It’s NASCAR’s biggest crapshoot since some of its drivers huddled around a craps table during their last trip to Las Vegas.
Races at NASCAR’s biggest and fastest track are among the most anticipated and unpredictable on the NASCAR circuit.
They are high-risk, high-stakes games, especially during NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup, when one move can win or lose not only a race, but possibly a championship.
Carl Edwards knows. He finished 29th in the Chase race there in 2008 and it cost him the championship. Teammate Greg Biffle saw his championship hopes dashed there in 2005 and 2008.
Numerous drivers have seen their Chase essentially come to an end in a crumpled heap of sheet metal at Talladega, the track where championship hopes get extinguished.
Talladega is not only one of NASCAR’s most dangerous and unpredictable tracks, but it’s one of its quirkiest races, a place where finding the right drafting partner at the right time and choosing the right line are as crucial as missing the big wreck. That’s why Sunday’s race, as usual, is the biggest wild card in the Chase.
Here are 10 ways this week’s race could have a major impact on this year’s Chase:
1. The wreck(s)
There will be at least a few, and probably many, and they likely won’t be single-car incidents. Drivers rarely wreck by themselves at Talladega — they usually take someone with them.
Avoiding the wrecks and staying out of trouble is the most important goal, and the biggest challenge, at Talladega.
Chase drivers Kurt Busch (twice), Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin, Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch and Ryan Newman were all caught up in wrecks there in April.
Jimmie Johnson, who won in April, has five straight championships in large part because he has managed to avoid the fall carnage at Talladega. Johnson, who needs a big break to climb back into championship contention, has finished seventh, sixth, ninth and second in the last four Chase races at Talladega, performances that enhanced his championship runs while many of his challengers fell by the wayside.
2. The Big One
There are wrecks at Talladega, and there is the Big One — the massive pileup that typically wipes out a third or more of the field.
The Chase race there in 2009 featured a 14-car melee near the end of the race. The April 2009 race featured two wrecks that wiped out a total of 24 cars. And last year’s April race featured a 10-car wreck and another that collected nine cars.
Avoiding such disaster is a matter of being in the right place at the right time, or simply being lucky. The top Chase drivers and those desperately trying to climb back into contention — i.e. Johnson — will be holding their breath Sunday.
3. The Really Big One
There are Big Ones and really big ones at Talladega.
The really big ones are the ones that you don’t forget, the wrecks that become etched in your memory because of their spectacular nature.
Bobby Allison flying into the catch fence in 1987.
Rusty Wallace barrel-rolling down the frontstretch in 1993.
Ricky Craven nearly flying over the fence in 1996.
Edwards was in a really big one just two years ago, his car flying through the air and slamming into the fence after contact with Keselowski on the final lap. The spectacular crash was one of NASCAR’s scariest wrecks in recent years, but such incidents are not uncommon at Talladega.
NASCAR drivers typically walk away unscathed from such frightening crashes, but those can easily damage the psyche of a driver, perhaps causing him to be a bit more cautious and a little less daring in upcoming races.
And a driver’s nerve is something he doesn’t want to lose with a championship on the line.
4. Drafting partners
Winning races at Talladega these days is not about having the fastest car or being the best drafter. It’s about having a partner willing to push you across the finish line.
The quirky two-car draft requires drivers to hook up in two-car tandems, with one car practically pushing the other around the track. Finding the right partner is crucial.
Johnson won at Talladega in April when Hendrick Motorsports teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. pushed him to the front and across the finish line in a wild, three-wide photo finish.
Most drivers have already picked their partners — Johnson and Earnhardt Jr., Matt Kenseth and David Ragan, Kevin Harvick and Clint Bowyer. Now they must hope they can stick together and continue working well together.
5. The swap
The most unusual part of the two-car draft is the swap, the choreographed move when a tandem has to switch positions to keep the pushing car from overheating, with the car in front moving to the rear to push. It’s like Dancing With The Stars on wheels.
The swap must be timely, quick and smooth because it slows down a duo dramatically, allowing other cars to close on them quickly.
If they swap at the wrong time, or don’t execute the move perfectly, they could be left fading to the rear of the field.
6. Restrictor plates
NASCAR has increased the holes in the carburetor restrictor plates from 56/64ths of an inch in diameter to 57/64ths, which crew chiefs says will add about 7-10 horsepower and 2-3 mph.
Speeds will be faster, which will increase the possibility of mistakes and wrecks.
But the restrictor plates are controlled by NASCAR officials, who hand them out to each team during prerace inspection.
What if there is a mix-up and a Chase driver accidentally gets last year’s restrictor plate?
Or what if the wrong driver — say Edwards or Harvick or even Johnson — gets the mythical “big” restrictor plate reserved for Dale Earnhardt Jr.?
Not only could such a misstep shake up the Chase, but it could send the legion of NASCAR conspiracy theorists rushing to their computers.
7. The infield
You think the racing at Talladega is wild, visit the infield.
The Talladega infield features the biggest party outside of Charlie Sheen’s house. It’s part Mardi Gras and part frat party, with a Southern twist. Lynyrd Skynyrd blaring “Sweet Home Alabama.” Women, young and old, scantily clad, topless and toothless, wearing bead necklaces they didn’t win at the county fair.
Curiosity seekers, aka Sprint Cup drivers, sometimes wander through the carnival-like scene on Friday and Saturday nights, taking in the sights and, on occasion, sampling the refreshments.
Too much fun in such a place can lead to injury, illness, incurable disease, extreme fatigue, wife trouble or worse. None help a driver’s championship hopes.
Not in the infield, but on the track.
NASCAR also has implemented a new engine rule, lowering the pressure of the radiator valve and raising the maximum water temperature when an engine overheats. That means they will run hot quicker, forcing drivers to execute the swap sooner and breaking up the two-car drafts.
Inevitably, some engines will run too hot, leading to engine trouble and a trip to the garage.
And a blown engine can knock a driver out of Chase contention just as quickly as a wreck. And at Talladega, it can also ruin the chances of his drafting partner.
9. The Layback Strategy
Because of the high probability of calamity and mayhem at Talladega, some top drivers prefer to drop to the rear of the field and ride around all day, hopefully staying out of trouble until time to make a charge to the front in the final 20 or 30 laps.
But that strategy can backfire.
What if the Big One is at the rear of the field, where the slowest cars and most inexperienced drivers typically run?
What if one of the start-and-park drivers clips you in the rear while trying to pull off the track and take his car to the garage?
Or, what if you make your move to the front too late and still get caught up in a big crash or run out of time and still finish 20th?
All are distinct possibilities in the crapshoot that is Talladega, which means the best strategy is sometimes no strategy.
10. The Three-Wide Finish
Some Chase drivers will run near the front all day, hanging out around ninth or 10th and waiting until the end to make their move.
But what happens when a dozen other drivers employ the same strategy and they all make the same move at the same time?
The land rush to the checkered flag will create a mad pack all approaching the finish line at the same time, leading perhaps to another three-wide, photo finish.
It will be thrilling, for sure.
Except for the poor soul who crosses the line within inches of the leader and still finishes 10th.
With nine Chase drivers in front of him.
Good luck to all the Chase drivers. You’re going to need it.