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CUP: Talladega – So Easy, So Hard

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Race car drivers are fond of saying that driving a fast vehicle around Talladega Superspeedway is so easy that even a monkey – or a sports writer – could do it.

Ha.

Ha.

It is a reality, however, that the track is so smooth and wide that ripping around its 2.66 miles at high speed for 500 miles is not one of the season’s biggest challenges.

Doing that and also WINNING, however, is another matter.

Consider:

--Only five of the current 12 Chase drivers have won at Talladega, and only one of that five – Jeff Gordon with six – has won more than once.

--Some of NASCAR’s best drivers have zero victories at the sport’s biggest track. Among them: Rusty Wallace (0 for 45), Geoffrey Bodine (0 for 36), Ricky Rudd (0 for 59).

--Even some of racing’s hardest chargers and/or decorated restrictor-plate experts have only one win each at Talladega – Tony Stewart, Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson and Michael Waltrip.

--One guy who raced most of forever – Richard Petty – won only twice at the track. Two others still trying to reach forever – Bill Elliott and Mark Martin – also have only two Talladega wins.

That’s the backdrop against which Johnson, Denny Hamlin and Harvick will continue their tight battle for the Sprint Cup championship Sunday in the Amp Energy 500 at Talladega.

The Chase drivers with Talladega wins are Johnson, Harvick, Gordon, Stewart and Kyle Busch. Otherwise, the numbers are grim for Chase qualifiers – Jeff Burton 0-33, Kurt Busch 0-19, Matt Kenseth 0-21, Greg Biffle 0-15. Kyle Busch's average Talladega finish is 23.2, and Carl Edwards (22.5), Biffle (22.0) and Clint Bowyer (21.4) aren’t much better.

Hamlin is winless in nine races at Talladega.

The hard truth is that it is easy to drive at Talladega, but it is difficult to survive its witch’s brew of toil and trouble. And, for the survivors, it’s hard to line up in the right drafting neighborhood to be able to win on the last lap.

Dale Earnhardt Sr., who won 10 times at Talladega, was the acknowledged master of that black art. No one has stepped forward to replace him, and now virtually every visit to Talladega is an unpredictable shootout with no real favorites.

Even drivers who are smart and slick in the draft – like Stewart, Gordon, Johnson, Harvick and Dale Earnhardt Jr. – can’t be counted on as likely winners because they’re as susceptible as the next guy to the volatile nature of every race at the track. Each driver’s success generally rests as much in the hands of others as his own.

With 10 laps to go, when it’s time to GO, those with winning in mind must pick the right drafting partners and the lane that is snaking toward the front and hope for the best. Even then, nothing is guaranteed. Ask Edwards, who had the finish line in sight when his car was lifted into the air by Brad Keselowski.

And the tight nature of the finishes? Another worry. Since NASCAR began using electronic scoring in 1993, every winner of Sprint Cup races finishing under green-flag conditions at Talladega has had a margin of victory under a half-second.

Getting around is easy.

Getting there is hard.

Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEED.com and has been covering motorsports for 28 years. He has written several books on NASCAR, including "NASCAR: The Definitive History of America's Sport" and "Then Tony Said To Junior: The Best NASCAR Stories Ever Told". He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.