TALLADEGA, Ala. - Under normal circumstances, the men who make a living at 190 mph aren't afraid of much.
But there's nothing normal about the Talladega Superspeedway and today's Talladega 500.
For the first time in years, words like "fear" and "scared" are part of the pre-race preparations. Deep in everyone's minds - drivers, crews and fans - is the Big Crash. Most agree the Big Crash is going to happen once the race takes the green flag (1 p.m., Fox 54). The only questions are, how many cars will it eliminate and who will get hurt?
"You know it's going to happen," said pole winner Stacy Compton. "You know it's almost inevitable. Hopefully you can get through it. There's nothing you can do to avoid it at this point. You just go out there and race as hard as you can race, and hopefully you don't get caught up in it."
The 2.66-mile, five-lane-wide raceway is the perfect setting for disaster. And NASCAR's rule package for Talladega and its sister track at Daytona Beach, Fla., make a perfect recipe the Big Crash.
The rules include a restrictor plate on the engine to reduce speeds by 25 mph to keep them from becoming airborne during a crash. They also include higher real spoilers, an air-deflecting strip across the roof and a lower front bumper to make the cars more stable, and more racy, in traffic.
What the combination of race track and rules have done is create a 43-car bottleneck at 190 mph. Cars will be bunched in three- and four-wide packs for most of today's 188-lap main event.
"Talladega lends itself to crazy racing," said Michael Waltrip, who survived and won the season-opening Daytona 500.
One mistake can cause a chain reaction that can send millions of dollars worth of race cars to the junkyard and drivers to the hospital. At Daytona, there were two significant crashes: One that involved 19 cars, and a second that involved only three but left legendary driver Dale Earnhardt dead.
"It's got its pros and cons," Compton said. "The rules have good and bad. The biggest problem is if one person makes a mistake you can take out 40 cars. That's the only bad part of it."
The big packs of traffic also means anyone still on the lead lap can win in the final 13 miles. During the Winston 500 last October at Talladega, Earnhardt rallied from 18th place to the Victory Lane in the final five laps. Because of that, several drivers plan to spend the first 475 miles at the end of the pack to give them a better chance to avoid the Big Crash, before making a charge down the stretch.
Mike McLaughlin won for the first time in three years and 75 races, leaving several angry drivers in his wake after Saturday's Subway 300 Busch Series race.
McLaughlin, whose last victory came in Concord, N.C., in October 1998, took the lead on lap 104 and led to the end of the 113-lap event at Talladega Superspeedway. He fought ferociously to hold off Jimmy Spencer, Mike Skinner and Spencer again at the end.
Several times one or the other of the two challengers pulled alongside McLaughlin's Pontiac, or even nosed ahead. Each time, though, the driver who earned the nickname "Magic Shoes" on the short tracks of the Northeast was able to power back to the lead.
There wasn't the drama of Daytona, just a lot of tense, close racing before Bobby Labonte drove away for his second straight International Race of Champions victory at Talladega Superspeedway.
Dale Jarrett, who led briefly Saturday on Talladega's 2.66-mile oval, was the victim this time, getting hit from behind by Buddy Lazier, who had been knocked sideways by Eddie Cheever Jr., his fellow Indy Racing League star, on the 36th of 38 laps.
Jarrett's Pontiac, one of 11 identically prepared Firebirds in the race, slammed into the fourth-turn wall, bringing out the only caution of the event.
Under IROC rules, restarts revert to the running order from the last green flag lap. That left defending NASCAR Winston Cup champion Labonte third, behind Busch Series champion Jeff Green and fellow Cup driver Jeff Burton.
It stayed that way for one lap before Labonte, who had led briefly earlier in the race, mounted his charge. He slipped past Burton first, then sped past Green.
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