One Scary Place To Race

There’s a slight sense of dread and hesitancy surrounding the NASCAR Winston Cup Series this week.

Ever since teams left Daytona International Speedway in February, some teams and drivers have been trying not to think about coming to Talladega Superspeedway, the site of this Sunday’s Talladega 500. It’s the first restrictor-plate race since the Daytona 500, in which seven-time Winston Cup champion Dale Earnhardt was killed.

The anticipation from some of the drivers, crew chiefs and teams is that the mammoth 2.66-mile Alabama track is like a time bomb waiting to explode. With cars running only inches apart at approximately 190 mph, the potential for a massive multicar accident always looms large at Talladega.

Racing at Talladega has gotten that reputation since NASCAR decided to put carburetor restrictor plates on the machines in order to slow speeds down under the 200 mph mark. The reputation has been enhanced by several huge accidents in the mid-to-late 1990s, some of which had cars flipping and flying through the air.

Some say it’s not a matter of if ‘The Big Wreck’ is going to happen, it’s how long into Sunday’s 500-miler before it does.

The Talladega 500 will be the third race under NASCAR-mandated aerodynamic rules designed to “dirty up” the air and allow a little more drafting back into play. In the first race under the present rules, it was a comeback that will be relived in Winston Cup history for quite some time to come as Earnhardt came from 18th to win last October’s Winston 500 at Talladega in only five breathtaking laps.

“Talladega was a good race last year and Daytona (in February) was an excellent race,” said Kevin Hamlin, Earnhardt’s crew chief and now the head wrench for rookie driver Kevin Harvick. “If you were sitting in the grandstands you couldn’t have asked for more excitement.

“The problem is the race teams are standing in the pits and we look at it in a whole different way than everybody sitting in the stands. It’s terrific racing, but it’s also scary and dangerous. I don’t know what the answer is and none of us do. I guess we all just need to go to Talladega and use our heads. Hopefully we can come out with no major incidents.”

The major wreck many were waiting on last fall at Talladega actually came after the race, as cars raced and wrecked for positions across the start-finish line. At Talladega’s sister track, Daytona International Speedway, those same aerodynamic rules were used again and produced some of the greatest racing the Florida track has seen for over 400 miles of the season-opening Daytona 500.

As Tony Stewart and Robby Gordon raced off the second turn while running in the Top 5, the two made contact and Stewart’s Pontiac became airborne. Stewart’s car landed on the hood of Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Bobby Labonte’s Pontiac, and by the time the smoke had cleared, 18 cars were damaged.

But the worst was yet to come.

On the last lap, Earnhardt was killed when his famous black No. 3 Goodwrench Chevrolet hit the fourth-turn wall nearly head on. Grief and controversy still surround Earnhardt’s death, perhaps the darkest hour in NASCAR’s history.

Despite the pleas from several sources for NASCAR to change the rules heading into Talladega, the same ones will be in effect for the Talladega 500. That leaves some of the participants hoping – and praying – that everything will go smoothly this weekend.

There were rumors and innuendo last month that Winston Cup drivers were planning a boycott if they were forced to race under the same rules at Talladega this weekend that they did last October and at Daytona in February. However, all of the drivers will be at Talladega this weekend, with qualifying slated for Friday afternoon.

Some aren’t exactly looking forward to it, though.

“It’s another race that pays the points, so you have to go there,” said Jeff Gordon, the race’s defending champion. “I don’t see drivers having a choice if they want to win the championship. I’m going there to race because I want to win the championship. If a wreck happens, I believe it’s meant to be.

“If it’s my day or not my day, that’s the way it’s meant to be. I don’t make the rules, but I try to live by them. You hope you can convince NASCAR to find something that works better – and I’m sure in their minds they also want to find something that works better – but I don’t see anything happening in time for Talladega.

“If I had my choice, I’d like to see a change in the rules, but I’m going to race with the rules however they are. I know we can have a good race, put on a good show and be safe, it’s just the chances of that happening are slim. I prefer something that makes it a little harder to make a pass on another guy. The rules we’re going back to Talladega with were not designed for Talladega; they were designed for Daytona.”

The fact that the rules haven’t changed angers veteran Mark Martin, who feels as if his life is being put at risk for the sake of the sport.

“I’m extremely disappointed with the Talladega rules,” Martin said. “Most of the drivers expected a change for this race. I would certainly like to see a little bit more boring race – a little bit less TV ratings and ticket sales and a little bit more boring of a race.”

Martin’s Roush Racing teammate, Jeff Burton, shares much the same sentiment.

“I wish we could do something different,” Burton said. “If I were in charge, I would do something different. However, I don’t know what that is. The fact of the matter is that people complained and all the drivers are still saying that their first priority is to miss the big wreck. But the big wreck is waiting to happen with either set of rules. That’s the only way I can say it. If we’re going to play dumb and choose not to make things better, then there’s a price to be paid for that and I think that’s an unacceptable price.

“At what point do you draw the line? I don't know. I’m glad I’m not in the position to have to make the decision on what to do for Daytona and Talladega because if you came to me, I would make the race a boring one. Not many people want that. In 2000, when we went to the Daytona 500, drivers were complaining, the media was complaining and the fans were complaining, so we changed the rules. Now the only people complaining are the drivers, so I guess we took two of the three out. It’s a tough situation. I don’t know if you’ll ever make those three groups happy at one time.”

The biggest problem, according to many in the Winston Cup garage, is the rules debate is a problem for which there simply is no simple solution.

“There’s not an easy fix for what everybody’s looking for,” said Larry McClure, owner of the No. 4 Kodak Chevrolet. “The only thing that’s been taken away are the packs of cars breaking apart, but I don’t know what else NASCAR could do. It’d take a magician to come up with the right answer.”

As far as the safest place to be Sunday with the threat of a wreck looming large, Gordon agrees there is no such safe haven – anywhere on the track.

“Bobby Labonte proved that this year at Daytona,” Gordon said. “Guys that were racing up front got into each other and Bobby was in the rear of the field and got in it. The only safe place is on pit road, but that’s not an option at Talladega.”

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