Commentary

Tornadoes, nightmares … and Talladega

Updated: April 15, 2011, 6:26 PM ET
By David Newton | ESPN.com

TALLADEGA, Ala. -- Jeff Gordon found himself in the middle of a tornado on Wednesday night, one he couldn't escape, no matter which way he turned. Every decision he made, from looking for an escape route for his wife and kids to seeking the nearest ditch or bathtub to crawl into for safety, turned into a dead end.

He was rattled.

He was scared.

And then he woke up.

Yes, it was a dream. Actually, it was a nightmare and perhaps a premonition of Sunday's Aaron's 499, with tornado warnings in the vicinity of Talladega Superspeedway on Friday.

At times, the 2.66-mile track in the middle of Nowhere, Ala., can be like a nightmare for competitors. Those who have wound up on their hoods, such as Ryan Newman, or flown into the catch-fence, such as Carl Edwards, might consider chasing a tornado the safer alternative.

[+] EnlargeTalladega
Tom Pennington/Getty ImagesTrack activity at Talladega was cut short on Friday because of weather. Tornado warnings came later.

It could be even more of a nightmare for drivers this weekend as they juggle with whom to partner or whether to be the pusher or pushee in a two-car draft. Kevin Harvick said he'll experiment, in Saturday's Nationwide Series race, with the 20 radio channels that broadcast teammates and rivals in an attempt to find a drafting partner.

Clint Bowyer, Harvick's teammate at Richard Childress Racing, said it'll be hilarious to follow all the begging and channel-switching that will take place on his radio if there's a caution inside the final 10 laps.

"I guess you go, 'Is this Kyle [Busch]? No, get off the radio. Hello, is this Kyle? No, get off the radio.'" joked Bowyer, imitating what it could be like trying to find the channel of a driver. "I guess you just have to keep switching [channels]."

Bowyer can joke now, but Sunday will be frustrating, demanding and mentally taxing.

"You are literally 200 miles per hour blind," Gordon said. "I might as well close my eyes."

Yes, at times it'll be scary. It has always been that way there, regardless of whether it's pack racing or tandems.

"There are moments when you're scared, hell yeah!" Gordon said. "When all of a sudden the guy in front of you is slamming on the brakes and you juke him left and juke him right and you don't have a clue where he's going to go or what's going to happen …"

For some drivers, Talladega has been more of a nightmare than for others. No matter how fast they are, no matter how many laps they lead, something always seems to spoil the finish.

Take Kurt Busch, arguably the best current driver never to have won a restrictor-plate race. The 2004 Sprint Cup champion has led laps in 16 of 20 races at Talladega, has finished third four times and has nine top-10s in the past 13 races, but he's yet to visit Victory Lane there.

"It really gets down to survival," Kurt Busch said. "I've been trying for 10, 11 years now. We've been close many times, and I'm ready to trade in any of the speed that we have in the car for luck."

Busch isn't the only top-caliber driver who has lost sleep at Talladega. Look at this impressive list of non-winners: Jeff Burton, 0-31; Matt Kenseth, 0-22; Newman, 0-18; Greg Biffle, 0-16; Kasey Kahne, 0-14; Edwards, 0-13; and Denny Hamlin, 0-10.

Edwards and Kenseth haven't had a top-10 in the past eight Talladega races. For them, this track is worse than a nightmare.

Then there are drivers such as Harvick -- he won this race a year ago and finished second to Bowyer in the fall race -- who can't wait to get here.

"We prepare for it," Harvick said. "We come into it ready to race and push and shove and do the things we need to do to race here. I learned a long time ago it's better to be aggressive here than it is to just sit around and wait for something to come your way, because more times than not it's not going to."

Maybe that's why Harvick called Edwards a "pansy" in 2008 after the Roush Fenway Racing driver hung around the back most of the day then caused a 12-car wreck near the end.

A week later, that turned into a nightmarish fight between Harvick and Edwards in the Nationwide Series garage at Charlotte.

"A lot of it is just sense and feel as to who you're around and what you're around," Harvick said.

It really gets down to survival. I've been trying for 10, 11 years now. We've been close many times, and I'm ready to trade in any of the speed that we have in the car for luck.

-- Kurt Busch, on his history at Talladega

It's also about being mentally strong, more so than any other track.

"Once you get down to the nitty-gritty of the race and try to play the chess game that goes on all day, you've got to really pick and choose your spots," Kyle Busch said. "It really wears on you a little bit mentally, kind of makes you feel tired."

The two-car draft intensifies that.

"You're more worried about not spinning that guy out than anything else," Kyle Busch said. "So you're up on edge most of the time. I don't know if you call it racing or what you really call it, but it's definitely a different dynamic here at Talladega and Daytona than what we've had in the past."

Just having to partner with a rival driver is mentally taxing enough. Imagine the late Dale Earnhardt having to ask Gordon to share a radio and push him?

"It's more mentally and therefore more emotionally challenging for me," Newman said.

Unknown scenarios will be tossed at drivers like debris in a tornado.

"When you're up front, it's great; when you're not, it's miserable," Newman said. "When you're the recipient of somebody else's lack of judgment, it's not easy to talk about. There's just way more potential here than other racetracks."

It's not easy for any of us to truly appreciate what the drivers are feeling or experiencing. It's so complex, they have trouble accurately explaining it.

"I wish I could better portray what's going on in the driver's mind and inside that cockpit and the intensity there is to the fans at home and even to the media," Gordon said as wind swirled around the outside of his hauler. "I'm telling you, it's intense. It's crazy. It's not always fun.

"It's something we really don't get across to the people on the outside. If they knew, they would approach or look at the races from a totally different light."

Maybe they'd also be able to tell Gordon why he was dreaming of tornadoes before coming here, why he woke up before he knew the outcome.

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.

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