Drivers wary of what lies ahead at Talladega
By Stephen Thomas, CNNSI.com
TALLADEGA, Ala. -- Talladega suffers from an odd case of schizophrenia -- that is, it is many different things all at once.
It is unquestionably a 2.66-mile, high-banked oval set in the rolling fields of Alabama. So too, has the track been the scene of some of NASCAR's more memorable races, Dale Earnhardt's furious charge to the front last fall being the most recent. But Talladega is a third thing altogether: the equivalent of an epithet, a word that is fairly spit out.
While no one will out and out say that the prospect of racing in Sunday's Talladega 500 scares them, many will admit to being less than thrilled at the thought.
Because NASCAR has done little to modify the rules package it instituted last fall (rules that effectively force cars to race bumper-to-bumper in huge, monolithic packs; sure, you can run alone, but if you do, you can kiss your competitive ambitions goodbye), virtually everyone in and around NASCAR has anticipated this weekend's race, and virtually everyone wonders just what catastrophe might await.
"You know it's going to happen," pole-sitter Stacy Compton said when asked about the likelihood of a Daytona-esque accident that eliminates a healthy portion of the field in one shot. "You know it's almost inevitable. Hopefully, you can get through it. There's nothing you can do to avoid it. The biggest problem is if one person makes a mistake, you can take out 40 cars."
While no one was seriously injured in the 19-car wreck at Daytona, the memory of Tony Stewart's car cartwheeling down the backstretch resonates loudly in the garage -- and the result is a healthy sense of trepidation.
"The way I see it," said Bill Elliott, "you're going to come in here and hope and pray that nothing happens during the race. You take 43 cars and put 'em together for 500 miles and somebody has a flat tire or a blown engine or whatever, it can cause a problem. You can't run that many laps without somebody making a mistake."
NASCAR instituted the restrictor-plate rules, those that drop a car's horsepower and thus slow it down, in an effort to make racing at tracks like Daytona and Talladega safer. Ironically, at least as the rules are currently written, the exact opposite is almost certainly the case.
"We went faster then," said Elliott, who holds the Talladega qualifying record of 212.809 that he set in 1987, "but it seemed safer. I knew we were running the speeds, but it never crossed my mind when I came in this place like it does today."
And to a man, the subject of racing safely is at the forefront of everyone's mind.
"The thing here is we talk about patience and, obviously, that's the biggest part of [Sunday's] race, who can and will be patient," says Dale Jarrett. "But it's also a tall order to ask 43 guys that race for a living to be patient for 500 miles.
"You're talking literally 11 rows of cars that are four deep," Jarrett continued. "One of them will obviously have three cars in it, but that's pretty much what we've got and you're inches away. You have to be looking so far ahead and around you. This is one place the good Lord didn't give us enough eyes. You can't put enough mirrors there and the spotters are so far away that they can't help you that much. It's really hard because you've got your eyes going in so many different directions."
According to Compton, the end result of all this could be a very static race ... for about 400 miles. "If you watch, you're going to see some really good cars riding around in the back until 50 to go," he says. "They're going to be back there trying to avoid the big wreck. With 50 to go, you're going to see some guys start marching to the front. That's what happened at Daytona -- everybody sat back there and rode and, with 50 to go, they started marching and the big wreck happened."
An apparent inevitability that has everyone more than a little concerned. "I think we're all [apprehensive]," Elliott said. "I don't have the answers but you come in these deals and you hope and pray you go in the right direction and get in the right place and you walk out of here at the end of the day."