Drivers exhale after Talladega

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And then there is Talladega, where little that happens on this restrictor-plate superspeedway comes close to what will happen this Saturday night at the three-quarters of a mile short track at Richmond, Va.

Races at Talladega Superspeedway are like watching a physics experiment gone awry. It has more to do with momentum, inertia and even Milk of Magnesia than horsepower and race strategy.

Talladega used to be quite predictable -- either Dale Earnhardt Jr. or a Hendrick driver such as Jeff Gordon or Jimmie Johnson was going to win the race.

That is what made Sunday's outcome a bit of a surprise when Kyle Busch finally scored his first top-10 finish with his victory in a race that ended under caution.

But to add to the surprise factor was Juan Pablo Montoya, who equaled his career-best oval track finish with a second place. Montoya finished second at last year's Allstate 400 at the Brickyard at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, a track where he enjoyed success when he won the 2000 Indianapolis 500.

These days, a win by Kyle Busch should not be a surprise -- he's probably the best driver in racing this season considering his accomplishments in Cup, Nationwide and Craftsman Trucks. But considering Busch has only had sniffs at the top 10 in his previous Sprint Cup races and then drives to victory on Sunday only underlines how restrictor-plate racing is the "lottery drum" of NASCAR events.

Just spin the drum over and over and see which number pops out at any particular moment.

Make a bad decision and watch your hopes drop like the money just wasted on that lottery ticket.

"I just couldn't make a good decision all day long," Gordon said after finishing 19th. "I just made bad decisions left and right. Finally got ourselves right there in position to be awesome. They told me about the run coming. I saw Juan Pablo [Montoya] coming and it looked like they had a pretty good run. I tried to go up there and use that line. It was just too early. I should have stayed down low and waited it out another half of a lap.

"With this new package, it is just bumper cars. You are just getting beat to heck around every corner, every straightaway. You just keep going straight. You certainly have to wait for a very long time. Sometimes you can wait too long and sometimes you go too early and today we went too early."

It will be vastly different when NASCAR returns to its Saturday night short track roots at Richmond this weekend.

Many drivers in the series consider Richmond International Raceway as their favorite race track. It rewards the total combination of race car setup, driver skill and race strategy. While Talladega rewards bravery, the style of racing will be more traditional at Richmond, where a little fender rubbing won't result in "The Big One."

Crashes at Talladega can be started simply by taking the air off another driver's car or pushing them up on the high side of the race track.

At Richmond, a little bumping and banging is considered acceptable.

So that big gust of wind that came from Talladega Superspeedway at the conclusion of Sunday's race wasn't the rush and vortex of race cars zooming by in the draft; it was a collective sigh of relief from the Sprint Cup drivers that they had survived another Talladega race and were returning to normalcy beginning with Richmond.

Long before Tony Stewart became a NASCAR Cup champion, he was an IndyCar driver who had built up a reputation as a true racer. Few people in racing know Stewart as well as Larry Curry, the general manager of Vision Racing of the IndyCar Series.

When Stewart was a young, aspiring driver in the United States Auto Club (USAC) midget, sprint and silver crown ranks in 1995, Curry convinced Indy team owner John Menard to give Stewart a ride in the Indy Racing League, which would go on to become IndyCar.

Stewart was an instant star in the series, starting on the pole for the '96 Indianapolis 500 and winning the '97 IRL title.

When Stewart left the series to join NASCAR after the '98 season, Stewart and Curry co-owned Tri-Star Motorsports, an IndyCar team that Stewart drove for in the '99 Indy 500 while also competing in the NASCAR Coca-Cola 600 the same day.

Stewart continues to confide in Curry even though the two are in different series. Curry shared some of that insight Friday afternoon at Kansas Speedway when asked about Stewart's interest in leaving Joe Gibbs Racing to become a co-owner of Haas/CNC Motorsports.

Stewart has driven Chevrolet throughout his NASCAR career, but JGR switched to Toyota beginning this season. Although Stewart has performed well in the first eight races this season for Toyota, he still feels a strong degree of loyalty to Chevy, which he drove to both of his NASCAR Cup titles in 2002 and '05.

"Tony has a long standing relationship with General Motors," Curry said. "Tony is a very loyal individual and cares a lot about the relationships he has created in his career and doesn't take any of that lightly. It sounds like that is something he has a bit of an issue with right now; he is driving on a team that doesn't have a Chevrolet."

To make a switch to a lackluster operation like Haas/CNC would be a huge challenge to a driver who is used to success at the highest level.

"When it comes to Tony, winning is important and if he is going to get in something he wants to know it is competitive, can run up front and give him an opportunity to win," Curry said. "If he starts to look at the possibility of going into ownership or an organization, one of the things to look at is the depth of the organization and if they are capable of producing that type of effort like he's got at Joe Gibbs."

Stewart is a team owner in both USAC and winged sprints with highly successful results. So the prospect of Stewart wanting to become a NASCAR team owner is something he believes he could succeed at.

"Tony's ownership in the open-wheel stuff has been good," Curry said. "Tony has hired drivers to run those cars and they have won championships. I managed one of his cars for him and we won the championship. There is a difference, I believe, if you are an owner and a full-time driver for that organization though."

While Danica Patrick's historic IndyCar victory in Japan was the story of the week in racing, some of her critics and skeptics pointed out that she won on fuel mileage instead of a fight to the finish.

NASCAR driver Jeff Burton came to her defense when asked about that last Friday, realizing it would be hypocritical for any driver in NASCAR to dilute someone else's win because of fuel mileage.

"I was really impressed," Burton said. "I don't want to hear, 'you can't say she won on fuel mileage' and then not say 'well, Jimmie Johnson won on fuel mileage.'

"Give her a break.

"Every week when you watch the race she runs in the top 10. She consistently runs from fourth to eighth, that's what it looks like to me. That's consistently where she runs. If you run there consistently, you're gonna win every now and then.

"She's still young; she has a lot to learn. She can still improve, there's no question. But to discount her win, I think is completely unfair. I think she put herself in position and they took advantage of it and everybody saying well she only won because of fuel mileage they need to shut up."

Dario Franchitti traveled to Indianapolis Monday.

No, he isn't giving up on his NASCAR career for a return to the IndyCar racing; he is in Indianapolis to be re-evaluated by noted orthopedic surgeon Dr. Terry Trammell for the fractured left ankle he suffered in Saturday's Nationwide Series race when his Dodge took a direct him from Larry Gunselman's car in the Aaron's 312.

He was fitted with a soft cast and watched Sunday's race from his motor home in the Talladega infield.

One of Franchitti's closest friends in racing is IndyCar driver Tony Kanaan, who spoke with Franchitti on the telephone both Saturday night after the crash and Sunday morning, before the NASCAR race at Talladega and the IndyCar race at Kansas Speedway.

"Dario is fine but he's going to go to Indianapolis on Monday to check with Dr. Trammel," Kanaan said. "He was relieved that it's all it was after that crash. He has to go to the doctor before we know what he will do. I didn't want to ask him. I just wanted to make sure he was all right and in good spirits.

"Dario never gets himself up or down. That's what I appreciate with him that he is always in good spirits."