Talladega brings different strategy to the table
Updated: Friday April 20, 2001 9:35 PM
By Mike Fish, CNNSI.com
TALLADEGA, Ala. -- Imagine the Kenyans jogging through the early miles of the Boston Marathon, or Pedro Martinez not cutting loose on his fastball until -- oh, the seventh inning or so.
It sounds silly, right?
But the strategy in some quarters for the Talladega 500 is that simple, just hang back and avoid what drivers respectfully call the "big one." Then, you can run for the money.
Sterling Marlin says he's heard at least 10 drivers talk of intentionally running about half-a-lap off the pace most of the afternoon.
Team owner Jack Roush says some of his drivers, including Jeff Burton, played with the strategy at Daytona -- and still got caught up in a 19-car crash.
Elliott Sadler tried it at Daytona, and is leaning in that direction again.
"I'm going to try to stay out of the big wreck," Sadler said. "Maybe hang around the middle or back until things settle down a little bit. I was surprised how many guys ran at the back of Daytona until the end. So, I think you'll see guys drop back and kind of hang out until the end of the race."
Even before Daytona, many of the drivers were uneasy with an aerodynamic package aimed at producing bumper-to-bumper and side-by-side racing.
"About 40 or 50 laps to go, right before the last pit stop, everybody started making their charge up," Sadler said. "Myself, [Bobby] Labonte and [Dale] Jarrett kind of ran in the back. We had just made our move up, about five laps before, and then the big wreck happened and some of us got in it."
About an hour later on the final lap, Dale Earnhardt touched with Marlin's car and crashed into the outer wall.
Marlin didn't lay back at Daytona, and it isn't in the plans for Talladega.
"If I can get up near the lead, I ain't riding back there," said Marlin, the second-fastest qualifier. "But you know it's going to be 43 cars on top of each other. Some 10 guys have talked of falling back and getting a half-track behind.
"Hopefully, NASCAR will change some rules and we can get out of these big packs. These tracks are built for speed. To me, we could run 200, 205. That way, the best teams, best drivers, best cars are on the top. You can take a car now that's a half-second slower than my car and lead race with it."
After the multi-car pileup at Daytona and the final-lap crash that claimed Earnhardt, it was thought NASCAR might change the rules for Talladega. But relief never came. As a result, the 43 drivers will roll onto the track just hoping to survive an afternoon of near 200-mile-an-hour speeds and three and four-wide racing.
Because a restrictive device on the carburetors robs the cars of throttle response and added air foils create more downforce, it's almost impossible to pull away from even a small pack of cars.
The American Society of Safety Engineers, the world's largest and oldest society of safety engineers wrote NASCAR for a third time this year, urging officials Friday to increase safety measures before the Talladega race.
Marlin revealed that NASCAR has asked some teams to stay over Monday to test some things it's been working on.
That's fine with Sadler, but his first concern is surviving a major Talladega wreck that he and some others are predicting.
"Yeah, we think there is going to be a big one," Sadler said. "It's very possible when you run this close to each other every single lap. You got 43 drivers. And we're human. It's hard to be perfect for four hours. Sometimes some of us make mistakes and cause a big wreck."
How does he sleep knowing the danger that could be ahead? Not well.
"It's nerve wracking, man,'' he sighed. "It is stressful. We don't want to see anybody get hurt. We want to see everybody safe, but we want to put on good show for the fans, too.
"They know they're going to see a good show here on Sunday. Hopefully, we're going to give it to them at no expense and move on."