After a wild weekend at Talladega, I expect every driver is looking forward to heading to Richmond this weekend. There are two drivers I believe might be wanting to arrive a little early, each for a different reason.
Normally, drivers spend much of their time Monday through Friday thinking and preparing to win the next event. This is unless your last race doubled as an attempt at taking off and landing on a 4,300-foot runway also known as the Talladega front stretch, then you're forced to re-live it over and over and over again, which is what Carl Edwards was doing this week as a guest on Larry King Live.
Edwards has done a great job discussing why the wreck at Talladega happened, how it happened and why he wasn't hurt. But what about Carl Edwards the race car driver? How does reliving a terrifying crash affect him?
Having walked in the same shoes, so to speak, I can tell you that the media attention after a spectacular Talladega crash can be extremely distracting. Not only is it taking away his valuable time from preparing for the next race, but when you spend the week as an expert on crashing, you redirect focus toward an area drivers mindfully avoid.
We know for certain his attention is, at least in part, on something he probably did not consider one week ago, and the discussion with Larry King or any of the other interviews will do nothing to help win Richmond on Saturday night.
Cal Wells, the car owner of the Tide No. 32 I drove from 2001 to 2004 would often say, "The great part of racing NASCAR is if you have a bad day, you only have to wait seven days for a shot at redemption."
The long Sprint Cup Series schedule is often the focus of complaints, particularly as the season grinds through the late summer months, but for a scenario like what Carl Edwards experienced, having to wait seven days feels like an eternity.
On the flip side, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his team travel to Richmond with some authority. The only member of Hendrick Motorsports to finish in the top 10 last week, their second-place finish finally offers some relief to all the speculation as to why they haven't matched the other three teams performance.
Before I go any further, let the record show – Dale Earnhardt Jr. is my pick to win Saturday night in Richmond.
Because a second-place finish, regardless of where it takes place, reconfirms to people (sometimes yourself) that the pieces are in place to meet the objective.
But to win, Dale Earnhardt Jr. needs to capitalize on opportunity, something I did not think he did in Phoenix three weeks ago. If you remember, the 88 car ran the first half of that race mired in traffic, racing in the back half of the field. It wasn't until Earnhardt inherited the lead (when Tony Eury Jr. opted against changing tires to gain track position) that the 88 team realized its potential, leading 63 laps.
The call was brilliant, and regardless of what others might think, it did not ultimately lead to their demise. What did, in my opinion, was not making aggressive enough adjustments on the final pit stop.
Gaining track position the way they did allowed Earnhardt the advantage of evaluating his car as it related to the track, without the interference of any traffic. It's a huge advantage that only a few drivers had that night.
With the lead, a driver can use the entire track, more along the lines of qualifying laps, drifting from the apron to within inches of the wall on corner exit, which in itself provides a gain of few tenths of a second per lap.
When the 88 team made its final stop, they did not appear to make any noticeable changes other than four tires. In hindsight, it appears they needed to change more than just the tires, because when the cycle of stops was complete the 88 faded quickly, looking more like the car we saw early in the race rather than a contender.
Sure, it could have been a poorly matched set of tires or something amiss with the car. But it also could have been a result of a balance change as they refueled the car adding rear weight, which would have required a more aggressive adjustment than new tires.
Now, for the first time in 2009, Earnhardt and the 88 team have some momentum to carry to the next race. Their previous success at Richmond (and my continued belief in all its team members) is why they are my pick to win.
However, unless they win the pole and lead all night, they will need more than four tires and fuel each time they pit.
- Carl Edwards