Fear Vs. Respect: It's A Tough Choice At Talladega
When entering any speedway, it's well known that risk is part of racing. Every driver, every crewman, and even every fan knows that. But it's a risk that is taken each weekend during the season, knowing that any lap could be the final one.
One year ago, the racing community lost Dan Wheldon in an instant, and that is the biggest risk that drivers face when that helmet goes on.
For NASCAR, each week they know that risk, but each one has respect for the track when they get there. But this weekend, there is still a lot of respect...but the fear is higher than ever, because drivers are not in control of what can happen. They are at the mercy of physics, aerodynamics, and the ability of fellow competitors.
It's Talladega, the 2.66-mile monster that has seen cars get airborne, tearing down catch fences, and also see wrecks that demolish over half the field.
How can one decide what to have more of at a track where so much is out of the control of the driver? It's a very difficult task. On the one hand, this track has given fans, and drivers, fantastic moments and finishes that have still been discussed to this day. Who could ever forget the 4-wide finish a few years ago that saw Jimmie Johnson take the win by two one-thousandths of a second, or the weekend where Dale Earnhardt Jr. had a repaired front end, but yet still was able to battle to the front and win his fourth-straight event at the big track?
Then you have 1997, where for 188 laps drivers went side-by-side, but not once forced a yellow flag, and put on a 500-mile race in under two hours, with an average speed at nearly 190 mph.
It's those moments where fans and drivers show the greatest respect for the biggest race track NASCAR visits.
However, there are moments where the fear that this track provides takes over. There was 1996 when Dale Earnhardt went flying into the fence, causing injuries that took him out of the car early in the following week's event. In 2002, one race saw a massive 26-car pileup that erased many capable winners in a matter of moments.
Drivers like Ryan Newman seem to wish this track didn't exist, as he's wrecked more times than he wants to remember.
The "Big One" is always discussed at this track, and has come after just a few laps, or even shortly after the white flag is waved. And it's not just the risk of the big wreck, during each lap it is a matter of trusting those around you not to make a mistake. One minor tap, or one quick check of the brakes, and it could ultimately mean catastrophe for one, or more, drivers in an instant.
So how does one balance respect versus fear at Talladega?
It's a matter of perspective, and history. Dale Earnhardt was never a fan of restrictor plate racing, yet he seemed to be able to master the art of it when needed. His final win is evident of that, coming from 18th to first in a matter of three laps. There's been controversy as well, such as in 2005 when Jeff Gordon ran the final four laps behind the pace car to win a race under caution, and then getting showered with debris from fans in the process.
That is not so much a fear, but the respect for this track that has made it a go-to for fans. But the big incidents, wrecks, and chaos that seem to occur each time NASCAR arrives are what fans anticipate, and expect.
Are fans fearful of this track, especially after an incident like what Carl Edwards had in 2009? Possibly, but it's a risk they take, and they know after such incidents like that and what occurred at Daytona in February, that their fellow fans will help them out to get them the attention needed.
So, should one respect Talladega, or fear Talladega?
That is a choice to each fan, driver, and crew member. There's no wrong answer, it's just how one perceives this track.