In a perfect racing world, maybe races at Talladega Superspeedway should be free-standing; that is, non-points events that don’t penalize drivers who are trapped in the track’s all-too-predictable big wrecks and limp home with rotten finishes.
But that might take away much of the fun, especially when a tight championship race rolls into town, as it will Sunday for the Amp Energy 500. Point leader Jimmie Johnson has a six-point edge over Denny Hamlin and a 62-point margin over third-place Kevin Harvick with four races left in the championship run.
“Points should not be awarded at Talladega,” said Chaser Carl Edwards. “In a fair competition they shouldn’t be because it’s so random. It’s just a treacherous race. Now, since there are points awarded, it adds a whole other level of stress to the race. You drive around, and if you’re doing really well in the points, every lap your heart is pounding and you’re just trying to predict any wrecks that might happen and the best way to avoid them.”
That avoidance factor will be up front in the thinking of Johnson, Hamlin, Harvick and their teams Sunday as they enter the mix of mayhem and madness that a Talladega race can produce.
In recent years, some drivers have attempted to avoid involvement in a major, multi-car accident by cruising around near the back of the field – virtually forgotten – for most of the race. That sometimes works, but it isn’t likely one of the championship contenders will employ that strategy, simply because being too far behind late in the race could result in a finish outside the top 20, and that would not be fun for Johnson, Hamlin or Harvick.
“Certainly Talladega always has the potential to be an accident waiting to happen,” Matt Kenseth said. “You never know where it’s going to occur, when it’s going to occur and who it’s going to take out, so that’s one you’re never sure where everybody is going to finish until the race is over – that’s for sure.”
The lines have gotten so crossed at Talladega over the years that it is mostly impossible to predict if teammates will help teammates or Chevrolet drivers will help Chevrolet drivers or brothers will help brothers in the wild drafting that leads to the finish.
In the end, it’s often about which driver happens to be in the right position in the right line at the right time.
“Talladega, I don’t think, has a whole lot to do with skills, so I would say luck will play out a lot more,” said Jeff Gordon, a winner six times at the track.
Forced to make a pick, Gordon said he’d rather be second or third with five laps to go.
“It just depends on who you’re pushing and who is pushing you,” he said. “The lead is not a bad place, but it depends on who is behind you. If it’s a teammate, then you probably feel like your chances of finishing first or second are pretty good. If it’s somebody else, you might get shuffled earlier and you could end up 15th. So, I think that probably it’s better to be second or third.”
Depending on circumstances, however, it’s possible to lose a dozen spots in a couple of laps, so everything is mostly a big grab bag of possibilities.
Hamlin said he usually tries to run relatively conservatively at Talladega but that his crew chief, Mike Ford, prefers an aggressive approach.
On any given day, either could work. And that’s part of the mystery of Talladega.
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.