KANNAPOLIS, North Carolina – When asked how he attacks Sunday’s Alabama 500 at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway, Kurt Busch, driver of the No. 41 Haas Automation/Monster Energy Chevrolet for Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR) said one word:.
Then, he added: “You rub the Buddha, you find lady luck, you say all your prayers and you hope you can get through.”
Despite holding a 17-point advantage over ninth-place driver Austin Dillon in the 2016 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship, Busch and his No. 41 team know they’re headed to a racetrack where anything can happen and that, without a win in the first two of three races in this year’s Chase Round of 12, their advancement into the Round of 8 is far from guaranteed.
Talladega has always been considered the wild-card race of the Chase, where a driver’s fate is not entirely in his or her own hands. However, at Charlotte (N.C.) Motor Speedway, host of the opening race in the Round of 12, a number of the drivers in contention for the 2016 Sprint Cup championship found trouble, prompting some to compare the carnage to that typically seen at Talladega. Fortunately for Busch, he was one of the drivers who brought home a solid finish, making him feel a little more comfortable than a lot of others heading to Talladega. Make that as comfortable as one can feel headed to a racetrack where all cars are essentially equal, and you’ve got to rely on your competitors to help you as you attempt to figure out which line to get in and who to work with.
Talladega is one of only two racetracks on the Sprint Cup circuit where restrictor plates are used. By definition, a restrictor plate is a device installed at the air intake of an engine to limit its power. The use of a restrictor plate is intended to both limit speed and increase safety with an eye toward equaling the level of competition. Races at Talladega and its sister track Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway are ones literally anyone can win. Horsepower-choked engines require drivers to draft together, side-by-side at speeds approaching 200 mph.
Some drivers elect to drop to the back of the pack and ride, waiting until the late stages of the race to make their move toward the front of the field. Other drivers will do whatever they can to stay at the front of the field throughout the race. Other drivers find themselves stuck in the middle, an area that can be somewhat of a disaster zone.
One driver will win the race. Some drivers will finish. Others will be involved in the almost inevitable “big one” – a multicar accident that typically eliminates multitudes of drivers prematurely. Busch hopes that he will be the winning driver for a couple of different reasons.
First, a superspeedway win is the only kind that has eluded Busch during his 17-year Sprint Cup career. With a victory this weekend, Busch would join an elite list of drivers who have won at every type of track on the Sprint Cup circuit: superspeedway, speedway, intermediate, short track and road course. But more importantly, it would do much more than that for the Las Vegas native’s 2016 championship hopes. A win this weekend would guarantee him a spot in the Round of 8.
After Sunday’s 188-lap race, eight of the 12 remaining Chase drivers will earn the chance to continue their playoff run beginning the following weekend at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway. Busch hopes he will be one of those advancing, enabling his quest for a second Sprint Cup championship to continue.
KURT BUSCH, Driver of the No. 41 Haas Automation/Monster Energy Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing:
You’ve won some of the non-points races at Daytona, but you haven’t won a points-paying race there or at Talladega, yet. What are your thoughts on heading to Talladega this weekend?
“I have yet to win one of the points-paying races at a restrictor-plate racetrack. This one is tough because it’s a Chase race. Winning versus finding a consistent finish is such a razor-blade edge versus wrecking. We can’t have a wreck take us out of advancing through the Chase. One year in the Chase, I tried going for a win, got spun at the end and I kicked myself for years afterward. In 2009, I was going for a win instead of just trying to ride it out for a better finish and it took me from second in points back to fourth in points. Over the years, Talladega has just turned into a points-gathering race in the fall."
Is it possible to have a strategy at Talladega?
“It’s a matter of just trying to understand your surroundings early in the race. If people are getting crazy, you’ve got to get out of there, or you’ve got to get up front and be in that top-three. Where the congestion point is, it’s about fourth to eighth. Everybody wants to get out of that box and go forward, but that is where the guys are blocking really hard. It’s a tough balance. If there is a ‘big one’ and you are not in it, then that helps with understanding there are going to be fewer cars that are going to be competitive up toward the front. Honestly, though, lady luck is really the dictator of how well you are going to do at Talladega.”
What are your thoughts on Talladega being an elimination race?
“It makes zero sense in my mind. I think it would be great to have Talladega as the cutoff to get into the Chase. I think we should switch Richmond and Talladega around. They are both owned by ISC, it won’t be too much of a problem and, that way, you have all the guys all year long who have earned their right to be in the Chase by a win and then there are those two, three or four who are trying to get in by points. Well, they need to know by race 25, not race 26, and then turn race 26 into the big gamble on who is going to get into the Chase or not. That way, that gamble isn’t part of the Chase.”
- Tom Jensen
NASCAR Editor at FOXSports.com & RACER Magazine