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Sunday, April 26, 2009

Talladega Afternoons, where cars take flight...

IF YOU DIDN'T SEE ANY RACE HI-LIGHTS OR DON'T CARE ABOUT NASCAR, THIS HEADLINE MIGHT GET YOU TO READ THE FULL ARTICLE: Carl Edwards was leading the race, got spun out and caught air at 200 mph with 100 yards to the finish. He climbed out of his flaming, destroyed Claritin Ford Fusion and jogged to the finish line, a la Ricky Bobby.

(photo courtesy of usatoday.com)


This being my first post on SportsTemps...I better act like I know what I'm talking about. If you only watch one NASCAR race in your entire life, this was the race to watch.



A few things you need to know first:


  • The NASCAR race season is comprised of 36 points-races, plus a few other races that don't count in the overall standings.

  • This weekend's race at Talladega Superspeedway was the 9th of the season.

  • Talladega is a restrictor-plate track, meaning a special plate is put over the engine's carburetor to restrict the air/fuel intake and limit overall horsepower and speed of the cars.

Talladega and Daytona are the only restrictor-plate tracks in the NASCAR circuit. These tracks are huge (2.66 and 2.5 miles per lap, respectively) with extremely steep banking through the turns, and allowing a car to run without a restricted engine would result in speeds of well over 210 miles per hour. Since the tragic death of Dale Earnhardt at Daytona Superspeedway in the 2001 Daytona 500, NASCAR has come up with many safety innovations to help protect the fans and drivers. However, the restrictor-plate was made mandatory at these two tracks a few years earlier in 1998.


The fastest official qualifying lap at Talladega had an average speed of just over 212 miles per hour by Bill Elliot in 1987. The fastest speed ever recorded on that track was a test-run without a restrictor-plate by retired NASCAR legend Rusty Wallace in 2004. He reached 228 at one point on the back straightaway and ran an average of 221 mph for the full lap.


The restrictor-plate now allows cars to top out around 190 in their qualifying laps. Once multiple cars get together in a group, they can push or "bump-draft" each other to get up to speeds in the 199-201 range. Though still dangerous, this apparently keeps the engineers and physicists happy as cars shouldn't be able to catch any real air when crashing at these speeds.


Restrictor plates also have a huge down-side. Cars grouped together drive faster than a lone car on a breakaway. Much like the peloton in the Tour de France, breakaways are quickly caught as the group cuts through the wind resistance better and sucks the leaders back in. Drivers never touch the brake pedal and spend more time looking in the rear view mirror than out the windshield. Just letting off the gas for a split-second will get you slammed from behind. With 30+ cars grouped together, one small mistake can result in dozens of cars wrecking because there's no room to stop or swerve at 190 miles per hour when you're surrounded. Talladega is even more notorious for this than Daytona, and therefore, every Talladega race brings the threat of the "Big One"...a wreck wiping out a huge chunk of the field. This happens at least once in nearly every race on NASCAR's biggest track. No amount of skill can save you when everyone around you is wrecking. You can try to stay towards the front of the pack, but you run the risk of being the one who starts the wreck. Or you can hang around at the back of the pack to give yourself stopping room if a wreck does occur, but you run the risk of losing the draft and falling waaaaay back in the race, and even possibly getting lapped.


Usually, races at Talladega are exciting at the begging, then the drivers settle down during the middle, then wild at the end again. This year's Aaron's 499 at Talladega was really no different. Just 7 laps into the 188-lap race, Jeff Gordon, one of the best drivers in the sport, and maybe the best active driver in restrictor-plate races, got bumped in the middle of a turn by this year's Daytona 500 winner, Matt Kenseth. At the time, Gordon was running about 10th and near the front of a 40-car pack. Gordon wobbled up the track a little, then down into Kenseth again, then back up into David Gilliland, and the subsequent smashup left about 20 cars with damage. 5 cars never returned to the race, and another 4 had to make serious repairs before returning just to limp around and salvage a few extra points.


The next 165 laps were mostly uneventful. A few cautions for debris on the track, the occasional single-car spin, but no real casualties. Then, with 8 laps to go, someone let off the gas, and when the trickle-down effect reached Juan Pablo Montoya, he took a shot to the rear from Denny Hamlin's FedEx Toyota Camry that sent ten cars near the back of the pack crashing into the walls and each other.


After the cleanup, 24 cars restarted on the lead lap for a shot at the win. Carl Edwards has become a championship threat over the last 2 seasons, but he has always had a black cloud over his head at restrictor-plate tracks. He's never finished in the top 5 and wrecks without finishing the race about half the time. Today he spent most of the race near the back, trying to avoid getting caught up in another big wreck.


When the green flag dropped with 4 laps to go, Edwards was running in 9th. Ryan Newman was leading, and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. was in 2nd. Newman and Junior immediately hooked up, and pulled out to a big lead over the pack. With a little over 1 lap to go, Brad Keselowski got behind Edwards and started pushing him toward the leading duo. The trick with Talladega is to make the final pass early enough to have a run on the leader and get by him to win, but not so early that you get hung out alone and someone else comes blazing by you just before the finish. Earnhardt Jr. couldn't get around Newman coming off the final turn while the Edwards/Keselowski train was steaming by them both on the outside. Keselowski ducked below Edwards, and Edwards tried to slide down in front of him to block, but Keselowski had already cleared Carl's rear bumper. The result was Edwards's car spun hard left and the rear wheels lifted off the track as Brad drove high for the win. Meanwhile, Newman and Earnhardt were still fighting for 3rd, and Carl's driver-side rear wheels came down right on Ryan Newman's hood. The shock lifted Carl's car completely off the track and into an upside down helicopter spin which slammed the outside wall and safety fence in what is a top 3 most ferocious wreck I've seen watching NASCAR live (all at Talladega, and 2nd involving Carl...).


Keselowski went on to win, Earnhardt Junior 2nd, and Newman skidded mostly sideways across the finish line for 3rd. Carl's car came to a rest about a football field short of the finish line while the rest of the field safely drove by. I thought he was surely unconscious and probably hurt, but he unhooked his window-net and climbed out of his still burning wreck. He then jogged past the rescue crew to the finish line, helmet and all.


Carl is not one of my favorite drivers, but he has the best TV personality of all NASCAR drivers by far, and I'm certain he's seen the Will Farrell movie named for this track. Of course, none of Carl's post-race antics mattered as his car has to cross the line to technically finish the race, but he earned the same finishing position as he would have if his car had crawled across last on the lead lap. In the post race interview, Carl simply said, "...I want my wife and mom to know I'm okay...its pretty scary when you're upside down...I've never hit the wall with anything other than the side of my car before...I guess we'll just keep doing this for NASCAR until somebody gets killed [in a restrictor-plate race]."

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