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Talladega still a house of horrors

TALLADEGA, Ala. -- The more NASCAR tinkers with Talladega, the more mayhem ensues.

And because of that lunacy, NASCAR can make plans on engraving JimmieJohnson's name on his fourth-straight Sprint Cup championship.

On a day when it looked like Johnson's sizeable points lead would dramatically shrink, Johnson was able to gain by not racing. He was able to drive from the mid-30s to a sixth-place finish as his two leading contenders for the title, Mark Martin and Jeff Gordon, were swallowed up in a huge crash on the front stretch that ended the race.

Jamie McMurray won the race, but Johnson's sixth-place finish gives him a 184-point lead with three races to go.

Johnson will clinch the title by finishing 10th or better in the final three races of the season without leading a lap.

"This wasn't Halloween; this was an early Christmas present," Johnson said.

This much we know -- the smaller restrictor plates that were used to slow down the cars and keep them from going airborne certainly didn't keep Ryan Newman from taking flight after he was rear-ended at the end of the backstretch just three laps from the finish.

This came after NASCAR officials instituted a "no bump-drafting in the turns" edict in the pre-race driver's meeting, warning offending drivers that if they did not see "daylight" between each car through Turns 1 and 2 and Turns 3 and 4 that they would be black-flagged.

So that created more than 160 laps of single-file racing, as drivers not only obeyed NASCAR's orders, but appeared to refuse to push the issue out of spite.

"You shouldn't race yet -- there's no need to -- so just ride along and ride lots of miles," Johnson said. "We can run 497 miles around here and it doesn't matter. It only matters what happens on the last lap."

Johnson employed a strategy of not racing for most of the race. He camped out in the back of the field, often in jeopardy of losing touch with the lead pack of race cars.

Of course, everyone knew that the end of the race would produce the same type of calamity that usually occurs in NASCAR's twice-a-year visit to the 2.66-mile "House of Horrors," and Sunday's race didn't disappoint.

How fitting that in NASCAR's first race at Talladega on Halloween Weekend the affair would end with a 13-car pileup taking out many of Johnson's closest pursuers in the battle for the championship.

Just to add to the horrifying ambience, a full moon rose over the backstretch of Talladega Superspeedway less than an hour after the carnage of mangled sheet metal and broken championship dreams was cleared away.

At least Johnson had reason to celebrate.

"I feel good about things," Johnson said. "I'm very, very happy. I hate to see so many tore up race cars.

"For us we were conservative all day long. We took fuel and other guys didn't and then guys started to run out of fuel. I was far enough ahead to not be caught up in the wreck. The guys right behind me were cleaned out, too, but we got a good, top-10 finish out of it."

David Reutimann, Casey Mears, Brad Keselowski, Martin Truex, Jr., Kurt Busch, Mark Martin, David Ragan, Robby Gordon, Jeff Gordon, Robert Richardson, Jr., Juan Pablo Montoya, Reed Sorenson and Scott Speed were all involved in the final crash that happened as the leader was heading to the white flag.

But that wasn't the most terrifying incident at Talladega.

Ryan Newman's Chevrolet was rear-ended by Marcos Ambrose's Toyota at the end of the backstretch, sending it into the air in an end-over-end flip before landing upside down on Kevin Harvick's Chevrolet. Newman's car then went sliding across the track, hit the third turn wall and then barrel-rolled a few more times before landing upside down.

The race was stopped as safety workers pulled Newman from the wreckage but after he was checked and released, Newman leveled criticism at NASCAR's continued Talladega tinkering.

"It's just a byproduct of Talladega racing ... unfortunately," Newman said. "We got hit from behind that turned me sideways, then I got up in the air and just kept flipping and flopping. Unfortunately, the cage came down on top of my head and I couldn't get out.

"It was a boring race and it was a ridiculous race. To see 43 cars run single file is not worth showing up here today for.

