The only thing that’s predictable about racing at Talladega Superspeedway, according to Tony Stewart, is that it’s unpredictable.
And that fact requires drivers to be on their toes on every lap.
“It’s not physically challenging, it’s mentally challenging,” Stewart said. “The hard part is staying focused for 500 miles when you know you can’t make a mistake any direction. But you don’t know how it’s always going to play out. That’s the hard part.
“You can’t predict when there’s going to be a wreck. You can’t predict when guys are going to get in a line on the top of the race track – you know, do the Dale [Earnhardt] Jr. line. He’s the one that started that whole thing. You don’t know when that’s going to happen.”
It all leads, Stewart said, to the final 10 laps, when drivers who have rolled around in the draft all day start to plot strategy for the final frantic dash to the checkered. The drama will unfold again Sunday in the Amp Energy Juice 500, the seventh race in the Chase.
“The hard part is trying to anticipate all those scenarios,” he said. “Everybody has a different strategy for what to do to be there at the end. The hard thing is that it’s a 188-lap race, but the last 10 laps are what really matter and set the tone for what’s going to happen on the last lap. You basically in those 178 laps are trying to take care of yourself.”
And that’s not easy. A mistake by one driver can lead to a 20-car accident.
Brakes? Virtually no help. Retired driver Buddy Baker once said applying brakes at full speed at Talladega is roughly like putting your hand out the window.
Instead, drivers tend to fall into two categories – those who attempt to race at the front to avoid mid-pack trouble, and those who linger at the rear for the same reason.
“Racers are still racers,” Stewart said. “There will be guys in a hurry at the beginning of the race, and there are guys that appear to be in a hurry, but they’re trying to see what they have car-wise. There will be guys that drop to the back, not because they have a problem, but because they’re trying to take care of themselves, not get into a position they can’t get out of. A lot of times it’s self-preservation.
“Sunday, there are going to be a lot of cars that look like they just came off the race track at Martinsville. It’s definitely a scenario where you have to be patient, you have to let the guys that are impatient, in a hurry, you have to let them do their thing and you have to stick to your plan. It'’ hard to anticipate what everybody’s individual race plans are going to be.”
The drivers who do typically wind up in the top 10 for those final 10 laps. Then, it’s anybody’s game. Stewart has managed to conquer the track one time, winning the fall 2008 race.
The key, he said, is to develop a plan and try to stick with it and hope circumstances work out in the end.
“You look at our stats – granted we’ve only won one race at Talladega, but we’ve run second six, seven or eight times there,” he said. “A lot of those races we ran in the back a lot of the race, just taking it easy, taking care of our car, knowing that the important part of the race is later in the day.
“As long as you can stay in that lead draft, that’s the important thing to Talladega. It’s not necessarily the fact that the pit stops can get very, very difficult there with guys taking two tires or no tires. If you are one of those guys that ride in the back, you have to be really careful in the pit stops. A lot of times when you’re coming in, there are guys finishing two-tire stops or took fuel and are on their way out. That’s one of the more challenging parts to take it easy and be careful.
“I think guys have an idea of how they want to run their race, and I think guys are comfortable with the strategy that they use. There’s a lot of guys in the field that are fighting for jobs still. Those guys don’t really have that flexibility to ride around. They’re trying to impress car owners. Those guys are fighting all day long to stay up as high as they can, and there’s guys that have done this a long time that have a more methodical approach to it.
“The great thing about Talladega is you can’t count anybody out. Those last 10 laps is when everything is going to happen and guys are going to play different strategies at times, especially with Chase guys. Even if the Chase guy isn’t up front, he might take a gamble on a pit stop to get those five bonus points.”
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.