, he’d started 40th and finished fourth. Another run like that in the UAW-Ford 500 would be completely acceptable, he said.

“This is one of those weekends that I come to, regardless of where we are in the points, hoping to get out of here with a top-10 finish,” Burton said. “Normally we say a top five, but here, you almost skip to that airplane with a top 10. It’s so easy to get caught up in a wreck and it's easy to cause a wreck. So the first priority is to not start the wreck. The second priority is, if it happens, to try to miss it. And then hopefully we can be at the right place at the right time when the race is ending.”

By the end of the day on Sunday, 23 drivers would lead at least one lap and the lead would officially change hands 63 times. Lead changes are scored only when the cars cross the start-finish line. With cars running side-by-side-by-side in a three-wide, 10 or 12 deep pack virtually all day, the lead at Talladega sometimes actually changes hands on one lap at Talladega more often than a sixth-grade girl changes boyfriends.

Already in the Chase, at New Hampshire and at Kansas, cars had wrecked right in front of Burton and he’d managed to dodge them. It would clearly be more difficult to do that the same situation happened at Talladega.

But there already was precedent in the still short history of the Chase of drivers making repeated narrow escapes and winning the championship – Busch in 2004 spun his car around in at least half of the races and it never seemed to cost him, and then literally had a wheel come off his car in the finale but managed to get to pit road while the wheel ran down the frontstretch to force a caution.

“Luck has a way of going your way sometimes, and going against you sometimes,” Burton said.

“When it's going your way, you need to appreciate it. And when it's not going your way, you need to understand that it probably has a way of equaling itself out.”

As the starting field made its way around behind the pace car, Burton lined up 34th. He clicked his radio microphone to say a word to his spotter, Rocky Ryan.“Spotter,” Burton said, “just remember we’re in Talladega and you can’t talk to me too much.”

Ryan returned with a quick “10-4.” And then he took a deep breath. This would be one of his busiest afternoons of the season.

By the end of Lap 1, Burton had moved up 10 positions from 34th to 24th.

“Still three-widestill three-wideback two-wide now, still outside,” Ryan said, sounding as much like an auctioneer as a spotter. “Middle of three now. Clear low, still outside.”

Ryan’s voice developed a cadence. He was merely providing his driver with information. There was, frankly, not much Burton could do to change the predicament he was in. This was Talladega, and everybody else was in the same boat, too.

“Still outside,” Ryan said. “Three-wide now. Still middle. Still middle. Clear low. Back inside, middle of three, middle of three.”

Burton was lined up in the middle of three lanes behind Scott Riggs, moving up through the pack. On Lap 8, he was in the middle of the fifth row of a three-wide pack running nine rows deep. The No. 31 could not have been more in the middle of the mess at Talladega.

But Burton steered his way clear of trouble through the first 100 laps. Dale Earnhardt Jr., looking for his sixth career Talladega win, slowed on the backstretch on Lap 103 and limped to pit road with a flat tire. He fell a lap down, but got it back because he was still the first car a lap down when a second yellow, again for debris, flew on Lap 131.

Clint Bowyer, Burton’s RCR teammate, was the race leader when the green came out to start Lap 135. There’s an adage in NASCAR, however, that cautions breed cautions, and it makes sense everywhere else because yellow flags bunch the field back together and put more cars in proximity. At Talladega, though, the field is almost always bunched. With the UAW-Ford 500 about to move into the final 50 laps, there had yet to be a wreck of any kind. But the law of averages was about to be enforced.

It’s all but impossible to say what starts “the Big One” at Talladega. This time, on Lap 138, Carl Edwards’ Ford wiggled as he ran in the middle of the lead pack heading into Turn 1. Edwards’ car got far enough out of shape that it hit Casey Mears’ Dodge, and that sent Mears’ Dodge slinging sideways. The Talladega tornado had touched down. To varying degrees, 13 cars had significant damage as a result of the melee that followed the contact between Edwards and Mears.

Among Chase contenders, Gordon’s No. 24 Chevrolet was the most mangled. The wreck would eventually send him to the garage after completing just 160 laps, leaving Gordon with a 36th-place finish.

As the leaders peeled off to come in for pit stops, Burton stayed on the track.

He hadn’t led a lap yet, and this was a chance to do precisely that and collect five bonus points. Burton then made his pit stop on Lap 144, right before the field assembled to take the green. Then, on Lap 149, Reed Sorenson lost his engine to bring out another yellow.

For a third straight week, fuel mileage was becoming a major consideration. By the time the green flew there would be 36 laps remaining. Most teams felt they could get 40 laps, at most, out of the fuel in the 14-gallon (maybe 14.5?) cells on their cars. It would be close, and that wasn’t even factoring in the chances of a green-white-checkered finish.

“Saving fuel from here,” Miller said as Burton went back on the track. “Saving fuel, saving fuel.”

Several cars came in just before the green to top off, looking for every bit of fuel that they could get. That left Burton ninth for the restart, and he was hanging on to the front pack when four cars, including Denny Hamlin, got tangled up to bring out a yellow on Lap 175.