"The more rules, the more NASCAR is telling us how to drive the race cars, the less we can race and the less we can put on a show for the fans. As I said, I will go back in the day, David Pearson, Richard Petty, Bobby Allison, Dale Earnhardt, Darrell Waltrip, all those guys, they respected each other. In the end there were some big accidents, but geez, we don't need the cars getting upside down like this. This is ridiculous.

"There is way more technology than that to help us out. Whether it is a speed issue, a roof-flap issue, whatever. It is a shame that not more is getting done.

"I guess maybe I expect NASCAR to call me. I am the only guy out there with an engineering degree. I would like to have a little respect on my end."

When it was suggested that Newman go talk to NASCAR, the driver shot back, "I am not going to talk to them. It just doesn't matter."

It was a race that ranged from boredom, when drivers joked on the radio about listening to their iPod and needing No-Doz to stay awake, to sheer horror at the end, when winning team owner Jack Roush said that he wanted to "throw up" because he didn't know which strategy to take when some of the top cars were running out of fuel.

And no matter how many changes NASCAR officials make at this racetrack, the nature of restrictor-plate racing will produce contests such as Sunday's.

"We go through this every year about how we have the gas pedal and the steering wheel, but until somebody sits in these cars they don't know what it's like," Johnson said. "Until then, we're a product of what everyone wants to see."

Well, not quite. There were long periods of the race where nobody saw any racing, just a high-speed single-file parade. Prohibiting bump-drafting in the turns may have been a good start for improving driver safety, but the two big crashes at the end were a result of cars getting rear-ended on straightaways.

This is all part of the NASCAR thrill ride known as Talladega Superspeedway, and it's only fitting that the latest horror came on Halloween Weekend.

"My recommendation to them a long time ago, and still is, I think basically we're just punching too big of a hole and we've got too much power to go along with that if you take away from that wicker," Jeff Gordon said. "When you take 40 cars or 20 cars and pack 'em, it's just bumper cars at 190 mph."

Give NASCAR some credit for attempting to remedy the situation. After all, NASCAR wanted to keep a car from flying into the fence, such as what happened last April when Carl Edwards was knocked out of the way by eventual winner Brad Keselowski while heading for the checkered flag.

But the latest tinkering has produced a no-win situation for the 43 drivers in the race.

In the end, there were two winners on Sunday -- McMurray won the race and Johnson virtually clinched the championship.

Unfortunately, both left little to celebrate.

Don't look for Danica Patrick to make her first NASCAR Nationwide Series start in the No. 5 JR Motorsports car at Phoenix International Raceway in two weeks, according to NASCAR team owner Rick Hendrick.

When asked before Sunday's Sprint Cup race at Talladega if Patrick, who has signed to stay in the IndyCar Series with team owner Michael Andretti, would make her first NASCAR start near her Scottsdale, Ariz., home, his answer was short and simple.

"No," Hendrick said. "That's not going to happen."

According to sources within the NASCAR garage area, Patrick's asking price to compete in Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series races is $300,000 per race. If she were to run a truck race and a Nationwide race on the same weekend, the price is $600,000.

Even with the sheer amount of publicity that Patrick would bring to NASCAR, team owners don't appear interested in paying that price.

Other teams that Patrick's agents at IMG have approached for a limited Nationwide and NCWTS effort including Michael Waltrip Racing and Kevin Harvick, Inc (KHI), sources say.

The growing sentiment in the Talladega garage is that Patrick's asking price is too high for a driver that has never competed in a stock car. Harvick doesn't even get paid by his wife, DeLana, when he drives in Nationwide and Trucks, so don't expect the checkbook to be opened for Patrick.

If Patrick was truly serious about learning more about NASCAR to see if she wants to make the jump at the end of her next IndyCar contract, then her asking price would be much lower. But as the NASCAR season winds down, the interest in her running more than a handful of NASCAR races in 2010 appears to be waning.

