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NASCAR's Wheldon factor

TALLADEGA, Ala. — A promotion that promises a $100,000 bonus if there are 100 lead changes at Talladega Superspeedway is being scrutinized in the wake of Dan Wheldon's fatal accident.

Wheldon was killed in a 15-car accident last Sunday in the IndyCar season finale at Las Vegas. The two-time Indianapolis 500 winner was in that race chasing a $5 million prize.

Last month, Talladega officials offered $100,000 to the Sprint Cup drivers if there were 100 lead changes in Sunday's race. If the number is hit, the driver who takes the lead the most times will win the bonus.

Because critics have wondered if Wheldon was "overmotivated" by the money, the Talladega promotion is raising eyebrows.

"It's a challenge, but it's a reachable challenge," Talladega chairman Grant Lynch said Saturday.

Lynch understands the timing is bad, but does not believe the promotion is outlandish. Two of the last three races at Talladega had a NASCAR-record 88 lead changes, and last year's race had 87 lead changes.

Talladega also holds NASCAR records for leaders (29), fastest average race speed (188.354 mph) and fastest qualifying speed (212.809 mph).

A two-car drafting system that developed last year and has taken off this season has led to all the lead changes. NASCAR has made two small rule changes designed to force the cars to swap spots more often, and Lynch said that was the reason for the promotion.

"Having 100 lead changes, it's within the realm of thought and possibility," Lynch said. "We wanted to have a goal that's not just some fictitious unattainable goal."

Promoters walk a fine line in marketing their events and how they use the constant element of danger. Fans love the door-to-door racing at Daytona and Talladega, two tracks that usually produce spectacular crashes.

The new tandem style of racing has eliminated the huge pack that racing fans loved. Fans have been vocal through the first three superspeedway races this season that they prefer the old style.

Lynch said it always has been a challenge to not exploit wrecks.

"Historically, we have used our crash footage less than everybody in the sport has used it," he said. "We know it's there, everybody in the sport knows it's there. We know this is not a place that's (the drivers') favorite race track. But what they do here, the TV numbers, the people in who see it in person, it sends chills down your spine like nothing else."

martin on pole: In Saturday's qualifying, Hendrick Motorsports swept the front row.

Mark Martin won the pole with a lap of 181.367 mph, followed by Jimmie Johnson's 181.360. Hendrick Motorsports has won the pole at all four superspeedway races this season, and swept the front row in all but one.

"Our qualifying on (restrictor) plate tracks this season has just been amazing," Johnson said.

Childress Racing's Clint Bowyer will start third, followed in qualifying by Trevor Bayne and Hendrick drivers Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Sprint Cup points

With five races to go. Only these drivers are eligible in the Chase for the Championship:

Driver Pts. Back

Carl Edwards 2,203—

Kevin Harvick 2,198 5

Matt Kenseth 2,196 7

Kyle Busch 2,185 18

Tony Stewart 2,179 24

Brad Keselowski 2,178 25

Kurt Busch 2,176 27

Jimmie Johnson 2,168 35

Dale Earnhardt Jr. 2,143 60

Ryan Newman 2,142 61

Jeff Gordon 2,137 66

Denny Hamlin 2,117 86

Today's race

Good Sam Club 500, 2 p.m., Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway. TV: ESPN

NASCAR's Wheldon factor 10/22/11 [Last modified: Saturday, October 22, 2011 11:20pm]
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