NASCAR

Charting the Chase: Top 20 is a decent day at Talladega

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Larry McReynolds

Larry McReynolds has more than 30 years of NASCAR experience as a mechanic, Daytona 500-winning crew chief and broadcaster. He earned 23 Sprint Cup wins as a crew chief, including two victories in the prestigious Daytona 500, as well as a pair of non-points victories in the annual all-star race. Follow him on Twitter.

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Hendrick Motorsports did a nice job of working together all weekend. Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson are probably two of the most patient racecar drivers. They push the envelope when it's time to push it. They don't push it when it's not time to push it. Johnson kept himself in position and tried to stay out of the eye of the storm most of the day. The No. 48 team had good pit stops all day long. Crew chief Chad Knaus made good calls, and Johnson did the same thing he did a few months ago in the Daytona 500 with a different car and a different crew chief. Here's an example of just how close the competition is in the race for the Chase for the Nextel Cup. Last week at Phoenix, Johnson finished 7th, but he lost the point lead. This week, Matt Kenseth finished 6th, and he lost the point lead.

Top 20 is the new top 10

If teams didn't finish in the top 10 in the past, they didn't consider it a good day. But I talked with Jeff Green's crew chief, Bootie Barker, and if you can finish in the top 20 in Nextel Cup today, you've had a pretty decent day. If you finished in the top 20 in each of the first 26 races of the season, there's a good chance you'll make the Chase. On any given race day, 25 or 30 cars can go to Victory Lane. Jeff Gordon just got trapped on the bottom with nobody to help him at Talladega. The lines that were moving the best were in the middle of the racetrack and up high. From lap 1 to lap 180, it looked like you could win the race if you beat Gordon and Elliott Sadler. But Gordon finished 15th, and Sadler — who sat on the pole — ended up 16th. Kevin Harvick was the fighter of the day, and the No. 29 provided a prime example of never giving up. As a crew chief, my goal was to never have a DNF. If the team could get that car back out on the racetrack safely, I didn't care if we improved our position. By fighting to get the car back out on the track and by virtue of other people having problems, the No. 29 team actually moved up a position in points from 8th to 7th with a 23rd-place finish. Jamie McMurray finally had an awesome day. He had a decent day at Martinsville a few weeks ago, but here's a kid that qualified well at Talladega, led a good part of the race and finished 5th. Robby Gordon was able to close the deal on a top-10 finish, finishing 10th. Scott Riggs earned his second top-10 finish in the last three races, coming home in 9th. His Evernham Motorsports teammate Jeremy Mayfield didn't get a top 10, but he had a decent 13th-place finish. Like Mayfield, Jeff Green (14th) and Travis Kvapil (19th) had their best finishes of the season while Tony Raines tied his best effort of the year with a second consecutive 17th-place finish.

Engine, engine No. 8 and No. 16

Before the sun came up on Tuesday morning, Dale Earnhardt Inc. and Roush Racing probably had the No. 8 and No. 16 engines out of the cars, and I'll bet there are perfectly good reasons why thoses power plants blew up. Like Dale Earnhardt Jr., Robby Gordon had a failure with a DEI engine at Martinsville, but he spun out at the very beginning of that race. Chances are the motor spun backwards. As we anticipated and Earnhardt Jr. supported in his postrace interview, after he spun, he blew up so his engine could have spun backwards as well. Greg Biffle stayed out of trouble in the draft, but he ended up losing an engine. Darrell Waltrip thought that the team may have leaned on the motor a little too hard because they ran out of fuel at Phoenix. I don't know that I buy that explanation because Phoenix and Talladega are two totally different scenarios. The No. 16 team did run that car out of fuel in practice on Friday which could have hurt the motor. They were trying to see how much fuel their fuel cell picked up so I'm anxious to talk to crew chief Doug Richert and find if that was the culprit.

Owner point standings +/- 35th
Pos. Driver Pts. +/- 35th
30. Joe Nemechek +60
31. Dave Blaney +38
32. Kyle Petty +30
33. Jeremy Mayfield +30
34. Ken Schrader +15
35. Sterling Marlin
36. Michael Waltrip -46
37. Scott Wimmer -81
38. David Stremme -122
39. Travis Kvapil -164
40. Kevin Lepage -192

Semi-Big Ones take point toll

The Nextel Cup Series didn't have a big "Big One," and we had fewer problems than I thought we would have. There were a couple of semi-Big Ones, but bump-drafting didn't cause any problems. The one on the backstretch with Brian Vickers, Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch was kind of sad. Every time there's a wreck and Kyle Busch is involved, everybody immediately blames the No. 5 car. But that wreck was not caused by the 5. Unfortunately, Ryan Newman was a victim again this week in that crash. Then there was another multi-car accident with less than 15 laps to go in the tri-oval, and I felt so bad about that wreck. It involved some guys that were having good runs and needed good runs — guys like Dave Blaney, Kevin Lepage, Joe Nemechek and Michael Waltrip. They were victims of Denny Hamlin's mistake, but that's Talladega. He was being a little aggressive at the end of the race, and he got into the side of Blaney who got into the side of Lepage. NASCAR deemed that it was a little bit over the edge and sent him to pit road.

Plates are great?

At FOXSports.com and at LarryMcReynolds.com, we get an endless stream of e-mails every week. We love them, and we do our best to answer them all. Sometimes I'll get e-mails from people who write that I haven't answered their e-mails yet. Well, it's not because we've thrown them in the trash. With my secretary Lisa, I try hard to answer them all.
Speed Mail Larry
Inevitably around Daytona and Talladega time, most of the e-mails have remedies to rid NASCAR of the carburetor restrictor plate. I'm sure a dozen or so teams hate the plate today after wrecking on Monday. But I watched 21 cars in the lead pack come across that start/finish line within a second and a half of each other after 56 lead changes among 22 drivers. Fifty-six! Combine all of the lead changes for an entire season in Formula One, IRL and Champ Car, and I doubt that it will be 56. As much as we bite our nails, and as many years as I sat on that pit cart and said, "Gosh, let's just get to the end of this race and be able to load it in the truck," how can you argue with racing at Daytona and Talladega? It's about as good as it's going to get. If it wasn't for computer scoring, it would probably take an hour or two to figure out who exactly finished where. You could look forever and not find another series that's more competitive. Talladega had a great turnout for a Monday race. It was a challenge for the fans to come back, but I don't think a single person was sitting during those last 10 to 12 laps. From a broadcaster's point of view, I don't know that I would change a darn thing about Daytona and Talladega races. If you are a realist and look at those races from any standpoint, you'll have the same feeling.


FOX race analyst Larry McReynolds has more than 25 years of NASCAR experience as a mechanic, crew chief and broadcaster. He and his fellow Crew Chief Club members take you behind the wall at www.crewchiefclub.com.

"How to Become a Winning Crew Chief" is on bookstore shelves, or you may order your own autographed copy from www.DWStore.com.

Tagged: Travis Kvapil, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson, Ryan Newman, Jeff Gordon, Elliott Sadler, Dave Blaney, Matt Kenseth

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