By Jared Turner
From one of NASCAR’s shortest tracks to its longest and one of its fastest ones, the Sprint Cup Series heads to Talladega Superspeedway this weekend for the running of the GEICO 500.
Rest assured, there will be no shortage of drama.
The high-banked 2.66-mile Talladega tri-oval is one of only two tracks on the Sprint Cup schedule where restrictor plates keep cars bunched in tight packs from the start of the race to the checkered flag.
Talladega, even more so than Daytona – the other restrictor-plate track – is notorious for breeding major and sometimes downright scary multi-car pileups that are a direct result of the close-quarters plate racing.
One little mistake by one driver can wipe out nearly half the field and totally change the complexion of the race.
It’s for this reason that most drivers have a love-hate relationship with Talladega, which offers unmatched excitement but also raises the risk of a driver being caught up in a melee not at all of his own making.
“Talladega is one of those tracks that is a necessary evil on our race schedule especially considering my history at the track,” veteran driver Ryan Newman said. “But, it’s like any other track where it provides you with a legitimate chance and opportunity to win. I just have to figure out a so-called antitoxin to stop getting snake bit there because it happens to me more often than any one there.”
Six-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson enjoys racing at Talladega, especially in the spring when, unlike the fall Chase for the Sprint Cup race, there isn’t a lot to lose in terms of championship position.
“The spring Talladega race is always a great race,” said Johnson. “Granted, things can happen out of your control and you can be taken out in heartbeat, but for the most part, to me it’s a lot of fun. With the rules package as it is, it encourages racing from the drop of the green flag to the checkered so you have to have strategy throughout the race. Qualifying is going to be pretty interesting – I’d say it’s one for the fans to watch. It’s going to be fun.”
Talladega also gives drivers with smaller teams who wouldn’t have a chance of winning at most tracks a chance to mix it up for a victory that would guarantee them a spot in the Chase.
“You always feel good about Daytona and Talladega because it equalizers the field a little bit and everyone has a chance,” team owner Tommy Baldwin said. “We’re excited. It’s not out of the question (to win), as we’ve been in position these last three, four years to have a chance.”
Dale Earnhardt Jr., a five-time Talladega winner, appreciates the track for more than its heart-pounding genre of racing. The third-generation driver is a big fan of its history in NASCAR, which goes back to 1969.
“Talladega is really a special racetrack to the sport with the history of it and how it was conceived,” Earnhardt said. “The track eventually turned into one of the most impressive and unique, concerning speed, and how the style of racing that you have is so unique, it’s just amazing what it has been able to deliver year after year. I enjoy going to Talladega, and I remember it was one of my favorites as a kid. When I was young, out of all the tracks that I had the chance to go to, this was definitely one of my favorites to come to.
“Milling around in the garage during the race and just how big the place was and the cars looked different because of the superspeedway bodies — it was just a really fun experience for me.”