Moving from one of its shortest and slowest tracks to the longest track and easily one of its fastest, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heads to 2.66-mile Talladega Superspeedway for Sunday’s Aaron’s 499 after a wild weekend of racing at three-quarter mile Richmond International Raceway.
Talladega, long synonymous for crazy finishes, major and sometimes frightening wrecks and controversy in a variety of forms, is one of only a couple places on the Sprint Cup Series tour where just about anyone can win.
Thanks to the horsepower-choking restrictor plates that keep drivers bunched in one or more tight packs from the drop of the green flag until the checkered, it’s impossible for anyone to get out front and pull away to an easy win. Meanwhile, it’s very much within the realm of possibility for an underdog driver and team to get the right push at the right time and end up going to Victory Lane.
This happened in 2013 when David Ragan, driving for unheralded Front Row Motorsports, hooked up with teammate David Gilliland on the final lap and delivered the first and only Sprint Cup Series win to date for the underfunded organization.
If you think a similar thing can’t happen on Sunday, then think again. That’s because Talladega is all about the great unknown.
“It’s so difficult to predict Talladega,” said 2004 Sprint Cup Series champion Kurt Busch. “You can ride around in the back or charge up front all day and, either way, your day can end with your car on the hook. You just hope to have Lady Luck guide you to a good finish. Restrictor-plate races have turned into this pattern that it is hard to have any type of advantage over any other team. It just comes down to being in the right place at the right time.”
Part of being in the right place at the right time is avoiding the dreaded “Big One” – an all-too-familiar multi-car wreck that eliminates a large portion of the field. With drivers running at nearly 200 mph in a big pack just inches apart at Talladega, wrecks happen fast, and they usually claim numerous casualties.
“It’s just one of those races you have just got to get through,” JTG Daugherty Racing driver AJ Allmendinger said. “You hope coming down to the end that you’re are still running. It’s all about making the right moves, being very lucky and like I said before hoping you are not in a crash. So, it’s not a lot of fun mentally. It’s draining. You are riding around for a while, but mentally you are just wore out by the end of the race.”
One of the underdog drivers who believes he has a shot to get to Victory Lane on Sunday is Aric Almirola. The Richard Petty Motorsports driver scored his first and only Sprint Cup Series win to date in the summer of 2014 at Daytona International Speedway, Talladega’s sister restrictor-plate track, and brings justified optimism into Sunday. Almirola recognizes the hazards that Talladega brings, however, and therefore isn’t willing place any bets on how the race might shake out in the final laps. In that way, Almirola is no different than the overwhelming majority of the 39 drivers he’ll be sharing a track with on Sunday afternoon.
“Talladega is such a crapshoot,” said Almirola, who used his Daytona win two years ago to earn a berth in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. “You have to make sure you stay out of trouble and be in the right place at the end of the race. We’ve shown that we have speed on superspeedways, so we’ll be cautiously aggressive to make sure we make it to the end and have a shot at going for the win.”