The threat of “The Big One” — a large, multi-car crash — looms large at Talladega Superspeedway. Such an accident, given the close-proximity racing typically seen on drafting tracks, is largely unavoidable; however, risk can be mitigated by avoiding the track’s hot spots.
Across the last 16 Talladega races (dating back to 2013), there were 35 crashes consisting of four or more cars. Based on inclusion rates for each position, there was a clear minefield in the middle of the running order:
With 17th place (an inclusion rate of 45.71%) acting as Talladega’s most collected spot, positions 12th-18th were the common nexus for the track’s large accidents. Containing varying degrees of difficulty, there are three viable paths to avoiding these mid-pack positions outright:
Running near the front
Contrary to recent Daytona races, the front of the field is respected at Talladega.
The car in the lead position was included in just 8.57% of crashes during the last eight years, with the three trailing positions seeing inclusion rates below 23%. It’s not pristine, but it’s offered amenability for forward-thinking strategy.
Stewart-Haas Racing pulled off a surprisingly disciplined Talladega race in the fall of 2018, with its four cars leading 155 of 193 laps and securing the win for Aric Almirola. This plan ran counter to the most obvious strategy — run in the back, safely distanced from the peloton — and was probably enacted given the procured starting positions of first, second, third and fourth via traditional qualifying.
Without that ideal initial track position and a four-car bulwark, holding off all comers, especially towards the end of stages or the race itself, is a difficult proposition. Driving from the middle or rear to those front running spots in particular invites risk, potentially jeopardizing the outcome of the race.
It is the perception of risk that will fuel or foil a team’s on-the-fly strategy. After 11 cars were eliminated within the first 15 laps of February’s Daytona 500, Denny Hamlin, who spent those initial laps running between 31st and 38th, inherited a lead after a bevy of pit stops following the rain delay and didn’t relent, leading 98 of the final 169 laps. This was a choice informed by a perceived reduction in risk, assisted by the elimination of having to pass his way through the most populated, crash-happy area.
At Talladega, the front of the field offers a safe haven from crashes, more so than Daytona, made safer with each subsequent accident.
Riding in the rear
Visible on the above chart are the single-digit crash inclusion rates of cars in the rear of Talladega’s field. Granted, those rates are inflated somewhat by cars that have already crashed, the slow burn towards the hot spots indicates it’s still a viable plan for lead-lap cars.
With other cars in on the plan — a single car would not only lose the draft, but also risk going a lap down — it’s the closest to a guarantee for avoiding crash inclusion.
What should be noted, though, is that when done successfully, riding in the rear offers a temporary relief. At some point, a driver will point towards the front in search of stage points or the race win; at best, this strategy is utilized to stay out of crashes in moments where riding in the pack is completely unnecessary.
The driver who arguably best epitomized this balance over the last four years isn’t entered into today’s race.
Ty Dillon, while not a race winner, was the only driver running at the finish in each of the last eight Talladega races. His 17.9-place average running position during that time suggests he was a fixture in the worst running whereabouts, but that’s wildly misleading. His lowest positions in all but one of those races were 29th or worse; his best positions in all but one were third or better. Despite just one top-five finish during this span, he collected the seventh-most stage points and the second most among non-winners, making effective use of the two most advantageous running tactics.
Using pit road to avoid the mid-pack morass
How might a team move from the rear to the front without mixing it up against dense traffic?
Pit road offers the path, especially in the first stage where a competition caution will fall. With minimal tire wear, Talladega is a fuel-dependent track and if a car has enough gas in the tank to last until a stage’s conclusion, there’s no point in pitting.
Teams will change tires, of course, but anticipate many choosing right sides only, then alternating on a later stop, because a two-tire stop lasts the length of a gas tank being properly topped off. The diminished need for tires gives crew chiefs flexibility in choosing track position above all. If timed properly, a team could avoid pit road under yellow and score pivotal risk-reducing positions.
Under green-flag conditions, this dance becomes more delicate but offers the same impact. As the above chart suggests, this year’s Daytona 500 was effectively flipped when the Fords, deeper in number and better in execution, leapfrogged Toyota’s most realistic potential winner on the final pit cycle of the race. Hamlin fell from first to 13th during this cycle, removed from observable contention. Eventual winner Michael McDowell moved from 15th to fifth, a position from which he capitalized on the last-lap accident between Penske teammates.
It’s ironic that both Daytona and Talladega, known for close racing and big crashes, are affected in this manner by pit-road maneuvering. But this is an essential part in reducing the heavy risk associated with competing for wins, machinations that put drivers and teams in rare control at NASCAR’s most calamitous, unpredictable racetracks.