But the good news is she will be back in IndyCar where she commands plenty of attention and has become the face of the series. She has shown steady improvement every season, and her third-place finish in this year's Indianapolis 500 moves her one step closer to her goal of winning the world's biggest and most historic race.

The emergence of Sebastian Vettel this season gives team Red Bull a Formula One World Championship driver capable of winning the title in 2010. Vettel won Sunday's Abu Dhabi Grand Prix to give Red Bull a 1-2 finish in the final Formula One race of the season; teammate Mark Webber finished second.

Vettel, a 22-year-old German, emerged as a contender late in the season when he started to put pressure on eventual World Champion Jenson Button and season runner-up Rubens Barrichello. Button's summer swoon nearly cost him the championship, but it was Vettel who had the mettle to finish the season strong and has the look of a champion in waiting.

"It's a perfect day, to finish the season on a high," Vettel said. "That was a fantastic race. We had a very good start, it wasn't good enough to overtake Lewis Hamilton, but I was surprised I was so close to him. The car was a dream today. There was a lot of pressure, I nearly went a bit wide in the pit lane entrance during my first stop and then there was the scary exit through the tunnel, but I was on the limit and it was enough to get past Lewis. Unfortunately he then had to retire, but up to that point it was a fantastic race with him."

Button finished third. He clinched the World Championship two weeks ago in the Brazilian Grand Prix.

Jamie McMurray's victory in Sunday's wild race at Talladega couldn't have come at a more opportune time for a driver who is about to be out of a ride at Roush Fenway Racing at the end of this season.

The victory snapped an 86-race winless streak for McMurray.

"Being able to win is not going to hurt my chances at getting another ride," said McMurray, who is a victim of NASCAR's four-car team-limit rule. "I said this kind of jokingly on TV, but my first year or so Jack Roush was a little bit mean to me. His motivating skills ... he just wasn't pushing the right button. (But)everyone is motivated differently and Jack has become a really good friend of mine in the last year. He's learned to push the right button, I guess, when he comes up to my car before the race and what to say to me.

"I'll miss not getting to drive one of these cars. Jack's team can just put incredible equipment on the track and this year hasn't been as good as what it's been in the past, whether it's been the engine shop, or the engineering department or the chassis shop, he has an incredible race team. My years here have been good."

When NASCAR announced the four-car per team limit in 2006, Jack Roush had five drivers in his stable. NASCAR allowed Roush to stay at five cars until his current sponsorship contracts expired, then he had to adhere to the four-car limit.

Earlier this year, Roush informed McMurray that he was the odd driver out while Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth, Greg Biffle and David Ragan were staying.

Despite the victory, however, most of the rides for next year have already been assigned. And with more team contraction on its way as the sport deals with a tough economy, Sunday's win doesn't assure McMurray of a prime ride for 2010.

"No, I don't think so," McMurray said. "There aren't a lot of rides available right now. Everybody knows what rides there are out there and, certainly, if a sponsor were to call me that would make it a lot easier. With the amount of teams that are shutting down there's not a lot of options out there, so I think everyone knows the cars that are available right now.

"For me, I just hope that we can get it signed and then announce it whenever they want to so that will make it a little bit easier to sleep at night."

Word came from Japan that Bridgestone will bail out of Formula One following the 2010 World Championship. According to a statement by Hiroshi Yasukawa, the Director of Bridgestone Motorsport, the tire company will cease participation in the pinnacle of international motorsports, where it has competed since 1997.

"The decision made by the Board of Directors of Bridgestone comes after considerable and lengthy evaluations and has been based on the company's need to redirect its resources towards the further intensive development of innovative technologies and strategic products," Yasukawa said. "While we understand and respect the reasons for this decision, it has nevertheless come as a great disappointment. Bridgestone's relationship with the FIA Formula One World Championship stretches beyond being a tyre (tire) supplier.

