What’s it like to be in the middle of one of the cataclysmic, multi-car accidents that so often are a part of racing at Talladega Superspeedway?
“All hell breaks loose and you just cringe and hold on and it hurts,” summarized Clint Bowyer. “You hit hard and you bounce around and finally come to a stop and think, like, ‘What the hell just happened, you know?’ ”
Everyone in Sunday’s 43-car Amp Energy Juice 500 field – particularly the top three drivers in the Chase (Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick) – starts the race with the hope of avoiding The Big One. But every driver also knows it’s mostly a crapshoot.
“It’s hard not to think about it because you’re constantly thinking of a way to – how can I avoid the big one?” Hamlin said. “We have some pretty smart drivers out there, and no one has really figured that out. You’ve got some guys that have better average finishes and seem to finish more than others, but even the best restrictor-plate racers that you talk about, whether it be Harvick or [Jamie] McMurray or whatever you want to talk about – Kurt Busch – they’ve all had as many wins, they’ve had twice as many DNFs, so no one has figured this thing out simply because you never know where that wreck is going to happen or start.
“It’s a matter of chance and luck and who’s going to make the mistake. All I can control is to make sure that I’m not the one who causes the big wreck and just constantly be aware of who’s around me.”
Although much of what happens at Talladega is outside the driver’s control, Jeff Burton said that is not an excuse for some of the calamity.
“You have to accept Talladega for what it is,” Burton said. “At the same time, you have to take responsibility for your actions. It is very, very difficult when things happen and there was nothing that you could do. But I don’t think it is right to go into the race with the preconceived notion that something is going to happen to you with nothing you can do about it. Because that takes you off the hook and ultimately puts you on the hook, if you know what I mean.
“I think that it is real important to every incident you are involved in at Talladega to go back and look at it really, really, really closely and make sure you couldn’t do something different. Here and Bristol are the only race tracks we go to where a wreck happens and drivers get out and they say, ‘That is just Bristol’ or ‘That is just plate racing.’ We tend to blame to it on the racing rather than on ourselves.
“It is without a doubt the biggest opportunity to have something happen to you that you didn’t do anything wrong. There is no question that is here. But you can’t think like that. You have got to believe that you are going to be able to be in control. You have to believe you are going to have an impact on your result and what happens. To me, that is the only way you can approach it.”
The final 10 laps here are particularly treacherous, as drivers who have run in the pack all day start picking spots and making moves to position themselves for the finish. More often that not, there is a big wreck in those closing laps.
“For 140 laps, 130 laps, when somebody is trying to fill a hole, you let them do it,” Burton said. “The cost to you isn’t great, so you allow it. When it starts to get to the end of the race, that spot is coveted and you want it, and so you end up doing things that you wouldn’t normally do because if you don’t, you aren’t going to have a chance to win the race.
“That is the nature of the beast. You don’t know you are going to wreck. If you lift when you really want to lift an awful lot of times, it really costs you. A lot of these wrecks – when they happen, a guy didn’t not lift, and he knew he was going to get in the wreck. … At the end of the day, it is our responsibility as drivers. Restrictor plate racing puts you in positions like no other kind of racing. There’s no other kind of racing that puts you in these situations. That is why we have the wrecks.”
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.