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Ingram: Gordon And Johnson Are Back At It

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, April 26 2010

Jamie McMurray found himself in a bad place at Talladega; leading the race on the final lap. (Photo by Geoff Burke/Getty Images for NASCAR)

By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer

From the Monday Morning Crew Chief:

Talladega, Al. – You can take away Air Talladega by subtracting the rear wings, but Err Talladega lives on.

According to Jeff Gordon, for example, Jimmie Johnson made a really big error. “He’s testing my patience,” said Gordon of his teammate and the driver of the No. 48 Chevy he co-owns. “It takes a lot to make me mad and I am pissed.”

Shortly after his teammate forced him below the yellow line, a slowing Gordon was collected when a four-wide gambit popped Jeff Burton’s gold Chevy out of the draft like a greased pumpkin seed and into the side of Gordon’s DuPont machine.

Later in an accident of his own making during green-white-checkered No. 2, Johnson goofed and wrecked trying to pass Greg Biffle, left stranded on the re-start. After finishing a lap down in the Lowe’s Chevy, Johnson’s points lead over race winner Kevin Harvick was down to 26 and his relationship with his Hendrick Motorsports teammate appears to have sunk well into the negative.

It may be time for one of those milk-and-cookies meetings with team owner Rick Hendrick for his two star drivers, the kind where the chosen snack goes down like cod liver oil.

As a car owner, in the mid-1980’s Hendrick was a party to the dinner hosted by NASCAR for drivers Geoff Bodine and Dale Earnhardt Sr. later made famous by the movie Days of Thunder. Not one to miss a trick, Hendrick adopted a snack version for clashes within his own team. He used a meeting over milk and cookies to settle the feuding between Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus, for instance, before those two won four straight championships.

The situation between Gordon and Johnson was listed as serious after the Texas dust-up. This week it’s a lot closer to serious, but unstable. When asked about the relationship between the drivers in the garage afterward, a Hendrick Motorsports official declined comment.

On a tough day for the Hendrick squad, at least Mark Martin quietly came home fifth after leading one lap. What happened to Hendrick’s Dale Earnhardt Jr., the leader of eight laps on five different occasions? “I chose the wrong line,” said Earnhardt Jr., who decided not to follow drafting partner Tony Stewart up high during green white checkered No. 3. The driver took responsibility for the mistake, but said he was encouraged after leading laps early in a car he said was a tick off the faster ones. “We could have just as easily finished upside down,” said Earnhardt Jr., 13th at the end.

The revived rear spoiler posted at a mandatory height of 70 degrees kept spinning Sprint Cup cars on the ground but the closing rate resulting from the larger hole punched in the air eventually produced a lot of contact as well as a record number of leaders, lead changes and excitement for the fans. The number of accidents was not a record, but the three green-white-checkered attempts was a first for any Sprint Cup event.

At Talladega, it was the usual relationship. The fans love the action and the drivers hate it. A closer-to-capacity crowd (for a recent change) turned out to see an 851-mile double-header, including a 532-mile Sprint Cup event and the postponed Nationwide Series event. But when Dennis Setzer’s car hit the fence and caught on fire in the Nationwide race, it was apparent how quickly things can get out of hand at Talladega, justifying drivers’ concerns about the luck of the draw.

“I cant’ even say Talladega racing,” said Ryan Newman of Stewart-Haas Racing, whose flight last fall in Alabama helped bring the end to the rear wing. This spring, he got wrecked in practice by Martin and then got wrecked by Joey Logano in the closing laps of the race in Green White Checkered No. 1. Obviously, Newman thinks Talladega and racing are oxymoronic.

Kasey Kahne, likely to join the conglomerate of Hendrick and Stewart-Haas Racing in 2011, had an up and down day, emphasis on down. After a bad spark plug was replaced, Kahne came back to lead twice for six laps under green in the Richard Petty Motorsports Ford. But then he missed the pit road entrance when a gaggle decided to stop and fell a lap down as a solo traveler in the draft. He got back on the lead lap in time to get collected in the Burton incident.

The mistakes piled up like so many crashed cars in a junk yard, the biggest belonging to Jamie McMurray, who sought the lead in the closing laps and then lost it to Harvick and an unforgiving side draft with the checkers waving.

“I thought he was going to the outside,” said McMurray, who described being the victim of a side draft as like having a parachute, or air brake, suddenly open up on the back of the car.

Just as Carl Edwards allowed Brad Keselowski to get between his car and the yellow line, McMurray’s bid for three straight restrictor plate victories came unglued when his car pushed up at the exit of the tri-oval.

For Harvick, it was a matter of knowing when to say when at the finish of the Sprint Cup event. Once breaking underneath and using the aerodynamic wake of his front fender that pulled him forward and dragged McMurray backwards, he had several hundred yards to the finish before McMurray could respond with a similar maneuver. “It just worked out absolutely perfectly on the timing side of it,” said Harvick.

The co-owner at Chip Ganassi Racing, Felix Sabates complained, rather vociferously, that Harvick went below the yellow line to make the pass. But Sabates, too, was guilty of an error.

On a rough day, McMurray later spun on the final lap of the Nationwide Series race in the JR Motorsports entry and started the Big One that led to Brad Keselowski’s victory and Setzer’s ride into the fence.

Given that all the Sprint Cup drivers are world class, it’s clear the speed and the aggressiveness needed to win at Talladega – or most anywhere on the schedule these days – brings out mistakes, a lack of comraderie among teammates, hot tempers among team owners and tears up a lot of equipment. To err is human, of course, but it doesn’t pay as many points or nearly as much money as winning. Harvick’s victory paid $344,501 or $100,000 more than second place.

The Childress team is losing its Shell and Pennzoil as sponsors and can use all the money it can get. The switch by Shell and Pennzoil in 2011 to the team of Roger Penske, announced on Wednesday, was the biggest news of the week. The scuttlebutt on the reason why Kurt Busch will switch from Penske’s Miller Lite Dodge to the No. 22 to be backed by the oil company’s deal was the fact Shell/Pennzoil wanted a proven Sprint Cup champion behind the wheel.

But the performance so far this year of the Childress Shell/Pennzoil Chevy and Harvick, now within drafting distance of the points lead, might find Harvick going on to score this year’s Sprint Cup title. It’s early in a long season, but Shell and Pennzoil could end up losing a champion. That would really be an error!

Quotes of the Week: Kevin Harvick on his near-miss of a double-victory in the back-to-back Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series races. “When you come to Talladega, it’s like the roulette wheel and you never know if you’re going to be rolling or crashing at the finish. We’re leaving here with a first and a third and both cars rolling. I would never complain about first and third at any track, but especially at Talladega.”

Jeff Gordon on almost hitting his teammate Jimmie Johnson: “It’s disappointing. I don’t think it was a very smart move. These cars sometimes get such a shove and sometimes you get so much momentum it’s just more of a coincidence that it was him. But I mean, you turn the wheel left like that when a car is coming and somebody’s going to have a problem. I did everything I could to keep from wrecking him. I did. I saw what he was doing and I know I couldn’t go underneath the yellow line to pass him so I did everything I could to check up but somebody was still pushing me and turned me and I actually got into him. But he’s been testing my patience and it’s about reached it’s boiling point.”

Roger Penske on the predictable amount of crashing in races at Talladega: “The important thing is that nobody gets hurt. Beyond that, it’s the game we’re in.”

See ya! …At the races.

– Jonathan Ingram can be reached at jingram@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, April 26 2010