Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Talladega preview: legendary tailgates, wildcard racing

Ricky Stenhouse Jr.'s numberless Ford leads Sam Hornish Jr. (12),
 Juan Pablo Montoya (42) and Brian Vickers (15) during drafting practice 
in the2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup car test at Talladega Superspeedway.
Week four of the The Chase sees race teams heading west on Interstate 20 to the biggest, baddest track, (and some of the biggest, baddest tailgating in NASCAR)  Talladega Superspeedway. Talladega has a history of being the wildcard in The Chase, with only four chasers in the last eight fall races finding victory lane. Add to that fact with the well known "Big One" wreck hanging over driver's heads, as well as high speed, 3-4 wide racing with bump drafting, it seems a foregone conclusion all the drivers will take the green flag with a good case of heartburn.

Seven of this year’s 12 Chase qualifiers Clint Bowyer, Brad Keselowski, Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kevin Harvick and Jeff Gordon have a victory at the high banks in Alabama. Denny Hamlin, Kasey Kahne, Martin Truex Jr., Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth are still looking for one.

"I wouldn’t say I dread coming to Talladega. It’s not my favorite racetrack, but I don’t say I dread it." said Ryan Newman recently "I love doing what I do. I love driving a racecar, even at Talladega. I think the difference is there’s more potential to get involved in something not of your making there, and that’s frustrating to me. But that’s not just me. Everyone hopes they can avoid the big crash there. And, to be honest, when you’re up front at Talladega, it’s great. When you’re not, it can be miserable. When you’re the recipient of somebody else’s lack of judgment, then it’s not easy to talk about it. And that’s pretty much it. It’s just that there is way more potential for that than there is at most other racetracks. So, I don’t think I’m any different than anybody else. I’d love to win the race but, when I’m the recipient of somebody else’s misjudgment, that’s even more aggravating to me. But what I can say is we’ve had very good superspeedway cars since I’ve been at Stewart-Haas Racing. We’ve led the most laps and we’ve been in position to win a couple of races. And (Tony) Stewart has won a couple of races. So, I’m very confident coming into Talladega, and I feel good about our racecars. Now, we just have to have some luck on our side to finish the deal."

Newman is not alone in his love/hate feelings for Talladega. Kevin Harvick basically calls it a crapshoot. "I go to Talladega with the approach that you have a 50-50 chance when you get there. You're either going to have a great day because you finished or you're going to have a torn up race car. I've gone in with that mentality since my first race at Talladega (Superspeedway). It's just one of those race tracks where you really don't have any expectations and you just go out and run as hard as you can because there are so many things out of your control." Harvick said.

Jeff Burton echoed the comments of his competitors as well. "Restrictor-plate races are the four races a year that I'm nervous. I'm not going to lie about it. I'm nervous because there is a high percentage that you will be caught up in a big wreck. It's not that I'm afraid that I'm going to get hurt. I'm nervous because it means that your chances of winning can disappear so quickly and easily. There have been some spectacular wrecks there, but it's difficult going into a race knowing that the odds are higher of you getting in a wreck than anywhere else. My theory has always been that if you don't start the wreck, then you won't be involved. Hopefully, everyone else is thinking the same thing. When the race starts and I get uncomfortable in a position, I'm not afraid to drop back and get out of there temporarily. If you get uncomfortable during a normal race, you need to keep digging. At Talladega Superspeedway, if you aren't comfortable then just back out of the gas and get out of the situation. You have to be willing to do it mentally though." Burton said.

Talladega stands statistically as Jimmie Johnson’s worst-performing track based on his Driver Rating of 81.5. Johnson, however, has won twice at Talladega, most recently in the spring of 2011. Johnson has performed at the 2.66-mile superspeedway when it counted most with top-10 Chase finishes in four of his five championship seasons. "Well, as you can probably see from our finishes this year, we haven’t had a lot of luck at the restrictor-plate tracks. It definitely is the one track in the Chase I’ve kind of been a little concerned about. There are a lot of great tracks for the 48 coming up in the Chase, but this one is definitely one where anything can happen. There are so many things that are out of your control. There is a lot of room on this track to move around though, obviously, and try things. I think the odds are in our favor to be able to finish one of these restrictor-plate races this year. At least I hope so."

So that's some very big names, each with a high level of success in the Sprint Cup Series, who basically say it's a roll of the dice. Our take? Talladega is legendary in it's wildcard finishes as well as it's 3-4 day tailgate bashes that are no doubt starting up as we sit by our computer. (check the video from last year)

At FVP, if we were betting types, Clint Bowyer has a look of a guy who could grab his third consecutive fall race. If he can keep his nose clean, stay out of trouble, and stay of of the tailgate bashes, he's our pick to be in victory lane.

Photo Credit: Credit: By Jared C. Tilton, Getty Images for NASCAR

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