October 2, 2005 | 10:38 A.M. EST
But that's exactly the role that NASCAR's two biggest names have been thrust into after both missed this year's "Chase for the NEXTEL Cup" championship season.
And with the track record the two have at Talladega Superspeedway, Sunday's UAW-Ford 500 has all the makings of being the first race of the "Chase" won by a non-championship contender.
"Talladega is a special place to me, always has been, always will be," said Earnhardt, Jr., who starts Sunday's race from the 21st position. "I love racing there. I love winning there. It’s definitely one of my favorite tracks. (Crew chief) Tony (Eury) Jr. has had Talladega marked on his calendar for awhile, and he’s been putting in overtime to get this car ready."
Earnhardt, Jr. will have to bounce back from his last trip to the mammoth, 2.66-mile superspeedway when he was involved in an accident only two laps from the finish.
"I feel we need to redeem ourselves after our last race," he said. "The wreck was a bad deal, but we weren’t that good to begin with. This is the same car we raced in May, and we’ve done a lot of work on it to make it better."
Gordon is shooting for his third restrictor plate win of the season after notching victories in the season-opening Daytona 500 and last May's trip to Talladega. A victory Sunday would tie him with the late Dale Earnhardt, Sr. for the all-time NEXTEL Cup Series plate race win lead.
"Dale was the master at these types of races," said Gordon, going for his 11th plate win. "I’d love to get the win, but not because of any statistic or record. And it really doesn’t add any extra incentive because this team tries to win every race. Statistics are great when it’s all said and done but, during the season, you really don’t care about them or where you might rank on a list."
NASCAR is considering a split of the Busch Series television deal into a stand-alone package, ala SPEED Channel's Craftsman Truck programming. OLN, the Comcast-owned network which is revamping itself into a general all-sports channel, is a possibility.....Sterling Marlin will announce his MB2 deal for 2006 in two weeks at Charlotte.....Champ Car driver Paul Tracy will attempt to qualify a Richard Childress Racing car for the October 30th Bass Pro Shops 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway.....Talladega may not be the last restrictor plate race of the season. NASCAR may mandate the plates at Charlotte due to the surface problems at Lowe's Motor Speedway in two weeks. There is precedent. Plates were used at New Hampshire a few years ago when the Loudon resurfacing proved to be dangerous.