NASCAR: Drivers ready for fresh, new chaos at Talladega

Geoff Magliocchetti
TALLADEGA, AL - OCTOBER 14: The lead pack heads into the tri-oval for the final time during the running of the 51st annual 500 on October 14, 2019 at Talladega Superspeedway in Talladega, Al. (Photo by Jeff Robinson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

NASCAR’s visits to Talladega Superspeedway have always been unpredictable, but adjustments to Sunday’s race could bring a new form of bedlam.

The NASCAR Cup Series’ yearly pair of visits to Talladega Superspeedway produce untold gallons of sweat even during their normal visits in April and October. Affectionately known as “‘Dega”, the longest track on the circuit (2.66 miles) routinely hosts tightly-packed racing and speeds that regular linger around 180-190 miles an an hour. These factors often play a big role in producing “The Big One”, the name given to the multi-car pile-ups that can turn contenders into afterthoughts in the blink of an eye.

Now add a new rules package and a lack of practice and testing…all on the first full day of summer.

The potential for chaos in Sunday’s GEICO 500 (3 p.m. ET, Fox) became so great that NASCAR forced James Davison to push his series debut a week. Davison, an Australian-born driver whose experience has come mostly on the open-wheel and sports car disciplines, was set to pilot the No. 77 Chevrolet for Spire Motorsports (the car that won last year’s rain-shortened summer race at Daytona with Justin Haley behind the wheel), but NASCAR rescinded their approval just days prior to the race. Davison will instead premiere at next weekend’s doubleheader at Pocono Raceway and was replaced by B.J. McLeod (who will start 30th).

NASCAR’s ability to be one of the few American sports leagues running during the coronavirus pandemic has been built on its ability to shorten race weekends from a whole weekend to a single day. Cup Series haulers arrived at Talladega on Saturday evening while the lower-tier Xfinity circuit ran its 300-mile event (won by Haley). In this shrinking process, practices and qualifying have been eliminated (save for a session prior to last month’s Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte) and the field has been set by either inverting the finishing order from the prior race or through a random draw. That latter format is how Martin Truex Jr.’s No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota will lead the field to the green flag on Sunday. In another metaphorical victory lap for the sport, Talladega will welcome in 5,000 fans to the race.

Those who repopulate the grandstands will see 40 cars take their first laps in a track characterized by its chaos. It’s an idea that makes even some of NASCAR’s most seasoned names a bit more cautious. Kurt Busch, for example, is worried not about his No. 1 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet, but rather how other cars will be as they pack into Talladega’s congested lanes.

“With our group at Ganassi and the restrictor plate races that we’ve run together, our set-up balance has been really good in practice right off the truck,” Busch said in a Friday afternoon press conference. “So there haven’t been those challenges of where are we for balance, it allows go on offense right away. The problem with that is other teams. Are they just as good right off the truck? We don’t need to be caught up in a goofy situation early-on.”

Talladega is one of two “restrictor plate” tracks on the NASCAR circuit, the other being Daytona. Installed at an engine’s intake to restrict air and limit its power, the concept was introduced in 1987 and used through last season’s Daytona 500. Currently, NASCAR uses a modified plate concept known as tapered spacers similar to the ones used on other tracks and effectively keep the cars under 200 miles an hour. These modifications are for the safety of the drivers and fans but produce tight racing that often led to massive get-togethers in the cramped asphalt quarters.

Further safety innovations now come into play as NASCAR prepares to make its first visit a restrictor plate track since the most recent Daytona 500 in February. That race ended in near-tragedy, as Ryan Newman’s No. 6 Roush Fenway Racing Ford was involved in a violent airborne wreck while going for the win on the final lap. In the tense aftermath, Newman was removed from the mangled car and taken to the hospital, where he was diagnosed with serious but non-life-threatening injuries.

Two days later, Newman walked out of the hospital unassisted, accompanied by his daughters Brooklyn and Ashlyn. A head injury sustained in the accident temporarily sidelined him, but the pandemic-induced pause caused him to miss only three Cup Series events. Ironically, a safety feature known as the “Newman Bar” (a bar across the front of the car’s roll cage) was the result of Newman’s crusade to improve driver safety after he was involved in a separate airborne wreck at Talladega in 2009. Some credited the innovation for saving Newman from further injury in February.

Though Newman walked away relatively unscathed, NASCAR made some further adjustments in the name of safety to Talladega set-ups. Smaller holes in the tapered spacers will lead to lowered horsepower and the elimination of aero ducts on superspeedways could cut down on tandem drafting (further analysis on the changes can be found from Fox Sports’ Bob Pockrass here).

“The idea there is reducing the speeds of the car, slowing them down,” NASCAR’s Senior Director of Safety Engineering John Patalak explained in another conference call. “In general, when we can slow the speeds down, it’s going to be of benefit for the crash itself, for the driver in the car. It will also affect the loads on the vehicle and how the SAFER barrier responds. Directionally, it’s the right way to go.”

While the speeds are expected to be down, the fact that not a single lap has been run with such a setup only ensures the potential for chaos to rise.

Drivers, however, are confident in both their own and their rivals’ abilities to keep things under relative control. Ryan Blaney, the winner of last fall’s Talladega playoff event, was particularly excited about the new adjustments.

“There’s a fine line. You need the draft to work to where you get runs on cars, but not monstrous drafts where it’s dangerous to kind of block them and things like that,” Blaney said after a top-three run at last Sunday’s Dixie Vodka 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. “Hopefully, we can find a fair in between. I’m looking forward to it.  I know NASCAR did their research on hopefully trying to figure out a good balance of that.”

“I’ll know in the first couple laps how big the runs are, what kind of gap I need to have to the person behind me to give me the run forward. I’ll know pretty quick what to do with the package,” Homestead winner Denny Hamlin added. “I think we have probably a pretty good idea of it anyway. These ducts are actually a pretty new thing.  Obviously the horsepower being down, that might counter the ducts a little bit with the runs.”

“These drivers are so good, they’re going to figure it out pretty quick. I wouldn’t expect anything out of the ordinary.”

For those spaced out in the massive Alabama gallery, eager to see yet another exciting installment in NASCAR’s return, that last sentence is all they want to hear when it comes to Talladega.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags