Race Weekend Central

Voice of Vito: Jimmie Johnson’s 4th Title in Striking Distance, Yet Talladega Remains a Game Changer

I know it’s hard to imagine right now, but contrary to popular belief Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48 car does get involved in wrecks from time to time – like this fiery one in Indianapolis from 2007. Anything’s possible.

In last Wednesday’s edition of Voice of Vito, I stated my grievance with the media at large for celebrating the coronation of Johnson as the 2009 Sprint Cup champion following his third straight Chase victory at Lowe’s Motor Speedway. I did my best to channel the spirit of Dennis Green and his well-known “If you’re going to crown them, then crown their ass!” rant while coach of the Phoenix Cardinals. With righteous indignation, I dismissed the stories and articles that were celebrating Johnson’s fourth straight championship before even half of the races had been run as being lazy and irresponsible. So, what happened?

Right, Johnson made me look like an idiot. Dominating Martinsville, he led 164 of the first 362 laps before finishing second to Denny Hamlin at the very end. At least he had the decency to not win and completely embarrass me.

Even still, I am not yet quite ready to concede that the championship is decided, as there are still three drivers in serious contention for the title. What remains for those looking to challenge Johnson is one hurdle to clear before the championship chatter begins in earnest: Talladega.

The track itself is a riddle wrapped in a mystery, an enigma built over a Native American burial ground. In fact, the story of how the track came to be is as legendary and grand as the races and wrecks that have occurred there. Where else could you see a car flying 20 feet in the air over Buddy Baker, Cale Yarborough nearly cut off at the legs standing outside of his car or LeeRoy Yarbrough knocking out Bill France Sr.?

Trust me on this one; if something wild and unpredictable is going to happen, it is going to happen in Talladega. Just ask Bobby Allison, Carl Edwards and whomever happened to be sitting in the first few rows on those fateful days in 1987 and again last April.

Looking back on history, the 2.66-mile oval has determined the outcome of more than one championship. So let’s take a look back at some of the more memorable races that occurred here which ended up permanently altering the title race, reminding ourselves in the process things aren’t as set in stone as one might think.

1993 DieHard 500: As the racing heated up for what was perhaps one of the greatest Talladega races – or one of the greatest races ever, anywhere, period – severe weather loomed in the distance. The sky grew pitch black and the race was threatened by a Southeastern spring thunderstorm. The caution flag flew for rain on lap 180 of the 188-lap event – just as Dale Earnhardt took the lead from rival Rusty Wallace. But the weather lifted long enough to get the final two laps in. Ernie Irvan squeezed by Earnhardt (whose car was coughing and running out of fuel) en route to his seventh career win on the white-flag lap.

Behind him, chaos was preparing to erupt.

Coming to the finish line, Earnhardt – shuffled out of line – swept in behind Wallace, making just enough contact while doing so to send the No. 2 car spinning backwards. Wallace’s car got airborne immediately, flipping violently down the short chute towards turn 1 in a wreck reminiscent of one he had earlier that year in the Daytona 500. The crash was so violent that Earnhardt stopped his car to check on Wallace on the cooldown lap, visibly shaken by what happened. Miraculously though, Wallace would escape with bumps, bruises, a black eye, a concussion and a broken wrist.

However, the following week in Sonoma a still-aching Wallace limped to an uncharacteristic 26th-place run. The next three races would produce finishes of 29th, 21st and 39th for him – a far cry from the three consecutive wins he posted before arriving in Talladega that May.

Once he fully recovered, Wallace would win a series-leading 10 races that year, but finished second to Earnhardt in the title race that year by just 80 points. While his finishing position at Talladega alone didn’t cost him the championship, the injuries suffered in the wreck contributed to his undoing in the coming weeks, breaking the momentum that three consecutive wins had started and taking away Wallace’s best chance to win a title for Roger Penske.

1996 Winston Select 500: Sterling Marlin beat Dale Jarrett for the second race in a row here, but this race will be remembered for what to this day remains one of the most frightening accidents in motorsports. Ricky Craven’s No. 41 Chevrolet was sent flipping and sailing through the air, four stories high after his car went skyward on lap 129. It was like seeing a tornado or a hurricane up close and personal – even Craven could scarcely believe it when he saw the replay of the day’s biggest wreck.

In the eye of the storm was Jeff Gordon, fresh off his first championship in 1995 for Hendrick Motorsports. The Hendrick operation was a more muted three-car affair back then, with Ken Schrader driving the No. 25 Budweiser Chevrolet and Terry Labonte in the No. 5 Kellogg’s Monte Carlo. But while Gordon won 10 races that year to Labonte’s pair, it was this race at Talladega that would ultimately make the difference in the title hunt.

Labonte finished fourth to Gordon’s 33rd in that race, a difference of 96 points. At the end of the year, Gordon would finish second to Labonte that year by 37 points. Had he just escaped that accident, the No. 24 team would have won four consecutive championships from 1995-1998.

1996 DieHard 500: If there was a race aptly named, it might be this one. On lap 114, Irvan made contact with the rear bumper of Marlin’s Kodak Chevrolet, which in turn hooked Earnhardt’s No. 3 Goodwrench Monte Carlo, sending him and Marlin headlong into the wall at nearly 200 mph. As the front end plowed into the outside retaining wall just before the flagstand, another car struck his roof as the car flopped around on its side. It was a wreck far more violent and devastating looking than the one that claimed his life at Daytona in 2001, as Earnhardt had to be cut from his car, suffering a broken clavicle in the process.

The Intimidator had entered that race second in points, 12 markers behind leader Terry Labonte. However, the accident, coupled with the broken shoulder, conspired to derail what was promising to be one of his strongest seasons ever. The DNF started a nine-race streak that saw Earnhardt relieved the next week at Indianapolis, post one top-10 finish during that stretch, and slide to 341 points in arrears by the time the series left Martinsville several weeks later.

2002 EA Sports 500: Before the dawn of the Chase, there was the Latford System, and it served the series well through four different decades of competition. In 2002, when the then-Winston Cup circuit made its way to Alabama for the second time that season, there were no fewer than a half-dozen teams in contention for a title race that was wide open. A washed out qualifying session saw them all start up front, with rookie points leader Johnson on the pole and veteran challenger Mark Martin on the outside.

During the parade laps, the power steering on Martin’s No. 6 Taurus locked up, sending him plowing into Johnson and driving both cars into the infield. Martin’s steering freed itself after the impact and he continued on, although he was black-flagged to check the problem as the race started. Meanwhile, Johnson had to pit for a wrinkled front fender on the first lap.

Martin would lose the draft and a lap, never regaining it – remember, no Lucky Dog rule yet – while Johnson too lost a lap and ultimately suffered engine failure. The two would finish 30th and 37th, respectively, and they were both overtaken in the points standings by eventual champion Tony Stewart, trailing by 72 and 82 points as they left. Neither recovered in title bids that would wind up falling just short.

Looking back, if there is any one example of how Talladega can change the face of a championship fight, it may be that race in 2002.

2005 UAW-Ford 500: Believe it or not, there really was a time when Johnson didn’t drive ice cold and error free. On lap 19 of the 2005 UAW-Ford 500, Johnson was running fourth behind Elliott Sadler through the first turn when trouble struck. He turned Sadler’s No. 38 machine in front of the field, starting a big wreck that took out fellow Chase contender Martin (in a coincidental act of one-upmanship). That resulted in a 41st-place finish for Martin, while Johnson eventually wound up 32 laps down in 31st.

Eventual champion Stewart would go on to finish second that day, taking the points lead away from Johnson, who had started the day with a seven-point advantage over Stewart. Johnson would finish the 2005 season at Homestead in the garage area, a 40th-place finish that combined with ‘Dega to leave him 127 points behind Stewart by the end of the season.

So while many in the media – as well as those in the other 42 cars – have all but given up legitimate hope of racing down their points deficits to Johnson, there is still one round left in their collective magazine… and that is Talladega. Even as recently as 2008, a multi-car incident late in the race ignited when Edwards’s bump-draft of teammate Greg Biffle through turns 3 and 4 degenerated into a “dump draft.” That wreck all but sealed the deal for Johnson’s third straight title, while Edwards’s 29th-place finish sealed his fate as well – he would fall 69 points shy in part courtesy of the 100 or so he likely squandered at Talladega.

No doubt, there is considerably less racing left than there was just a week ago. So if those in contention are to have a shot at overtaking Johnson as he races towards history, it will likely be courtesy of the unpredictability that is Talladega.

And if not… maybe somebody will at least carjack the pace car like in 1986.

About the author

Vito is one of the longest-tenured writers at Frontstretch, joining the staff in 2007. With his column Voice of Vito (monthly, Fridays) he’s a contributor to several other outlets, including Athlon Sports and Popular Speed in addition to making radio appearances. He forever has a soft-spot in his heart for old Mopars and presumably oil-soaked cardboard in his garage.

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