A Gambling Man
KANNAPOLIS, N.C. (Oct. 20, 2015) – Know when to hold ‘em and know when to fold ‘em. That’s the counsel at the heart of Kenny Rogers’ 1980 Grammy Award-winning song “The Gambler.” It’s sage advice for anyone participating in a game of chance, and chance is something every NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver is well acquainted with, especially when it comes to the kind of action they will see at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway in Sunday’s CampingWorld.com 500.
The stakes are always high at Talladega. The vast, 2.66-mile oval produces speeds so quick that NASCAR forces team to put restrictor-plates on its engine’s intake manifold, which keeps speeds just a tick below the 200 mph mark, slowing cars enough so that if they get sideways, they won’t carry enough speed to launch into the air as the car’s aerodynamics become reversed. Chevrolets, Fords and Toyotas weren’t made to go 200-plus mph, even when they have crazy paint schemes and numbers painted on their roofs. Formula One machines they aren’t, and in the name of safety, the restrictor-plate is rudimentary technology that keeps these rudimentary cars grounded… most of the time.
But every now and then a launch button is pushed, and a spectacular somersault of a crash that appears over and over on the next day’s rounds of network morning shows penetrates the mainstream. Multi-car accidents, better known as Big Ones, jumble the point standings as front-runners are collected while others emerge unscathed.
The Big One is bound to happen again at Talladega, and if history is any indication, more than once during Sunday’s 188-lap contest. For those still in the running for the 2015 Sprint Cup championship, it’s about surviving and thriving. But for others, Sunday’s 500-miler could wind up on the other end of the spectrum with their championship hopes mirroring the potential look of their racecars – unsalvageable.
Tony Stewart, driver of the No. 14 Bass Pro Shops/Mobil 1 Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing, isn’t in position to further any championship aspirations this weekend, but he is still searching for his first win of the 2015 season and ending a drought that dates back more than two years to June 2, 2013 at Dover (Del.) International Speedway. The three-time Sprint Cup champion’s record on the superspeedways offers plenty of cause for confidence.
Twice Stewart has enjoyed the spoils of success at Talladega, both in 2008. The first came in the NASCAR Xfinity Series in April, when he won from the pole, leading five times for a race-high 81 laps in the 117-lap race. The second came in the Sprint Cup Series in October when he outdueled Regan Smith for the win in a green-white-checkered finish.
While there is only one check in the Sprint Cup Series win column at Talladega, it’s a figure that could easily be greater. Of his nine career top-five finishes, six have been second-place finishes – a feat that has Stewart tied with Hall-of-Fame driver Buddy Baker for the most runner-up finishes at Talladega. Additionally, Stewart has 13 top-10s and 328 laps led. He’s completed all but 182 of the 6,062 laps that have been run in his 32 Talladega starts since 1999 for a lap completion rate of 97 percent. On the flip side, Stewart has a total of eight DNFs (Did Not Finish) at the track – six of which occurred in the closing laps.
And that’s only a portion of Stewart’s body of work on the superspeedways.
The Columbus, Indiana-native’s record at Talladega pales when compared to his efforts at its sister track, Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway, where he owns four point-paying wins in the annual Coke Zero 400, three wins in the Budweiser Duel qualifying race, three victories in the non-points Sprint Unlimited, two IROC Series wins and seven Xfinity Series wins, a record he shares with the late Dale Earnhardt. Tally them all up and Stewart owns 21 wins on NASCAR’s restrictor-plate tracks.
What will this round of racing at Talladega bring? No one really knows. Restrictor-plate racing is like a game of high stakes poker and anything that can happen will happen at the notorious, high-banked oval. Given the track’s history, this weekend’s race at Talladega may be the biggest gamble of the 2015 Sprint Cup season.
TONY STEWART, Driver of the No. 14 Bass Pro Shops/Mobil 1 Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing:
How would you rate yourself as a restrictor-plate racer?
“Well, I’m not any happier about it than I’ve always been, but we’ve had a lot of success at restrictor-plate tracks. We’ve run in the top-two at Talladega a gazillion times. I’m glad we’re halfway decent at it, but it’s still always frustrating when you have to rely on what everybody else does. It’s not what you do. It’s what you do along with somebody else who decides that they’re going to follow you and help you. That’s the part that frustrates you as a driver.”
It seems that luck plays as much of a factor at Talladega and Daytona as everything else. Why is that?
“Someone described racing on the superspeedways as being a combination of a science project and the luck of a casino, and it’s exactly that way. You do everything in your power to take care of the science or technology side. You do everything you can to build the fastest car. If you don’t have the luck to go with it – even if you don’t have any drama with getting the car touched, nothing happens to the car – if you’re just in the wrong spot at the wrong time, it can take you out of the opportunity to take the best racecar in the field and win.”
When you’re in the draft, how much control do you feel you have inside the racecar?
“It depends on the circumstances. You can’t see the air and you hit different pockets (of air). You hit a pocket where you get a really big tow, or you hit a pocket where it seems they’re getting a tow and pulling you back, and you just have to play the circumstances. You just try getting in different scenarios and try to learn if you get in the middle of the draft, what does it do? Will it give you a push? Will it not give you a push? If you get next to this car, does it suck you up or does it slow you down? It’s trial and error but, at the same time, it’s like pulling a pin on a grenade. You know through that process that if one guy makes a mistake, your car’s torn up. It’s just a delicate balance of how hard you go, how many things you try, and how much time you spend doing it.”
How much translates from Daytona to Talladega?
“They’re different tracks with their own characteristics, but it’s plate racing and that really doesn’t change. Daytona has always been billed as being more of the handling track, but we’re still drafting and we’ll be in a pack where you’ve got cars on top of each other. It’s all about being in the right place at the right time, and that’s the same whether we’re racing at Daytona or Talladega.”
- Tom Jensen
NASCAR Editor at FOXSports.com & RACER Magazine