Next up: Talladega!
The NASCAR 2016 tour moves to Talladega, Alabama this weekend for the May 1 Sprint Cup’s GEICO 500 and the Xfinity Series’ Sparks Energy 300. Talladega Superspeedway is a place of non-stop white-knuckle racing, where straightaway speeds in excess of 200 mph are the norm, and where packs of 15, 20, or 30 cars are frequently separated by no more than a second. To say it’s a high-speed track is an understatement, since the NASCAR record books carry Bill Elliott’s 1987 pole speed of 212.809 mph as the all-time qualifying record, and Rusty Wallace’s 2004 closed oval speed record of 216.309 as the fastest time ever recorded in a stock car.
Last year’s pole qualifying speed was a “mere” 194.793 set by Jeff Gordon, but of course the Talladega events have been restrictor plate races since the peak speeds of 1987. Horrendous wrecks in competition back then led to NASCAR’s steps in 1988 to reduce speeds on the track, the most significant of which was the mandating of square aluminum plates to reduce the flow of air and fuel into the combustion chamber, a restriction that correspondingly reduces horsepower and speed. Currently, restrictor plates are only used at two speedways…Daytona and Talladega. And, while they may have slowed the cars down, they’ve created what many drivers consider substantially unsafe racing conditions, since cars now tend to run in a pack and individual drivers do not have acceleration capabilities that enable them to break away from a pack. Hence, what’s become known as “the big one” typically occurs at some point during events at these two tracks…massive, multi-car pileups that totally alter the complexion of the race.
But all that aside,Talladega continues to provide an awesome display of speed and endurance, as evidenced by the 27 lead changes that took place in last year’s edition of this event. Dale Earnhardt Jr. pulled out a .158 second win over Jimmie Johnson in a race that averaged 159.487 mph despite 23 laps (61 miles) run under caution. Paul Menard, Ryan Blaney, and Martin Truex Jr. rounded out the top five. Owing largely to cautions, there were 32 cars on the lead lap at the end of the race.
In the Xfinity series, last year’s spring Talladega race (the Winn-Dixie 300) produced similar results, with Joey Logano leading 40 of the 113 laps and winning by .130 seconds over Brian Scott. Austin Dillon, J. J. Yeley, and Joey Gase completed the top five in a race that was slowed by six cautions for 31 laps. Dillon had started on the pole with a qualifying speed of 180.54 mph, and the average speed for the full race was 126.901 mph. Twenty-four of the 40 starters finished on the lead lap, and there were 23 lead changes among 11 drivers.