Bruce Martin
Monday September 29th, 2008

KANSAS CITY -- This year's Chase for the Championship has turned into a three-man battle between Jimmie Johnson, Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle as the top three are separated by just 30 points.

But instead of a gigantic boost of confidence, these three feel a high degree of apprehension and anxiety because they know what awaits them.


It's the one track that strikes fear into every driver in NASCAR. It's the one place where the leader of the Chase can leave in a tangled mess of sheet metal on the back of a hook of a tow truck because of another driver's mistake.

Yes, fear of the "Big One" is in the back of the minds of Johnson, Edwards and Biffle as they attempt to further distance themselves from the other nine drivers in the Chase.

That's the one thing that can get drivers in fourth through ninth positions back into the battle for the title. As it is, fourth-place Jeff Burton is already 121 points out of the lead, with Kevin Harvick 136 back, Jeff Gordon 143 out, Clint Bowyer 164 back, Dale Earnhardt Jr. 190 behind and Matt Kenseth 192 out of first place.

As for the three drivers at the top of the standings, they would rather pay some money just to skip Talladega.

"If somebody said, 'Will you take 10th at Talladega right now, you don't have to run the race,' I'd take it in a heartbeat," Edwards said after finishing second to Johnson Sunday at Kansas Speedway. "I would pay a million dollars for it because you just don't know what is going to happen there.

"If I have a shot to win the thing, it could be awesome. But that place, there is a lot that you can't control and you have to respect that."

When it comes to racing, Johnson is about as cool as they come. While some drivers make easy things look spectacular, Johnson makes spectacular things look easy. But mention the Chase race at Talladega and Johnson gets nervous.

"I don't even want to think about it because I don't want to stress out about it," Johnson said. "Before qualifying on Friday at Kansas, I was going over some of my scheduling and looked at my calendar and it said Talladega. I said, Damnit, it is here. It's coming up."

According to Johnson, a driver has to make two choices at Talladega -- are you safest if you are leading or are you safest if you are running dead last?

"I don't want to stress about that yet," Johnson said. "I was two turns from winning that race two years ago with a teammate pushing me and I thought I was in the catbird seat -- the worst I could finish was second, and then my teammate [Brian Vickers] wrecked me and won the race.

"I would not rule fear out. I know race drivers like to sound tough and say there is no fear out there but there is a whole year's worth of work on the line out there.

"I fear what could happen at Talladega."

There was a definite aura of greatness to Paul Newman, who passed away on Friday night after a long struggle with cancer. But to see Newman at a race track, he seemed like one of the guys, a quiet, unassuming figure.

His love for auto racing began when he was filming the movie Winning in 1968 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He was race driver Frank Capua and his teammate and nemesis was Luther Erding, played by Robert Wagner.

Newman's real-life wife, Joanne Woodward, played his wife in the film and in one of the pivotal scenes, Capua returns to his room at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Motel (now called the Brickyard Crossing) and catches his wife in bed with Erding.

Newman would later return to the Indianapolis 500, not as an actor playing a race driver, but as a team owner, and he sometimes tied in the two.

"When we first got some sponsors here after we had been racing here with Mario [Andretti], I always used to take a golf cart and drive the sponsors to the back of the Speedway Motel, and I would stop for a minute and point to a room and say, 'And that's where my wife shacked up with Robert Wagner,'" Newman recalled in an interview I conducted in 2007. "I'd let that comment sit there, and deep silence and embarrassment would fall over everybody. Then 10 minutes later I'd say, 'Oh, in the movie I meant.'"

When CART teams began their long boycott of the Indianapolis 500 over the creation of the Indy Racing League in 1996, Newman contended he would not return until the sport was whole again. He lived long enough to see that become reality earlier this year when Champ Car decided to cease operation and allow its teams to join IndyCar. He returned to the Indianapolis 500 for Pole Day in May and it was obvious the cancer that would eventually take his life was taking a wicked toll on his body.

But Newman stood on pit lane with a smile because he was back at the Indy 500.

"[Reunification] was absolutely necessary for both groups," he said. "It is tragic that it didn't happen sooner, but it's good that it at least happened when it did. I think it is going to be a great boost for both groups."

Perhaps my greatest memory of Paul Newman came in 1994 at the Monterey Marriott in California. The night before the final CART race of the season, there was Newman, inside the hotel sports bar, shooting pool.

One of his enduring movie roles was that of "Fast Eddie" Felson in the 1961 film The Hustler.

To have the opportunity to watch Newman shoot pool in person was like watching Charlton Heston part the Red Sea as Moses in the Ten Commandments.

It was movie history being played out in front of my own eyes.

I saw Newman's drivers, such as Mario Andretti, Michael Andretti, Nigel Mansell, Sebastien Bourdais, Graham Rahal and Justin Wilson, win races, but I never saw one of his drivers win the Indianapolis 500 because it was about the only thing in Newman's life he didn't accomplish.

