Monday October 8th, 2007

Five things we learned at Talladega on Sunday in the fourth race of the Chase:

1. It's starting to look like it's going to be a two-man sprint to the Cup.

Except for a one-month stretch over the summer when Tony Stewart dominated the circuit, the 2007 NASCAR season has absolutely belonged to Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson. The two Hendrick Motorsports teammates have combined to win 11 of the 30 races this season (or 36.6 percent) and they've taken nine poles. So it's fitting that, with six events left in the season, the Hendrick duo has gained separation from the rest of the Chase field, setting the stage for a titanic battle for the title between the two best drivers of the '07 season.

On Sunday at Talladega, Gordon won his first race since June, and he now holds a nine-point lead over Johnson in the standings and a 63-point edge over Clint Bowyer, who's in third. Before the green flag dropped at 'Dega, Gordon and Johnson -- along with their crew chiefs -- decided that they would run only half-throttle for the first three-fourths of the UAW-Ford 500, cruising around in the back of the pack and hoping to avoid the Big One -- the so-called multi-car wrecks that typically occur on superspeedways. The strategy proved wise, as both Gordon and Johnson darted around the carnage when the Big One erupted late in the race. Then, with about 20 laps left, the two made their moves up through the field, pounding the gas and riding the draft to the front.

Of course, this is easier to do when you have the two top cars in the field, which was the case for Gordon and Johnson. Then on the last lap Gordon bamboozled Johnson, who was in the lead. Gordon niftily pulled around him and received a bump from Stewart, which propelled Gordon across the finish line. Johnson came in second.

So the Hendrick plan was pulled off to perfection -- no surprise, given that this is clearly Hendrick's year.

2. Clint Bowyer is holding on to third place for dear life.

Before Sunday, Bowyer had never finished a Talladega Cup race on the lead lap. But he gutted out an 11th-place run to keep his slim title hopes alive.

It could have been much, much worse for Bowyer. He was using the same engine package as Jeff Burton, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Martin Truex Jr. -- each of whom made an early exit to the garage after engine trouble. Now Bowyer needs a solid run Saturday night at Charlotte's Lowe's Motor Speedway, where he hasn't finished in the top 20 in three career starts. Bowyer at least needs to stay within eyeshot of Gordon and Johnson, which won't be easy. Gordon has four career wins at Lowe's while Johnson has five.

3. The CoT at 'Dega was BoRING.

In the days before the UAW-500, driver after driver expressed his fear that the race was going to turn into a festival or wrecks because of the new Car of Tomorrow. Well, that didn't happen. Instead, the drivers as a group were as cautious as they've been in recent memory and it produced a race that was, at times, downright monotonous. Gordon said it was boring, as did Earnhardt Jr. and a slew of other drivers.

Yet the finish was stirring -- as it usually is on superspeedways. And because this was the first CoT event on at a restrictor-plate track, the quality of racing should improve as the drivers gain more comfort behind the wheel. This will be the storyline to follow at the Daytona 500 in February.

4. Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s best chance to win this season may have gone up in a cloud of smoke.

For the first time since 1999, it's starting to look like Earnhardt isn't going to reach Victory Lane during a season. He had a wonderful chance to win on Sunday on his best track on the circuit. He led laps and moved effortlessly from the back to the front -- but then his engine exploded. It was the sixth time this season that Little E lost an engine, which is a series-high, and now it'll be hard for him to get a win over these next six weeks. His best chance likely will be at Phoenix on Nov. 11. In 10 career starts at PIR, he has two wins.

5. Dario Franchitti is going to make a impact next season in the Cup series.

Franchitti, the reigning IndyCar champion and Indianapolis 500 winner, made his stock car debut on Friday at Talladega in the ARCA race. He finished 17th, but don't be fooled: He's going to seriously contend for rookie of the year honors in '08 while driving for Chip Ganassi.

To find out why, check out my column in the magazine this week.

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