Drivers simply hope for the best at Talladega

Originally Published: September 29, 2005
By Mark Ashenfelter | Special to ESPN.com

It's not a new sentiment, but Benny Parsons - a former Winston Cup champion turned broadcaster - knows as well as anyone what's going through the minds of NASCAR's best as they head to Talladega Superspeedway.

"Talladega is the wild card; anything can happen there, and no one is immune," says Parsons, who will be in the booth for NBC this weekend. "I am sure that all 10 drivers in the Chase, when they started a couple of weeks ago, were already dreading going down there then."

Dread is about the proper way to describe the mood of many heading to the sport's 2.66-mile track, one that features both thrilling racing and, more often than not, at least seconds of shock as people hold their breath waiting to see just which drivers have made it through the seemingly inevitable multicar crash.

"Talladega is one of those tracks where you can do everything right and still end up in a wreck," Carl Edwards says. "You have to be patient and be in the right place at the right time."

The last part of that statement is the key. Patience might be a virtue, but it's certainly no guarantee of success at Talladega. Just ask rookie Kyle Busch, who though he'd shown plenty of patience at the track back in the spring.

Truth be told, Busch had been patient. And still wound up in the wrong place at the wrong time.

"I rode in the back pretty much the whole race and thought with about 35, 45 to go 'All right, it's about time to go,'" Busch says. "I was trying to work my way up to the front, and as soon as I got up to about midpack on my way up there, the big wreck happened. It doesn't make a difference there."

Which is why drivers likely will be on edge throughout the weekend. Heck, wrecks can't even be ruled out during drafting practice the day before the race if a driver experiences even the slightest problem while running in a pack.

You really just have to be on your toes, but more than anything, you have to be in the right places at the right time. There just isn't a lot that is in the hands of the drivers at restrictor-place races -- especially Talladega."
Mark Martin

It's the uncertainty of it all that keeps fans standing in the stands, or on the edge of their couches afraid to click over to the NFL for even a second. And that uncertainty is what leaves drivers heading home with headaches, even if they make it through the race unscathed.

"You don't go to Talladega with a predetermined strategy that you will do this in this situation or you will draft with that group of drivers," Jeremy Mayfield says. "It doesn't happen that way. There are some drivers you may prefer to draft with if the opportunity presented itself, but the only strategy is to team up with the line of cars that will take [you] to the front at that particular time. The key to success at Talladega is choosing the right drafting partners."

Mayfield's lone guarantee is that "it will be wild, just like always."

Especially since the right partners can only do so much if one "wild card" mixed into the occasion gets a little too anxious and makes the wrong move.

"You need a lot of luck, and you have to really hope that you are not in the wrong place at the wrong time," Mark Martin says. "I mean, logically you would hope that the closer to the front you were, the better off you are, but we wrecked there in the spring running inside the top five and I think we got caught up in a wreck at Daytona running in the front as well, so it can happen anywhere.

"You really just have to be on your toes, but more than anything, you have to be in the right places at the right time. There just isn't a lot that is in the hands of the drivers at restrictor-place races - especially Talladega."

Points leader Jimmie Johnson has never finished the fall Talladega race in three previous attempts. Last year, an overheating engine derailed his chances and put a huge dent in his championship aspirations.

Heading there this time around, he's ready for anything.

"In our sport, there are so many risks involved that you learn to deal with it in some ways and try to keep an open eye while you're on the track to avoid potential problems," Johnson says. "Talladega is a huge risk. Martinsville [Va.] is a risk. So there's still a few out there. I think everybody is real nervous about Talladega, and hopefully everybody drives that way and we don't have any big pileups. But again, we're out there racing and trying to do our jobs at a high rate of speed and sometimes things happen.

"The crashes are spectacular, and they look amazing and impressive. With the soft walls and the safety inside the car, I have no worries. After you see the flips and crashes we've had and these guys walking away and bragging about how fun the ride was on TV says a lot about our race cars."

Matt Kenseth -- ninth in points after a 35th-place finish at Dover, Del. -- can't afford to get caught up in a wreck if he's to rally through the field. Naturally, his goal is to be near the front with the proper drafting partner in the late going.

Tony Stewart
Tony Stewart, tied for fifth in Cup points, has been a force at plate tracks in '05.

Of course, that's a whole lot easier said than done. But if that's not to occur, Kenseth knows it's important to be somewhere near the front instead of lagging back hoping to miss the "Big One."

"You don't want to just survive and be in the back and get separated into two or three packs and be in the second or third pack," Kenseth says. "That race does have the possibility of running green flag all day long, so it's important to survive, but it's also important not to make a mistake on pit road, getting on pit road, getting off pit road -- any of that kind of stuff under green -- because if you lose that lead draft, there might not be the opportunity to get back in it."

Especially if Tony Stewart's the driver leading that pack, as was the case during July's Pepsi 400 at Daytona. Leading all but a handful of laps, Stewart dominated, and he's looking for more of the same at Talladega after finishing second there earlier this year.

Stewart has never won at Talladega - Martin is the only driver in the Chase to have won at the track - but he has finished second there on several occasions and hopes to finish a bit better this time out.

Still, he knows there's only so much he can do about things.

"The race just carries more variables that are out of your control than any other race," Stewart says. "When they have crashes at Talladega, the number of people caught up is normally pretty large. That's kind of why we view Talladega as a wild-card race. You can't really predict anything.

"It's not as easy as saying, 'These guys run well here.' Guys who don't run well at Talladega could be contenders to win the race if the right circumstances happen. It's one of those scenarios where the guys in the top 10 are really going to be careful, but they're still going to have to race hard to gain as many points as they can."

Not only that, but they'll have to think faster than usual, as well.

"The strategy is making sure you've got somebody you can draft with. You have to take the opportunities as they come, but with those opportunities, you have to make a very quick decision," Stewart says. "You've got to think, 'What happens if I try this and it doesn't work? What are the ramifications going to be?' You don't have the luxury of sitting down and taking the time to analyze the situation. You've got to make a split-second decision. A lot of times it'll work, but there are times when the decision that you made doesn't work. But once you've committed yourself to doing something, there's not much you can do about it."

Rusty Wallace, meanwhile, will be trying for his first Talladega win in his 45th start there. Considering he has failed to finish 14 of those races, he knows the highs and lows that will be awaiting him over these 500 miles.

"We always go into the Talladega races expecting to keep our noses clean and come out of there with a good finish, and that's certainly the case again," Wallace says. "But we're smart enough to know that with this brand of racing, anything can happen. We've had our share of ups and downs at Talladega."

Asked whether the drivers outside the Chase will try to cut the 10 title contenders any slack, Wallace laughs.

"With 'em running three wide and 12 deep for most of the race, I don't see how that will be possible unless maybe they run us in separate races," he says. "But that'd make for a pretty darned boring race I think -- to see just us 10 drivers out there getting after it on the biggest track we run on.

"Seriously, I think the situation will police itself as long as everybody uses their heads. We just hope to stay up there in the lead draft and trust that nobody makes any stupid moves. Then we can see how we can manage at the end.

"But, as for us Chase guys, this could be the most pivotal deal of the remaining eight races."

Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at NASCAR Scene magazine and a contributor to ESPN.com.

• Ashenfelter is an Event News Editor at ESPN.
• Worked at NASCAR Scene for eight years.
• Has covered NASCAR since 1999.

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