TALLADEGA, Ala. – Listening to drivers describe how they’ll avoid accidents at Talladega Superspeedway has the same feel of a horror movie where the characters think they’ve found a safe place only to discover they’re wrong.
“The saying that it’s safer in the front of the pack is just something that has carried over for years,’’ Jamie McMurray said. “There’s really no safe place.’’
Since it has become easier to stall cars with aerodynamic maneuvering, making passing more difficult, the quest to stay near the front has made running in the top 10 more dangerous.
More than 60 percent of the multi-car accidents in the last five Talladega races started in the top 10. No place is safe. The leader has spun, the second-place car has been wrecked and the third-place car catapulted into the air.
It also doesn’t matter who is running toward the front. Former champions have triggered accidents. Former restrictor-plate race winners also have.
With 11 Chase drivers battling for seven spots in the next round, the push to be near the front will be intense and could cause problems in today’s race.
“Why do we all wreck around the top 10? I guess probably because you have to make riskier moves to get to the front, and I wouldn’t necessarily say a wreck in the top 10 is from bad driving,’’ said Brad Keselowski, who spun out of the lead in May 2014 when he came down on Danica Patrick’s car and later that day triggered a 14-car crash when his car lost the air on the rear and spun in front of sixth-place Trevor Bayne.
“Everything we do here is a risk vs. reward proposition and the odds aren’t in your favor. Eventually, you’re going to wreck. You’re relying on others to give while you’re taking and sometimes people are just tired of giving.’’
Drivers are less courteous because it can be so difficult to pass even on a Talladega track that seems as wide as an LA freeway but can be as congested.
These cars are more susceptible to aerodynamics. A trailing car can run along the quarter panel of a leading car and shift the flow of air to that leading car’s spoiler. The result is as if the driver in the leading car hit the brakes. Their momentum is gone. Their run stalled.
Of course, when the car that did that to them nudges ahead, the favor can be returned and slow that car. Suddenly, two lines of cars are stuck in what Casey Mears calls the slinky effect, a herky-jerky reaction of cars trying not to run into the back of each other. He says if he can’t be in the top three rows or so, then he’s more content to ride further in the back until later in the race.
When that moment is, he won’t say. That’s part of his strategy. The key, he confides, is to make the move before the field is three-wide and there’s no place to go.
Ryan Newman, who has rolled and flipped in restrictor-plate races, admits his best success has come when he’s run part of a race at the back of the pack.
“Typically, if you don’t have a car that’s fast enough to lead, you’re just going to try to lead and end up in the mix of the guys that are trying to do the same thing and lead a lap that doesn’t matter,’’ he said.
Running in the back doesn’t always work, though. Kyle Busch was running 36th in this race a year ago when he was hit from behind and crashed after slowing to avoid an accident ahead.
When it’s time to make a move, the action can be intense throughout the field, especially the front.
“You watch Dale (Earnhardt) Jr.,’’ said Bayne of the driver who has won the past two restrictor-plate races. “He’s probably the most aggressive guy to stay in the front. If he’s leading, he almost wrecks every race trying to block the lead. (Jimmie Johnson) the same thing. There’s a reason they’re staying so aggressive to stay in the front, it’s hard to pass.’’
Earnhardt admits if he gets to the front, he’ll do all he can to stay there.
“I think I need to be in the lead with 30 or 20 to go to have a really, really good shot at it,’’ he said. “If not, it’s going to be a bit more difficult task to get that lead. It’s just really difficult to pass the leader. And he’s probably going to be a strong car if he’s got the lead. So, it will be tough to get around him. They’ll be trying to do everything they can to hold it.’’
That can lead to more than just bumping and beating.