What has been a season of struggle – at least in the “finishes” department – for Jeff Gordon started on an ominous note in the Daytona 500.
Gordon torched an engine and finished 40th in the first race of the season, starting a course that now finds Gordon on the outside looking in as far as hopes for the Chase are concerned.
This week, Gordon gets a shot at restrictor-plate redemption as the Sprint Cup tour moves to Talladega Superspeedway for Sunday’s Aaron’s 499, the second plate race of the season.
The No. 24 team plans to avoid the sort of problem – a water-hose leak – that knocked it for a loop at Daytona. Gordon’s engine overheated, but it wasn’t because of the tandem draft, which often shoots temperatures skyward.
“We didn’t have an overheating problem,” Gordon said. “We found a hole in a water hose, and we’re not sure exactly how it got there. But it pretty much drained the water, and that’s why we blew up.
“So our goal is to make sure that doesn’t happen again. But I definitely think you’re going to have to really watch those gauges and pay attention to it and have some more gap in between you and the other cars to let that radiator breathe. I think we all know when you get connected you go faster than you do unconnected. And so, in the closing laps of the race, as wide as that race track is, I think what you’ll see in practice is guys will hook together to see how long they can run.
“Usually, once they have temperature in the engine, they want to see how long they can run connected. Because at the end of that race, your ultimate goal is to push that other guy as long as you possibly can [and] cross that line blowing up the engine. That’s basically what we’re doing now because of the rules that we have and what we’ve learned about this whole pushing thing. So, that’s what we’ll work on in practice and see just how it’s going to work out. But you’ve got to survive to get there first. So it’s going to make the dynamics of the race, first half, three-quarters of the race, very interesting.”
Matt Kenseth, winner of the Daytona 500, said he expects racing at Talladega to be much the same as Daytona.
“I don’t know why it would be much different,” he said. “Daytona has the new pavement and a lot of grip just like Talladega. It is the same rules package, so I think you will see racing like you did during SpeedWeeks.”
The trick, Kenseth said, is to be in position to have a shot at winning the race when the tandem scrambles begin over the final laps.
“When you get down to the end or after a pit stop when it all gets shuffled up you [can be] too far back to do anything,” he said. “It isn’t like you are trying to log laps. You are trying to keep the best position you can for when it gets crazy at the end when everyone is three- or four-wide the last few laps and you can hopefully not get in a wreck and hopefully have a chance to win the race.”
Practice rounds are scheduled at Talladega Friday. Qualifying is scheduled Saturday.
Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEED.com and has been covering motorsports for 30 years. He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.