But I did get to see Newman shoot pool, and for anyone with an appreciation of movie history, that was priceless.

Tony Stewart and the pit crew for Brian Vickers.

Three times in Sunday's race, Stewart had issues on pit road with Vickers as the two drivers had adjoining pit areas. On the first incident, Vickers slid into his pit area and was cocked at an angle that kept Stewart boxed into this pit. But the most memorable was the third incident, when Stewart decided to make the fueler for Vickers' Toyota a hood ornament, leaving his pit with the gas man on his hood.

Stewart stopped his Toyota as Vickers' crew members surrounded it, which allowed the gasman to roll off the hood. As Stewart pulled away, one of Vickers' crew members kicked the side of Stewart's Toyota.

Back on the track, Stewart decided to show his displeasure by ramming into the side of Vickers' Toyota, but the impact sent Stewart's car sliding off the track and through the tri-oval grass.


Stewart would spend several laps in the pit area to repair the damage to his car and ultimately finish 40th, seven laps off the pace.

Night races in NASCAR and the IndyCar Series have become common, but for Formula One to stage its first night event was quite an undertaking for a series that involves so many people and equipment from all over the world.

All practice and qualifying sessions were held after sunset in Singapore, with qualifying beginning at 10 p.m. Saturday and the race at 8 p.m. on Sunday in order to give teams the maximum time to acclimate themselves to the race course. Moreover, the F1 teams kept their crews on European time.

When teams landed in Singapore, they were forced to stay up through the night until early the next morning to keep their bodies on European time. And media conferences normally held in the afternoon did not take place until 1 a.m. in Singapore.

Crews worked through the night, finishing at 6 a.m. Singapore, which was midnight in Europe. In order to facilitate sleep during the day, teams had their hotel room windows blacked out. Arrangements also were made so housekeeping staffs did not come into the rooms during normal hours. And telephones in the rooms were not allowed to be ringing while the crew members were asleep.

"The main thing to consider is that we remain sharp at a later time in the day," Heikki Kovalainen said. "We need to keep the rhythm correct and sleep well. We are essentially isolated from the normal workings of the hotel. It is a much more demanding task to make sure you don't switch to local time because your body automatically wants to change; external factors such as light, temperature, humidity are all encouraging it."

There were many good reasons to have a night race at Singapore, including the chance for the huge base of F/1 fans in Europe to watch the race on television at a normal hour, rather than getting up at "Oh-dark-30." But for those living in Spain, that's just when the night is winding down.

But one important thing to remember about Bernie Ecclestone's traveling road show playing in front of a new audience is that the spectacle that is F-1 racing makes it even more spectacular -- and even more sinister -- at night, in a James Bond kind of way, with speed, intrigue and an exotic locale.

It didn't take long for Vitor Meira to land on another IndyCar Series team as the popular Brazilian has been signed by A.J. Foyt to replace Darren Manning in the famed No. 14. But it will be interesting to see if he enables Foyt Racing to contend with the bigger teams in the series, such as Target/Chip Ganassi, Team Penske and Andretti Green.

At the very least, Foyt hopes Meira is an upgrade over Manning, who finished 14th in the standings after posting a career-best second place at Watkins Glen and notching six other top-10 finishes, including a ninth at the Indy 500. Meira finished 13th last season with Panther Racing. He was notified by e-mail prior to the final race that he would not be back in 2009. Panther eventually replaced him with Dan Wheldon.

Meira's signing with Foyt is a bit of a surprise because the sixth-year IndyCar veteran appeared to be in the running to join Luczo Dragon Racing, co-owned by Roger Penske's son, Jay, and Symantec's Steve Luczo. That team is planning a full-season effort for 2009.

"I've always admired [Vitor] because he's a hard racer who charges all day long," said Foyt. "He should have won a lot of races but he hasn't had the best luck. I believe we can change that, and I'm looking forward to working with him."

Carl Edwards is a true racer, a throwback to the drivers who would do anything to win a race rather than settle for second and collect the points.

With Jimmie Johnson in the lead of Sunday's Sprint Cup race at Kansas, Edwards figured it was time to give the leader a "Slide Job."

So on the final lap of the race, Edwards drove his Ford extra hard into the third turn and pulled off his "Slide Job" almost to perfection.

That was before the laws of physics intervened.

Edwards slid up against the wall, Johnson was able to regain the lead and complete the final quarter-lap to the checkered flag to win for the fifth time this season and the 38th time of his Cup career.

The "Slide Job" resulted in a second-place finish for Edwards, who slid into second place in the Chase and now trails Johnson by 10 points heading into next Sunday's race at Talladega Superspeedway.

