Jeff Gordon will go restrictor-plate racing for the last time Sunday at Talladega. His No. 24 Chevy will start on the pole, but don’t be fooled by any pretense of great expectations.
If anything, he is trying to contain himself, and not do a happy dance on his way to his car.
Talladega. No more.
“In this type of racing, you have to accept it,” said Gordon, who is retiring and next year heading for a Fox TV gig. “You can’t fight against it; it is what it is. There are times where I’ve enjoyed restrictor-plate racing more than any other race I’ve ever been a part of.
“When things go right, it can’t be more fun than this. But when you’re stuck in the middle of three-wide on a green-white-checkered and playing bumper cars at 200 miles per hour, you look forward to it being over.”
It was a Hendrick Motorsports kind of day Saturday with Kasey Kahne, Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. also among the top-5 qualifiers. Matt Kenseth — facing a must-win situation — is the only outsider in the first five.
“It’s a great day for Hendrick Motorsports,” Gordon said.
Gordon’s start at the front is the equivalent of a participation medal at this place.
NASCAR races are all about where you finish, not where you start, but Talladega and Daytona always amp up the high drama and unintended consequences of trying to improve your spot on the track.
One bad move, and it can became a bad day for a lot of people, not just yourself.
The NASCAR gods have deemed Talladega a Chase cutoff race, maximizing the high anxiety. Only eight of 12 Chase drivers will advance.
The Bubble Boys are: Kyle Busch (six points behind Martin Truex Jr. for the last spot), Ryan Newman (eight points behind), Earnhardt Jr. (31 points behind) and Kenseth (35 points behind). Earnhardt Jr. and Kenseth need a victory to advance.
“Yeah, it’s real intense,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “There’s no denying the intensity and the pressure it puts on drivers like myself to be in a cutoff situation where you’re eliminated if things don’t go perfectly on Sunday. But I think it’s what the fans enjoy.
“And even if we don’t make it through this weekend, I think it’s still going to be exciting.”
As NBC analyst Jeff Burton said, “You have to be crazy aggressive.”
And unlike previous races, there will only be one attempt at a green-white-checkered finish, trying to manage the last-laps chaos when drivers dive into dangerous places going for a victory. NASCAR will allow only one of these bull-rush tries, with the safety of competitors and fans in mind.
“It’s insane. It’s a white-knuckle experience,” Gordon said of the green-white-checkered dynamics at the superspeedways. “If anyone in the garage says it’s not, then they’re not telling the truth. It just is. You’re holding your breath. It can make for some amazing moments and highlights. I don’t know if you need to put any added risk out there to do more than one.”
Did we mention how giddy Gordon is that this is his last race here?
“It gets me excited about going up into the [TV] booth next year and talking about all the things that are going on from the driver’s perspective,” he said.
Goodbye restrictor-plate madness. Hello happiness.