Expect the worst

Despite precautions, drivers at Talladega still

Posted: Thursday, October 03, 2002

TALLADEGA, Ala. -- They've tried everything at Talladega Super speedway to make the racing both exciting and safe.

But since Bobby Allison's car got airborne and nearly landed in the main grandstands in 1989, everything NASCAR has tried seems to backfire.

The sanctioning body has strangled speed from the engines, and it has added a variety of gadgets to the car bodies to make the car drive like it's pulling a parachute.

Now NASCAR hopes a smaller gas tank will help.

The new 13-gallon tank holds nine fewer gallons than a regular tank. In theory, a small tank means more pit stops and a greater chance the huge packs of traffic will break up into more small, more manageable groups.

But when it comes to racing at Talladega, the site of Sunday's EA Sports Thunder 500, everyone expects the worst. And more times than not, they get it.

''You're going to stop a lot,'' said car owner Bill Davis, who will have Dodges driven by Ward Burton and Kenny Wallace in the field. ''If there is a caution, everybody is going to stop and get bunched up, and that's when we have our problems. Plus, we're getting on and off pit road twice as often. That's certainly always a potential for problems. In theory, it's great. If it does what NASCAR intends for it to do and spreads everybody out, it'll be good.''

Races at Talladega have become a fan favorite because they often feature 30 cars in the lead pack, each in a nose-to-tail, door-to-door, three-wide, 10-deep traffic jam. Because there's no room to escape, one wiggle can easily turn into a 20-car pileup.

There was a 24-car melee on the backstretch during the April 21 Aaron's 499 at Talladega. And there was a 16-car crash in last year's EA Sports 500.

Two years ago at Talladega, however, Dale Earnhardt won with a stirring charge that took him from 16th place to Victory Lane in the last five laps. There were 49 leads changes among 21 drivers.

Fans love the action, along with the very real possibility of a big crash. Drivers, as expected, say the tension is excruciating.

The contenders for the NASCAR Winston Cup Series championship have dreaded this week's race for months. They view the race at the 2.66-mile race way as an anomaly, something totally different from what they normally do each weekend.

''You know that you're not going to be able to get out of the pack and that you're going to be stuck in the pack,'' points leader Jimmie Johnson said. ''When you strap yourself in, you know the odds aren't going to work in your favor. One of the times you strap yourself in there something's going to happen, and you're going to hit something hard.

'' I really try to put some positive energy out there and get the team to think the same way. If there's any truth to that (positive thinking), we'd like to make sure that that everybody on the team puts forth some creative thoughts toward us coming home with all the fenders on the car.''

Dale Earnhardt Jr., who has won the past two races at Talladega, said the fact that he's not in the points race will help him Sunday.

He doesn't have to worry about protecting his position in the standings, so he can be a little more aggressive in a race that often requires bold moves.

''I'm not in the points race so I'm not as nervous about it,'' he said. ''So I can go out there and take some more chances. I won't be as patient about it; I can go right to the front if my car will go there. I just like running the races there, even if you do get crashed out in a big mess. That's just what happens.''

Reach Don Coble at doncoble@bellsouth.net.

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