TALLADEGA, Ala. — Only four of 43 drivers in the field for the Aaron’s 499 haven’t been in a crash at Talladega Superspeedway.
All four – Danica Patrick, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Josh Wise and Michael McDowell – know it’s probably just a matter of time.
No other track offers opportunities for long shots than the 2.66-mile raceway. At the same time, no other track offers a bigger risk of a crash.
Richard Brickhouse, Phil Parsons, Ron Bouchard, Bobby Hillin Jr., Dick Brooks and Lennie Pond all won their only Sprint Cup Series race at Talladega.
“Winning is a lot more fun than wrecking, that is what I learned,” said Kevin Harvick, one of 14 drivers in the field who have won – and crashed – at Talladega. “Sometimes you miss the wrecks and sometimes you don’t. But, that’s just kind of the way it goes.”
The threat of rain, the lack of pole qualifying and the continued learning process with the new Generation-6 race car only adds to the anticipation.
The starting lineup was created by results of the first practice session on Friday. Carl Edwards was the quickest, so he’ll start on the pole.
Talladega and Daytona International Speedway are sister tracks. They are shaped similarly and both require the use of engine restrictor plates to reduce speeds for safety reasons.
The debut of the Gen-6 cars came at the season-opening Daytona 500. For most of the race, drivers fell into a long follow-the-leader line. Talladega has a wider track which allows for five-wide racing on the straightaways, but few believe that will lead to anything different than Daytona.
“I think it’s going to be just as challenging and difficult to jump out of line and to get a line formed on that inside to move up there,” Jeff Gordon said. “It certainly could happen and it could have happened at Daytona, it just didn’t seem like enough guys really wanted to get organized to do it. They were pretty committed to stay in that outside lane so it made it very challenging and I would think you are going to see a lot more of the same here.”
While there are so many unanswered questions, Gordon knows one thing never changes about Talladega – the threat of a multi-car pileup.
“I think that here at Talladega, the only unknown is when that big wreck is going to happen and what’s going to cause it and sometimes it happens when you least expect it, but you can be assured that you get a full group of cars down to the closing laps of this race and it’s going to happen,” he said. “It’s just whether or not you get caught up in it or not.”
For example, Tony Stewart triggered a 25-car crash on the final lap of last October’s race at Talladega.
Patrick and Stenhouse haven’t learned the disappointment of finishing on the end of a wrecker’s hook at Talladega because both are making their first Sprint Cup Series start there. Wise and McDowell have experience at the track, but both have avoided trouble by starting-and-parking.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. is another driver who’s experienced both victory and bone-jarring crashes at Talladega. He prepares for every race there in the same manner knowing the outcome often is out of his hands.
“You still go in with the mentality that you are going to put together this formula that is going to win the race. You are going to do all these things that equal victory,” he said. Even though you know it’s really a lottery in some aspects.
“You still go in there kind of turning a blind eye to that part of it. Restrictor-plate racing is a race where you can get swept up in something that is totally out of your control and totally random and at times ridiculous.”
Several drivers will drop to the back to avoid a crash in the first 400 miles. When cars line up in a nose-to-tail line, they can easily catch the pack and get back to the front, especially when traffic fans out to three-wide and 10-deep.
“You’ve got to get to the end of these races and if you get caught up in a wreck not at the end through anytime through the race other than the last 50 laps it’s your fault,” Clint Bowyer said. “Doesn’t matter what caused it or how you got involved with it. If you get wrecked before the end of the race, there’s nobody to blame but yourself because you put yourself in that situation.”
The level of anxiety may start long before the green flag. There’s a 60-percent chance of rain in the forecast, so drivers must be prepared to turn their emotions off and on during possible delays.
If they already haven’t crashed.