Again, Miller faced a tough call. He could bring Burton in for fuel and know for certain that the No. 31 would be good to go even with a green-white-checkered. But if a lot of cars stayed out, Burton would be back in traffic. He’d made up 10 spots on the first lap at the start of the race, but at this stage Burton told Miller it wouldn’t be that easy at this stage of the race.

“I am not telling you what to do,” Burton said, “but you’re not going to get back up there. There are only two lanes where you can go anywhere. But you have to make the call.”

Miller still wanted to come in. But based on what he could gather from the teams around him on pit road, few would be making stops. “We’re staying out,” he finally said. “Save every ounce of fuel you can.”

As the field lined up for a restart with 10 laps to go, Burton was fifth.Hamlin, who was second in the standings coming in, had escaped major damage in the previous incident, but it was clear he wasn’t going to finish anywhere near the top five after having made several stops for repairs and falling back into the pack. There was an excellent chance for Burton to extend his points lead.

Among Chase drivers, only Earnhardt Jr. and Johnson were ahead of him on the track. Even if they finished first and second, where they lined up for the restart, they wouldn’t gain much ground if Burton could hang onto a top five and, as he said before race day arrived, skipped to his plane for a happy flight home.

Fuel, as it turned out, was never an issue. Moments after taking the green, Burton’s voice crackled over his radio.

“Flat tire!” he said. “Flat tire!”

Burton eased off the throttle and out of traffic, puttering along slowly down the backstretch. Had the tire gone down after the field had made it up to full speed, it might have caused another big wreck. As it was, the only thing wrecked was Burton’s chances for a fourth straight Chase top 10.

Burton made it to pit road and the team changed two tires. For most of the day, that’s all he’d taken on pit stops, so when the right side of the car went down he started to leave. The crew, however, was going to change four tires because there was no way to be sure which tire had the problem. Burton stopped and backed up into his pit stall, allowing the crew to complete its work.

Burton was now a lap down to the leaders and all he could hope for was to salvage what he could out what had been such a promising day.

Meanwhile, after being a lap down just past halfway due to his own tire issue, Earnhardt Jr. was in the lead and more than 150,000 fans in the Talladega grandstands were straining their throats to cheer him on to victory. Johnson, however, was dogging the rear bumper of the No. 8 Chevrolet and he had a teammate, Brian Vickers, right behind him.

Coming off Turn 2 on the final lap, Johnson tried to make a move to the inside. Vickers was coming with him, trying to push Johnson by Earnhardt Jr. and then, perhaps, battle past his Hendrick Motorsports teammate off the final turn to get the victory himself. But as the three-car battle neared the end of the backstretch, Vickers miscalculated ever so slightly. He rapped the back of Johnson’s No. 48 Chevrolet, swinging it out of shape and, in turn, into the fender of the leader’s car.

Johnson and Earnhardt Jr. went sliding into the grass near the entrance of Turn 3, sending a cloud of dust in their wake. Vickers righted his No. 25 Chevrolet and, effectively, won the race the moment NASCAR officials called for the caution to be displayed. Cars don’t race back to the yellow flag, even on the final lap, and since the wreck had happened on the final lap there would be no green-white-checkered.

The race was over. Vickers was the winner, and just about everybody was fired up about it.

Earnhardt Jr. could have easily started a riot if he’d climbed from his wrecked car and started ripping into Vickers. Instead, he said the young driver looking for his first win had been just a little too eager and made a mistake.

Johnson and his crew chief, Chad Knaus, weren’t quite as easy on their teammate – who had by the way already announced he’d be leaving at season’s end.

“I honestly don't think Brian was trying to wreck us,” Knaus said. “I just don't think he has the talent to understand what he has underneath him.”

Burton, meanwhile, wound up 27th in the final results. With the five points for leading a lap, he scored 87 points for the race. Kenseth, who finished fourth, got 165 and moved to within six points of Burton at the top of the standings.

Martin was just 10 back, with Harvick behind by 33 and Hamlin 51 behind. Earnhardt Jr. was credited with 23rd and Johnson with 24th. They were 106 and 156 points behind, respectively.

Burton, somehow, had kept the championship lead.

“We positioned ourselves pretty well and were sitting there running fifth and cut a tire,” he said. “Again, I thought we did a nice job today and that's all you can do is do your job.”

The “what ifs” were pointless, but they also were maddening. Burton was fifth with 10 laps to go, and without the cut tire the same ending in front of the field could have left him with a third-place finish. Even if he’d finished fifth, that would have been 160 points.

Instead of six-point lead, it could have been more like 90.

And what if Burton had come in for fuel with 13 laps to go and taken on two tires while the gas went in? If the flat – and it was the right rear – had been caused by debris from the accident that brought out the caution that tire with the cut in it might not have been on the car.

Burton wasn’t playing that game. “We weren't going to put tires on,” he said. “It wouldn't have mattered.”

It was the kind of day that left Burton muttering a four-letter word.

“Sometimes things work out for you and sometimes they don't and today things just didn't work out,” he said. “We had some bad luck today.”

Coming next: No place like home