The high-banked Talladega Superspeedway is renowned as the ‘Wild Card’ in NASCAR’s championship battle.
For the past twenty-five years Talladega and Daytona have been constrained by the dreaded ‘restrictor plates’ which severely limit air intake into the engines, cutting horsepower from close to 900 at all other races to less than 500. The restrictor plates are supposed to make for safer racing or more correctly to keep any accidents on the track rather than allowing cars to fly over the fence or into the grandstands as Bobby Allison did at Talladega back in 1987.
The drivers hate restrictor plate racing, none more so than the legendary Dale Earnhardt Sr. who used to rail against the futility and potential danger of the exercise. But even the great Earnhardt couldn’t convince NASCAR to take a different approach and restrictor plates have become an accepted fact of life at Daytona and Talladega. NASCAR will tell you it’s about satisfying the worries of the insurance companies but most people believe it’s more about creating a show and drawing the biggest possible crowd.
The fear is always about the ‘Big One’ – a huge, multi-car shunt – and, often as not, something like it happens in most races at Daytona or Talladega. Sure enough, it happened again on the last lap of Sunday’s 500-mile Sprint Cup race at Talladega. Defending NASCAR champion Tony Stewart was leading the field as they barrelled into the third turn at the end of the backstretch with Matt Kenseth to his outside and Michael Waltrip and Casey Mears attacking from behind. Stewart moved down, hoping to get a shove from Waltrip and Mears, but his timing was bad.
Stewart’s inside rear fender clipped Waltrip’s nose and suddenly all hell broke loose. Stewart got sideways, flew into the air and half the field ran into a classic, roiling mess of a multi-car accident. Stewart was lucky to land rightside up and scramble out of the wreckage unhurt, like everyone else, while Kenseth motored home to win from Jeff Gordon and Kyle Busch. Stewart freely admitted the twenty-car accident was his fault.
“I just screwed up,” Stewart said. “I turned down across Michael to block him to try and stay where I was at, so I take 100 per cent of the blame. I was trying to win the race and Michael got a great run on the bottom and had a great head of steam. When I turned down I turned across him. It was a mistake on my part that cost a lot of people a bad day because of it.”
Second-placed Gordon said he had never seen such a big shunt. “We were all being very aggressive and I really had no idea how we made it to the white flag,” Gordon remarked. “It was three and four wide. Cars were being driven everywhere. I went into turn three, saw smoke, checked up and got hit by the #18 (Kyle Busch) and that turned me down on the apron. I just put it back to the floor and drove by every car and came out of it in second. I’m so glad we survived it.”
The carnage at Talladega had little effect on the championship battle. Brad Keselowski continues to lead the points from Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin and at this stage with six races to go this trio appear to be the key contestants in NASCAR’s Chase for the Cup. Charlotte is next on Saturday night next weekend and everyone – drivers and teams – motored or flew home from Talladega relieved that there are no more restrictor plate races this year.