For NASCAR drivers, racing at Talladega no minor challenge

By Jeff Birchfield
STAR STAFF
jbirchfield@starhq.com

   Talladega Superspeedway.
   At 2.66-miles long and five racing grooves wide, getting a NASCAR Nextel Cup Series car around this mammoth facility for a qualifying lap is a breeze for most drivers.
   However, when there are 42 other race cars around that same driver at 190 miles per hour packed up like a clump of honeybees, it becomes one of most difficult challenges in all of motorsports.
   "At Talladega, you are running 190 miles per hour, but there is a car two inches off your front bumper and a car two inches off his front bumper, and there is a car two inches off your rear bumper and a car behind him, another two inches back," said veteran driver Kyle Petty.
   "Tap your brakes under those conditions and there is going to be a real mess. I'm not talking about stomping on your brakes or anything else. Simply tap your brakes, and they are going to be picking up car pieces for a good while."
   If a driver knows how quickly things can go wrong at Talladega, it is Elliott Sadler. Last October, Sadler had the scariest wreck of the entire NASCAR season after his car made slight contact with another machine. His No. 38 M&M's Ford went off the racing surface to the track's apron, starting a series of gravity-defying barrel rolls and flips.
   "In most cases, no one remembers anything but the last lap," the recent winner of the Texas event commented. "We ran 485 miles last October in Talladega and were passing for the lead when that wreck sent the M&M's car into a spin. Besides keeping all four tires on the ground this race, I believe we have a deal to close.
   "Had we completed that last 15 miles I think you would have seen the No. 38 team in Victory Lane. It only matters where you are at when the checkered flag flies, but we sure don't want to be sitting in the garage at the end of the race this time."
   Even if you aren't a victim of a bad crash at Talladega, the results can still be disappointing when you leave the track. Ken Schrader won his first career Cup Series race at Talladega in 1988, but hasn't won there since.
   "Talladega can be down right frustrating especially at the end of the race," said Schrader. "You can typically be about five cars behind the leader and running somewhere around 20th. So on Monday when someone asks you how you did, you don't tell them we finished 20th, what you tell them is we were eight-tenths of a second behind the leader."
   Schrader still understands how exciting restrictor-plate racing can be to those in the grandstands.
   "For the fans, I'm sure it's quite a show, and Talladega has some great fans," said Schrader. "Anytime you have 43 cars running around 190 mph in a pack, three or four wide, separated by the blink of an eye, that's something to see. Many drivers, including myself, just wish we could come up with a way to make it easier to pass without running all over one another."
   The basic theme of this Sunday's race at the largest track on the NASCAR circuit will be a familiar one according to Schrader.
   "It will be the same story as always at these plate races," said Schrader. "Don't lose the draft, take care of the nose on your car, avoid trouble, and be in a position to make a move towards the end of the race.
   "You just hope everyone on the track is using their head and understands that there has to be some give and take out there or else there'll be a whole lot of torn up race cars. Of course as the race goes on there's a lot more taking than giving."
   That makes your plan of attack difficult as the checkered flag nears.
   "The plate races are tough races to win," said former Busch Series champion Jeff Green. "It's not about strategy, it's not about handling, it's not even about who has the best and fastest car that day. It's about how many friends you have and when they decide they want to be your friend. Those are factors that take winning the race out of a driver's control."
   For Green, who won a pole at sister track Daytona last season, the inability of the driver to pass cars on his own is the most frustrating part of coming to Talladega.
   "I don't mind the racing that we see at Talladega and Daytona," said Green. "The close racing, sure it's very tough mentally, but that's a part of racing. Talladega is a good track.
   "It's just the fact that the opportunity to race for the win or a top position at the end of the day is almost solely dependent on how many friends you have. Talladega is a race that is very tough to control your own destiny."
   If you have that friend who is the right drafting partner, then a long day at the track can easily turn into a fruitful one.
   "Last spring I started third and finished third," recalled Sadler. "I drafted with my buddy Dale Jr. and believe it or not he and I work real well together during restrictor-plate races. I think both Dale Jarrett and I will have good cars this weekend especially and when you take into consideration look at how we all performed in Daytona."
   Although Sadler is quick to point to how strong he and his teammate Jarrett were over Daytona Speedweeks, he does find plenty of differences in that track when comparing it Talladega.
   "Talladega and Daytona are not at all alike," said Sadler. "Handling doesn't matter at Talladega because of the track and the speeds we are running at. We have learned so much about drafting over the years because it used to be we drafted nose to tail, now we draft side to side and front to back. It's an aerodynamic race, handling won't matter at all."
   Jeff Green
   The thoughts of #43 Cheerios/Betty Crocker Dodge driver Jeff Green heading into Talladega:
   "The rules package, the way it is now, makes you dependent so much on a friend to help push you through the draft. You can't just pull out of line and pass by yourself. I think NASCAR had tried a lot of ideas to make the racing better, but right now we still need a partner to go with.
   "Talladega is a beast all to its own. We race so many races each year, but anytime you come to Talladega it's more of a chess match. The race is determined by which line you follow, when to switch lines, and when to stay in the one you are in.
   "I've been in the races where I've made the right decision and ones where I could have made a better choice. The best decision it to follow the friend you think you can trust. I think I have a few friends out there -- I don't know if they are enough, but hopefully they'll be following this Cheerios Dodge to the front at the end of the day on Sunday."