The place not to be at Talladega Superspeedway, according to Denny Hamlin, is the mushy middle.
Some drivers race to the front and try to stay in that area for much of the way in races at Talladega, while others float at the back for much of the afternoon with a plan to charge at the end.
It’s the drivers who find themselves swinging in the big hammock in the middle who often get into trouble, Hamlin said.
“You can find yourself in the middle, and it’s OK at times, but, at the end of the race that’s the one place you don’t want to be,” Hamlin said Friday.
The middle of the pack tends to become a busy place in the final 10 to 20 laps as drivers jockey for position in the usually wild Talladega draft.
Positioning will be particularly important for Hamlin and others who enter the Good Sam Roadside Assistance 500 at or near the top of the Chase standings. Hamlin is third, behind Brad Keselowski and Jimmie Johnson.
“It’s a ton of fun,” Hamlin said of Talladega. “From my standpoint, the spring race here is about the most fun you can possibly have at a race track. No one’s really thinking about points at that time. Everyone’s going all out.
“But when you find yourself in the championship battle, it can be a burden or a blessing to you. It weighs on those who are in the points race a little more.”
Hamlin says he’s wide open to strategy changes Sunday.
“If I was 10th or 12th in points, I would just run all out,” he said. “And those guys probably will. I’m just going to vary my strategy based off how the race is going.
“If it’s single-file and kind of tame at times, you might want to make a run to the front and lead a lap or maybe the most laps, but if it’s wild, I’m adjusting my strategy accordingly.”
Hamlin lost a shot at a strong points day last Sunday when he had to pit for fuel late in the race at Dover. Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch suffered the same fate, losing a great chance at winning the race after leading 302 laps. Busch was severely critical of Toyota Racing Development after the race, a rant that resulted in him apologizing to Toyota officials Thursday.
“Drivers try our best to be perfect and try to do the things that are right,” Hamlin said. “It would be very hard for anyone in here (media center) and any fan to go out there and lead three-quarters of the race and then something you have no control over takes you out of it.
“As a driver, you did your job, but, unfortunately, something else kept you from winning. I understand those frustrations. Some people vent differently. It’s just frustration. Literally, it’s so frustrating. I felt the same thing.”
Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEED.com and has been covering motorsports for 30 years. He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.