"The ideal situation would have been me driving under Jimmie just fast enough to either not hit the wall or hit it less hard and not slow enough," Edwards recalled. "My No. 1 thing was to make this slide job a real deep one so I don't collect Jimmie, and then hope for the best."

But Johnson decided to pull a slide job of his own. He slowed up and that messed up the timing of Edwards' move.

"He did exactly what every smart racer does when he sees somebody banzai in -- you lift a little bit, let the guy run into the fence and you go by," Edwards said. "I've had it go both ways. We were going to run second if I didn't do it.

"I figured, 'Why not?'"

So after the race, Edwards climbed out of his car and stuck his head in the window of Johnson's Chevrolet, where both drivers had a good laugh at Edwards' attempt at the "Slide Job."

"He stuck his head in and he goes, "How far did I clear you by?'" Johnson recalled. "I said, 'seven car lengths or so.' He goes, 'Damn it; I got in there too hard.'

"I said, 'You think?'"

Johnson could see in Edwards' eyes how much he wanted to win this race; how it would have been the Columbia, Mo., driver's first win at Kansas and, more importantly, strengthen his grip on the Chase.

"I was cruising down the backstretch, had a decent lead, and I knew he would go to the bottom," Johnson explained. "My concern was just making sure I was at his quarter panel coming off of Turn 2, so I was thinking through what I needed to do.

"Next thing you know, that car goes flying by. I knew instantly there was no damn way he was making the turn. I was so in awe of how fast he drove it in, I watched him pound the wall and jump back on the gas. I thought, `Man, he's serious about this win, I better get back on the gas myself.'

"I didn't expect him to come in there and put the slide job on me with that much conviction. I figured he would stay on the bottom and try to drag race me around to the start/finish line."

Other race drivers would have probably taken the safe approach, settled in behind Johnson and accepted second place, protecting their points.

"It crossed my mind, but nothing is guaranteed, not another race, not tomorrow, nothing," Edwards said. "So I get what I can while I can. I figured, 'Man, I'm not going to be able to live with myself. It's going to be hard enough to go to sleep today, but there is no way I would sleep a wink if I didn't try something on the last lap. You got to try.

"I'm sure for a second Jimmie thought, 'Oh, my God, he's going to win this thing.'

"Nope, physics wins again."

Juan Pablo Montoya thought he had won the first pole of his NASCAR Sprint Cup racing career, but shortly after the former Indianapolis 500 winner and Formula One driver had accepted the award, met with the media and talked about the accomplishment, NASCAR officials disqualified his attempt.

The gas pressure on his rear shock absorbers was too high. According to a NASCAR garage insider, the limit is 75 pounds of pressure but the rear shock on Montoya's car measured at 125 pounds of pressure. However, a true performance advantage would have needed 250 pounds of gas pressure in the shock absorber.

The shock specialist on the team has been dismissed and crew chief Brian Pattie expects to draw a hefty fine for the incident.

A shock specialist for another team told me Sunday morning that in the past, teams would add up to 800 pounds of gas pressure into the shock absorbers, creating a very unsafe situation. If a car was hit at just the right angle to puncture a shock absorber with that much pressure, it would blow up the rear corner of the car.

Now, that's what I call "shocking."

"I think it upset some people that we probably didn't get out and want to fight and all those things. You can have rivalries and respect one another. Maybe some of the hardcore fans won't like it. They want to see us all brawling on the frontstretch. But with the guys that are racing for the championship right now, I think you are going to see just hard-nosed racing and a great deal of respect for each other."

-- Jimmie Johnson, talking about his last-lap battle with Carl Edwards at the end of Sunday's race at Kansas Speedway.

"I sucked my whole life until this level of racing. I took a lot of looks in the mirror, dealt with a lot of kind of looking through my own head, trying to understand what I was doing as a driver. I never wanted to blame anyone else. I just looked at myself. I keep a lot to myself and internalize what I do."

-- Jimmie Johnson, explaining his thoughts as he appears on track for a third-straight Sprint Cup championship.

"With 24 laps to go my arms felt like Jell-O,"

-- A.J. Allmendinger on his ninth place finish in what may be his last race with Team Red Bull.

"I think an average driver would have finished about 35th. I told my guys that... I told them they were lucky to have me."

-- Dale Earnhardt Jr., after finishing 13th at Kansas.

"You just drive your ass off every weekend, and end up with what you end up with." -- Greg Biffle, after finishing third at Kansas.

NASCAR at Talladega Speedway is one event that is sure to take your breath away. If it's not the sight, sound and feel of 43 cars zooming by in one tight pack, then it's the Mardi Gras atmosphere that fills both sides of Speedway Boulevard. It is truly one of the most unique settings in all of NASCAR and racing in general. But while the good times roll at Talladega, there is always the uneasiness that comes with the fear that mayhem and carnage is just around the corner.

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