At Talladega, attitude can be everything
May 04, 2013, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com
TALLADEGA, Ala. -- So much goes into a successful run at Talladega Superspeedway. There’s the strategy of whether to stay at the front of the pack, or when to make the move to try and get there. There’s position and sheer good fortune in relation to the Big One. There’s recognition of the placement of the start/finish line, which is not at the top of the tri-oval, but pushed all the way over toward Turn 1.
And then there’s attitude -- reaching a peace with a facility so many wrestle with, grabbing on with both hands and enjoying NASCAR’s wildest ride.
Kevin Harvick is able to do that, even on what is perhaps the most polarizing facility on the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series schedule. There are some who struggle to get past the somewhat capricious nature of Talladega, the fact that a driver can do everything right and still end up with a wadded hunk of metal. There are some who have endured more than their share of Big Ones here, and allowed it to color their perception of the place.
And there are some who simply give themselves over to the whims of speed and aerodynamics, who surf that roiling wave wherever it takes them, and who accept the randomness as a matter of course.
"It is just a race. It really is."
-- Kevin Harvick
“You see a lot of guys drive themselves crazy about having to come to Talladega and complaining about what they think is right, or what they think is wrong,” said Harvick, a 2010 winner at the track. “It is just a race. It really is.”
Harvick said his attitude stems from team owner Richard Childress, a former driver himself whose cars have been a force on restrictor-plate tracks since the glory days of Dale Earnhardt. Sometimes moves pay off, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes cars get wrecked, sometimes they finish the race with hardly a mark on them. You put feelings and rivalries and egos aside, get in the best position possible and go for it.
“My approach to these types of races has always been just, you don’t worry about the things you can’t control, which is a whole lot here,” Harvick said. “You go out, and go in with a mindset of that I enjoy restrictor-plate racing. … I know that a lot of people might think that you are crazy for thinking like it’s fun. But it is fun. I know that the end result doesn’t look like it is fun. It is a lot of work for the guys that fix the car. It’s dangerous. But … I’ve always just tried to approach it with that I-don’t-care attitude, and just do whatever you have to do to try to put yourself in position. And when you leave here, if you wreck, you can’t be mad. It’s part of the game.”
Mentally, that can be a difficult place to reach -- the NASCAR garages are full of drivers who have a conflicted relationship with this facility, either because of their own personal experiences or philosophies on plate racing. Just ask Ryan Newman, a former Daytona 500 winner who’s had just one top-10 in his last seven starts here, and a few times has finished the race on his roof.
“I wouldn’t say I dread coming to Talladega,” he said. “It’s not my favorite race track, but I don’t say I dread it. I love doing what I do. I love driving a race car, even at Talladega. I think the difference is, there’s more potential to get involved in something not of your own making (here), and that’s frustrating to me. But that’s not just me.”
Understandably so, given how this track can play on a driver’s mind -- before, during and after the race.
“There's a lot of guys that come to this track worried, nervous and … scared that they're going to lose points, they're going to get caught up in a crash and it's going to cost them and take them a month to overcome a bad race,” two-time Talladega winner Clint Bowyer said. “Looking at my Chase last year, this race right here cost me a shot at a championship. This was the one race that I felt like we lost enough points that we couldn't make up for it racing against the caliber of teams that we were.”
Last year’s big crash cost Bowyer 15 points in a championship race he would ultimately lose by 39 to Brad Keselowski. And yet, that episode hasn’t impacted his opinion of the place. “It's a fun situation, but you better make sure that you're having fun with it,” Bowyer added. “If you're miserable the whole time you're here, you're not going to make the right decisions and probably not going to have the success.”
Of course, attitude can’t prevent another car from changing lanes at the wrong time, or keep a driver from getting sucked to the back of the pack if he falls out of the draft. There are forces at work at Talladega that seem to defy explanation. But clearly, there’s something to be said for embracing the experience of that impossibly wide pack of cars roaring through those impossibly high banks -- even if it’s on the heels of a 25-car crash and a concussion.
That’s the case of Dale Earnhardt Jr., who unleashed some pointed comments on Talladega and restrictor-plate racing in general after being caught up in the 25-car melee that occurred on the final lap last fall. The aftermath found him angry and frustrated, sitting on the steps of his transporter with his head in his hands. Later it would be revealed that he had suffered his second concussion in six weeks, and he would have to sit out two races as a result.
“I don’t even want to go to Daytona and Talladega next year,” he said then. “But I ain’t got much choice.”
Looking back, he regrets those words. That was the frustration and the concussion talking, he said. Which explains why the five-time Talladega winner is back at the same track this weekend, and in good spirits as he chases his first victory here since 2004. After all, at Talladega, attitude can be everything.
“I always feel confident when we come here, that we are going to have a good car, going to know how to use it, and I think we feel that way coming in this weekend,” Earnhardt said. “… Hopefully, we get an opportunity to race on Sunday and go to Victory Lane. We really feel like we have a good shot at it, and feel like it is about that time for us to win one here at Talladega.”
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