"Formula One has been of strategic importance to Bridgestone in developing its technologies, raising the company's brand awareness and providing its strategic business units around the globe with promotional and marketing tools that are intrinsically linked to our company's core products."

Since 1997, 10 drivers' and 10 constructors' championships have been won on Bridgestone Portenza tires. In 2008, Bridgestone became the official tire supplier for the FIA Formula One World Championship under a contract which ends in 2010.

Michelin left Formula One after the 2006 season after it had been blamed for the tire debacle at the 2005 United States Grand Prix at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. With Bridgestone's departure set for the end of 2010, Formula One has to find another tire supplier.

This is big news in Formula One because tires play such a key role in the performance of the race cars and the safety of the competitors. The F1 contract is a prized acquisition for any company, but during this tough economy, decisions have to be made and that led Bridgestone to make the decision to leave F1 at the end of next season.

It was just like old times for Dale Earnhardt, Jr. when he drove to the lead five times for nine laps at Talladega, sending "Junior Nation" into frenzy. But after the calamitous conclusion to the race, Earnhardt found himself with an 11th-place finish.

He was one of the many competitors who complained about the nature of Sunday's race, calling for even more drastic changes by NASCAR.

"If they have to slow us down and run around these tracks at slower speeds, they have to make a smaller motor," Earnhardt said. "Then slow the cars down with a little more drag or something. We have sort of out-engineered this race track somehow. We over-engineered and the technology has sort of passed what they were trying to accomplish here when they built this place."

Earnhardt and Hendrick Motorsports are heading to a test at Daytona for two days as NASCAR tries to find other solutions to the restrictor-plate dilemma.

"I don't know if NASCAR will get a shot to work on some new ideas," Earnhardt said. "The race was pretty safe up until the end. I don't think anybody wants to be out there and involved in what happens at the end -- dodging cars, seeing people flip upside down. Obviously there is something else that needs to be thought about. They are pretty hard-headed over there and don't like to admit they are wrong sometimes."

Although he has won just one race since May 2006, when Earnhardt speaks, his words carry a lot of weight with NASCAR. Perhaps this time he can help affect some change in regards to restrictor-plate rules.

After 10 years without a series sponsor, the IndyCar Series will unveil IZOD as the title sponsor beginning with the 2010 season. The clothing company just concluded its first season as an IndyCar partner and was pleased with the success it had with IndyCar and the Macy's department store chain.

IZOD's series sponsorship is expected to be worth $10 million annually.

The last time IndyCar had a series sponsor was 2001 when Northern Light -- an internet search engine -- finished the second year of what was supposed to be a long-term contract with the Indy Racing League.

This is a great move for IndyCar because IZOD is a company that can market its products to all age groups and is a consumer-based entity that can help bring IndyCar back into the mainstream. And because IndyCar racing has always been as much about lifestyle as the extreme form of racing, perhaps IZOD can help make this brand of racing more fashionable again.

"Dude. Seriously?" -- Jimmie Johnson, to crew chief Chad Knaus after the Talladega race when he was told that his lead in The Chase had ballooned to 184 points. Johnson finished sixth after running in the back of the pack for most of the race.

"Nothing." -- Mark Martin, when asked what he saw at the end of the race when his car flipped upside-down on the tri-oval as part of the 13-car mash-up that left its indelible mark on this contest.

"It was just a wreck. I hope everybody enjoyed the show there. I don't know what it looked like. It looked pretty exciting from my view point. I don't have a clue. I don't know what happened out there. So, I don't know. Congratulations to Jamie McMurray and that's about all I know about the whole race. I'll find out later I guess." -- Mark Martin, when asked to further explain the end of his race.

After a fright-filled Halloween Weekend at Talladega Superspeedway where the cold, dark chill of danger and evil lurked in every corner, it's nice to get back to some "normal" racing at Texas Motor Speedway this Sunday as Jimmie Johnson closes in on a record fourth-straight Sprint Cup championship.

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