NASCAR PREVIEW: TALLADEGA
By Brennen McCall, Racing Contributor
Few names in sports seem to resonate when it rolls off the tongue. Talladega Superspeedway is such a name that is synonymous with American stock car racing. The 2.66-mile tri-oval boasts blistering speeds, massive pileups and spectacular airborne flips that turn 3400-pound racecars into feathers. It’s a frightening prospect for the average human being, but the stars of NASCAR are not average. You’ve got to be more than that at Talladega.
Born from an old Air Force base in Alabama, Talladega Superspeedway was purpose built to be bigger and faster than Daytona. To date it is NASCAR’s largest racetrack. The high-rising 33 degrees of banking allow drivers to hold the cars completely wide open creating speeds excess 200 mph.
These high speeds are largely due to aerodynamic phenomenon known as the draft. Imagine two racecars driving in a line. The front car is taking all the force of the air it’s cutting through. The car behind has far less air resistance, thus allowing it to go faster.
Drafting is a common practice in almost all forms of motorsports and NASCAR has done it for years. The engines used to be unrestricted and cars could reach speeds well over 200 mph by themselves. Drafting still played a role but the field of cars would be spread out leaving only a few cars capable of taking the win. A series of dangerous crashes in the 1980s prompted NASCAR to implement safety restrictions including to the engines themselves.
With engine outputs limited drafting became everything if you wanted to win at Talladega and Daytona. Getting behind another car meant you now have more speed than the car ahead of you. The advantage of the draft was far greater than the risk of riding by yourself. Thus, pack racing was born.
In a way that resembles a thundering freight train, pack racing at Talladega is as wild as it’s ever been. Because of an improved rules package, the buildup of momentum from the draft is much stronger than in recent years. A massive eight-inch spoiler helps to punch a huge hole in the air allowing training cars to pick up more speed.
With stronger drafting comes more parity between the field. A team that would normally struggle to get inside the top 30 every week now can find themselves on the same level as the championship leader. A slower car can spoil the show because the power of the draft. This the why Michael McDowell took his #34 Ford to victory in this year’s Daytona 500. A car that has no business running up front most weekends found itself winning the biggest race in NASCAR.
It isn’t all on the car however. The driver plays a role too. Increased momentum gives a driver some options throughout a race at Talladega and it’s a constant chess match with the competition. Do you stay behind this guy in front of you to save fuel? Do you push him to gain speed? What about the drivers behind you? If you pull out to make this pass will the cars behind follow you? What if they don’t and you fall to the rear? Do you go for the lead early in the race and risk getting caught up in someone else’s mistake? Or do you hang at the back all day and make a run late? What are your teammates doing? Do you help them to the lead or try to pass them for the lead?
These questions are what driver and spotter are trying to answer each lap of a race at Talladega. The spotter sits high above the fans at the very top of the grandstands. The spotter is the driver’s guide through the storm that is pack racing. Momentum with lines are constantly shifting and it’s crucial for the spotter to relay that information.
Drivers have very little room to move inside behind the wheel. Their head cannot move fully forward or side to side due to head and neck restraints. Their field of view is limited by their helmet. Mirrors are located where driver’s need them but no mirror can tell a driver when a run is developing three cars behind them. What the spotter sees is a great influence on the driver’s actions. It helps the driver know what is happening around them so they can quickly make their next move at 200 miles per hour.
Oftentimes these moves are made within seconds and mistakes are made. The cost of these mistakes can be in the millions. Pack racing can have 40 cars under a blanket going 200 mph. One wrong move spell disaster for not only your car, but the cars of your competitors. Countless hours spent on research and development is erased in seconds.
“The Big One” might be the most feared accident in racing. This fear often plays a role in how drivers make decisions. Making that late block or giving that guy a big push might cause a crash. Talladega is a long race. Aggressive driving can get you to the lead but is it worth risking your chances at victory so early in the race?
This is why positioning yourself at the end of these races is so crucial to success. Aggressive moves become more common near the end of these races because the clock is ticking. The closer you are at the front the less likely you are of getting caught up in someone else’s mistake.
So, who can position themselves best at Talladega? There are a few drivers to watch.
Since 2018, there hasn’t been a driver with more wins than Ryan Blaney. While only managing to lead just nine laps, he’s won two out of the last three Talladega races. Both within a margin of about two feet.
Blaney’s Penske teammates Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano often find themselves battling up front for the win at super speedways. Keselowski leads all active drivers in Talladega wins, but has finished 13th or worse in the last six races there. Logano has won on three separate occasions but has failed to finish inside the top-10 the last three Talladega starts.
Chase Elliott has posted three finished of eighth or better in his last four Talladega race, including a win in 2019.
Last week’s Richmond winner Alex Bowman finished seventh and 14th in both Talladega races last year.
Perhaps a dark horse is Aric Almirola who just might be the most consistent Talladega driver with eight finishes of ninth or better in his last nine races at NASCAR’s largest track.
This race will be extremely competitive with nearly every driver in the field having an equal shot at taking victory. You won’t find more parity in the field than at Talladega. Who will survive and who will thrive at NASCAR’s largest and most unpredictable track? You’ll just have to tune in to find out.
Let’s have ourselves a race!
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