The shortest distance between two points is a straight line – unless it’s a race at Talladega Superspeedway.
Drivers in Sunday’s Aaron’s 499 will use every inch of the five-lane-wide, 2.66-mile race track, swerving left and right to break the slipstreams behind the lead cars.
While Talladega is so big and fast – Bill Elliott set the sport’s qualifying record at the track in 1987 at 212.809 mph – NASCAR now uses a restrictor plate on the engine to starve it of air and gas to keep the speeds at or near 200 mph. The cars are so evenly-matched it’s hard for anyone to gain an advantage.
So when someone does get out front, they don’t want to give it away.
“It’s a different animal here,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. said.
Cars working together can generate more speed since they can divide the wind resistance. When two cars hook up in a draft, they can be as much as 10 mph faster than a single car, so the only way to turn back their advance is to pull over and block.
Sometimes the aggressive maneuvers can fend off the challenges. And sometimes it starts a big crash. No matter what, it creates a lot of anger.
“I don’t race guys that way, I never have,” Tony Stewart said. “If guys want to block then they are going to get wrecked every time. Until NASCAR makes a rule against it, I am going to dump them every time for it.”
NASCAR will warn drivers not to block before Sunday’s race. The sanctioning body also will tell everyone to stay above the out of bounds lines around the track.
Most believe anything should be expected in the final few laps, but blocking has been an issue for the entire race.
“I don’t know if its lack of respect or guys just pushing the envelope and not working with each other,” Stewart said. “It doesn’t make a lot of sense (to block early) and I’m not going to tolerate it. I don’t race guys that way and I’m not going to let anybody race me that way. So if they block, they get dumped. Plain and simple.”
Smaller radiators and lower water pressure valves helped break up the two-car tandems at the season-opening Daytona 500. Most of Sunday’s race will feature large packs of cars, often running three wide and 10 deep, until the final 10 laps. That’s when everyone will pair up in two-car tandems to make a desperate run to the finish line.
At the same time, everyone will be looking to block the others from getting out front.
“The blocking just becomes one of those deals if you feel like you made a mistake and you need to guard the position because you’ve already passed the cars behind you, or whatever the case may be, you know you are going to get passed and you know there is going to be some blocks,” Kevin Harvick said. “If you can break that two-car tandem up, it is going to benefit you to keep going. It is all circumstances as to how much you block and there is going to be blocking.”
There’s also going to be a lot of angry drivers, especially when they have to make a decision between wrecking somebody else or giving away a possible victory.
NASCAR officials usually are on guard in the garage area after a race to make sure anger doesn’t evolve into something bigger.
“It’s so easy to block and defend,” Jimmie Johnson said. “So the frustration level is growing inside the cars. It is more difficult to pass. If its aero, cars are equal and there is a lot of different opinions floating around that you guys hear from drivers throwing at you all the times, but whatever it is its just more difficult to pass now than it’s ever been.
“If a guy can control your progress by just looking in the mirror a little bit and running you around and you see it, it raises the temper big time.”