High up top: How spotters play extra-pivotal role at Talladega
Spotters undoubtedly play a crucial role in the success of teams each race weekend. Standing high atop the track, they serve as the driver’s eyes and ears as they work them through traffic and keep them out of trouble.
However, the role of a spotter is magnified at high-banked, high-speed Talladega Superspeedway.
With the race run primarily in large packs, two- and three-wide and sometimes four- and five-wide from flag to flag, the spotters are more pivotal to success at Talladega than any other track on the Sprint Cup Series schedule.
While the drivers on the track rarely take a breather, such is also the case for spotters. With binoculars glued to their eyes for the majority of the event, spotters are constantly in the ears of their drivers as they help guide them through the pack with the threat of the "Big One" lingering around every corner.
"There is no such thing as chilling at this track," Brett Griffin, spotter for Elliott Sadler and Clint Bowyer, said Friday at Talladega Superspeedway.
"You’re in the binoculars all the time," said Earl Barban, the veteran spotter for Jimmie Johnson. "If you see something happens in front of the car, I can’t push the button in time to tell Jimmie. So, I spot behind the hood pins and tell him what line is moving."
"Practices are insane here," said Griffin. "Drivers are on different agendas and guys are jumping out of the draft in different places. That is why it is so difficult to stay out of trouble in practice."
Griffin said the initial plan going into a Talladega event is to work within the team’s stable of drivers and drivers of the same manufacturer. Barban said he lets Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus formulate a game plan for the race.
However, when the green flag drops, those plans often go out the window.
As drivers work in the pack, the spotters are hard at work making deals and forming alliances on the stand with other spotters, all in an effort to help their driver work his way to the front of the field. With tight confines among the spotters and constant action on the track, those quick interactions between spotters are tougher than anywhere else.
"In reality, during the last few laps you want to have the fast guys behind you," Griffin said.
The level of trust between driver, spotter and crew chief is also key when it comes to the high intensity of Talladega.
Defending Sprint Cup Series champion Kevin Harvick and crew chief Rodney Childers took their time selecting a spotter for the 2014 season. In the end, they went with former driver Tim Fedewa.
Each driver and team is different, and Harvick wanted to find someone who would fit his style and tell him what he needed to hear over the radio.
"For us, I listened to a lot of guys and just really felt like he was basic and simple," Harvick said. "For me that is really what I’m looking for. We are not looking for a cheerleaders or somebody to tell you how to drive the car or anything like that, but you are looking for somebody that can give you advice. And somebody that, especially at these places, tells you when the line is coming, when the line is going and really what is going on. And (it’s important) be able to have that confidence in that person as far as what is around you and believing it when he says ‘clear,’ and not looking in the mirror."
Five-time Talladega winner Dale Earnhardt Jr. believes his personal relationship and trust with spotter TJ Majors has lifted the stress level and made it easier to race on the restrictor-plate tracks.
"I’ve certainly grown to appreciate the spotter’s job more and more over the last five, six years," Earnhardt said. "At Talladega and Daytona it’s so important to have an understanding of what’s going on around you without having to look at it. I like to look out the front windshield and think about how to go forward, and he can tell me everything I need to know going on behind me. I can see it and hear it and kind of see it in my mind without even looking in the mirror. That’s so important when you have that kind of connection with someone."
When Elliott Sadler went to Victory Lane in the XFINITY Series race last May at Talladega, he gave a lot of credit to Griffin for guiding him to the checkered flag.
The driver who pulls into Victory Lane on Sunday afternoon will likely do the same.