Nowhere to run – Talladega provides few safe havens for drivers

Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images
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TALLADEGA, Ala. — At a track where a NASCAR driver once claimed a voice told him to park his car during a race, is there really anyplace safe to run at Talladega Superspeedway?

That’s a question many Chase drivers wonder with the field of title contenders cut from 12 to eight after Sunday’s race at NASCAR’s fastest, longest and quite possibly scariest racetrack.

“I have wrecked racing up front, I’ve wrecked in the back and I’ve wrecked in the middle, and I can tell you it just feels better to be up front,’’ Carl Edwards said.

While many drivers agree that the front provides the safest place, NBC Sports’ study of incidents in the last five Talladega races raises questions about that assumption.

In more than half of the incidents (11 of 20) in the last five Cup races at Talladega, the first car involved was running in the top 10.

Of those 11 incidents, nearly half (five) started with a car in the top five, including the leader once.

The May race proved that running at the front was not as safe as drivers figured. Six of the eight accidents started with a car in the top 10. NASCAR’s race report listed 36 of the 40 cars as being involved in at least one incident.

Chase Elliott, one of four drivers not listed in an incident in that race, said that threat of rain increased the intensity and led to the chaotic pace.

“I think we were all pretty antsy because we felt like that rain could be there anytime,’’ said Elliott, who finished fifth in that race. “To me, the entire race looked like the last 20 laps of a typical weekend. To me, it didn’t have the same feel as the Daytona 500 did or the Fourth of July Daytona race did.’’

Twice in the May race at Talladega, a car running fourth was involved in an incident.

Michael Waltrip was running fourth when a shove from Martin Truex Jr, who was being pushed by Joey Logano, forced Waltrip off the track on the backstretch. He tried to run back up the track in Turn 3 but two other cars were collected.

In the other incident, Jimmie Johnson was fourth at the time when he lost control after being pushed by Kurt Busch. Three other drivers running in the top 10 at the time — Paul Menard, Regan Smith and Truex — were collected in the 21-car incident.

That incident was one of six since 2014 that saw at least 10 cars involved, according to NASCAR’s race statistics.

There was a 12-car incident also in last spring’s race. That started when Michael McDowell’s car hit Danica Patrick’s car, sending it into Matt Kenseth. Kenseth’s car then got airborne.

Even a normal race isn’t easy at Talladega.

“This is no doubt one of the toughest races there is just to stay mentally focused,’’ Truex said. “It’s not a physically demanding race, but the mental side is pretty insane to be three or four wide all day long, especially if you decide you’re going to try to stay up front all day and try to race all day and not ever go to the back and try to be in a safe spot.’’

If there is such a thing.

For those who think running at the back is better, Kyle Busch will likely disagree. Busch entered this race two years ago with a 26-point lead on the first car out. Busch was running 36th when he slowed for a crash in front of him and he was hit from behind by Austin Dillon.

Logano, who won this race last year, defines his safe place not by position but by his surroundings.

“When you’re around other cars it may not be who you’re driving against, it may just be the way their car handles,’’ he said. “You might say, ‘His car looks loose, or he looks out of control for some reason,’ and understanding that scenario and what position you’re in. There are times in the race that you can back out of it and say, ‘OK, let’s wait for this to calm down a little bit and then we’ll try to work our way back up.’ 

“The whole race you weigh out in your mind risk vs. reward.  That’s what you think about, ‘Am I willing to take this risk and if I do, what do I gain?’ You think about that when you’re trying to make a move and say, ‘Am I gonna make this move to take the lead and am I gonna go back to 20th if it doesn’t work?’ You weigh that out. Is it making a move that’s going to put you in a really tight spot and you could possibly crash to gain three or four spots? You’ve got to weight that out. Does that make sense? 

“A lot of that changes throughout the race. When it’s early in the race a lot more people are conservative and say, ‘It’s not really worth it at this point in the race.’ But at the end of the race everyone is trying to get every spot they can and depending on your point situation you’re going to have to make decisions.”