KANNAPOLIS, N.C., (Oct. 19, 2011) – What is a game-changer? It’s something that completely changes the way something is done, thought about or made. See also, Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway, site of Sunday’s Good Sam Club 500 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race.
Talladega, especially when the series makes its fall visit to the 2.66-mile oval, can be the biggest game-changer on the 36-race Sprint Cup schedule.
Horsepower-choking restrictor plates. A dicey game of bumper cars where drivers have to align themselves in two-car drafts to make any headway toward the front of the field. All with a championship on the line. That’s Talladega in October.
Tony Stewart, driver of the No. 14 El Monterey/Office Depot Chevrolet Impala for Stewart-Haas Racing, enters the fifth to last race of the season fifth in points, only 24 markers behind championship leader Carl Edwards. Stewart could very well emerge from Talladega atop the point standings, as he did in October 2002 en route to the first of his two Sprint Cup titles, or wind up tumbling out of championship contention because he was caught up in the Big One.
Multi-car accidents are commonplace at Talladega, and for every time that Stewart has logged a top-10, he’s also had a finish outside the top-25. His win in October 2008 and six second-place finishes are augmented by five DNFs (Did Not Finish).
What will this round of racing at Talladega bring? No one really knows.
The tandem racing on display in the first three restrictor-plate races of the season will get a tweak this weekend at Talladega. NASCAR has increased the size of the holes in the restrictor plate from 56/64ths of an inch in diameter to 57/67ths, which will add about 7-10 horsepower. On the track, that means an additional 2-3 mph. NASCAR also lowered the pressure on the radiator valve by eight pounds, which means that maximum water temperature before an engine overheats could be reduced from 245-255 degrees to 225-235 degrees. NASCAR also won’t allow teams to polish the rear bumpers of their cars during the race, making it more difficult for a driver pushing another driver to slide across the rear bumper and get air onto the nose of his car and into his grill openings, thereby cooling the engine.
Drivers will still have to coordinate a 200 mph swap, with the lead car drifting high or low to allow his partner to scoot past, whereupon the former leader of the two-car draft assumes the role of pusher. They’ll just have to do it more often.
The break in momentum forces a tandem to lose 8-10 mph, all while focusing less on what’s going on in front of them than with the swap they’re engaged in. And with 20 of these tandems performing swaps over the course of 188 laps around Talladega’s 2.66-mile layout, the chances of a Big One ratchet up, as does Talladega’s role of being a game-changer in this year’s Chase for the Sprint Cup.
TONY STEWART, Driver of the No. 14 El Monterey/Office Depot Chevrolet Impala for Stewart-Haas Racing:
What’s the tandem racing we’ve seen at the restrictor-plate races about?
“Well, you have to have a partner. There’s no choice. And you both have to know where each other is going all the time, and that’s the hard part. Somebody has to lead. Somebody has to follow. The guy that’s following has to trust the guy that’s leading. The guy that’s leading has to trust that the guy he’s leading is going to do everything that he’s supposed to do behind him.”
What does it feel like to run in these two-car packs at the restrictor-plate tracks?
“What we’re doing now was shaping up back when Talladega was first paved, and it’s been building and building since. It’s evolved. We went from 30‑car packs to two‑car packs. It’s just the evolution of the sport and how things are changing.
“I don’t know what it’s like to look at and watch, but I know what it feels like. When you’re in that third group and you catch a group that’s running side‑by‑side, they can’t get away from each other, but you’re running 5-8 mph faster. The guy behind you can’t tell if you want to slow down, so you have to find a hole when you get there. If you don’t find one, you almost have to make one, to a certain degree.
“But I can promise you this, the guys that are driving these things are watching. Everybody is watching out for each other. Everybody knows that we can put each other in a bad spot in a hurry if we don’t give each other room. You don’t see guys blocking like we’ve seen in the past.
“I’ll be honest, I didn’t like the big packs we used to have to run in. I didn’t like that people always had to block. I never agreed with that. The good thing is, now we don’t have to do it either. If you get a run on a guy, you’re going to make an opportunity to pass them. You may not get it done, but at least you have that opportunity now.”
How important is communication during a restrictor-plate race?
“You have to work really hard at getting the spotters to communicate with each other. It’s really hard for the spotters because while they’re trying to take care of us while we’re in the racecars, they’re sitting up there trying to find another driver’s spotter that’s 20 feet away. And they’re still trying to watch the racetrack, go down and find that guy’s spotter, and try to communicate information. Instead of it just being a direct link, sometimes it was up to a spotter, over to another spotter, down to a driver, that driver responds back, and it comes back down the chain again. But, everybody’s learned to do it. We got used to it.”
Is the fall race at Talladega slightly more nerve-wracking, because when you’re in the Chase there’s more on the line?
“We’re looking at it as an opportunity to gain some points and positions. Every time you’re at Talladega you try to take care of yourself and your equipment by not getting yourself in compromising positions that are going to take you out of an opportunity to get you to the end of the race. For me, it’s no different whether the race is in April during the regular season or in October when I’m in the Chase.”
Back in the day, restrictor-plate racing meant racing against Dale Earnhardt – at least if you were racing for the win. October 2000 at Talladega marked Earnhardt’s 76th and last career Sprint Cup win. Do you have any special memories from your time racing against him?
“You just always knew that, if he was behind you, it wasn’t going to be easy keeping him behind you. There was a reason that he got the nickname ‘Intimidator.’ When you looked in the mirror, you were intimidated by him. Not so much that you were actually intimidated, but you knew that it wasn’t going to be like racing with someone else. If he got to you and if he didn’t get by you in a couple of corners, then he was going to lean on you a little bit. You might wreck, you might keep going, but he was going to make it interesting. That’s what made him so special. The first Bud Shootout we won at Daytona, we outran him there and that was as much as I ever wanted to see of that black ‘3’ in my mirror. That was way too much stress. It was more mental stress than it was physical stress. My mind was wore out after winning that race because he had such a large bag of tricks at Daytona and Talladega that just watching what he was doing and trying to figure out what he was thinking or trying to set up just made you exhausted. Driving the car was easy, it was just trying to mentally figure out and trying to stay up to pace with what his thought process was at the time and knowing how to anticipate what his next move was going to be to beat him.”