Ranking the top 10 moments at Talladega
October 17, 2013, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com
Mammoth track has seen speed records fall, legendary Earnhardt showings
It's a myth, a legend, a race track and an enigma all rolled into one.
Just a mention of Talladega Superspeedway's name conveys images and memories that so many other venues find difficult to match. It's always been fast, it's sometimes been controversial and it's often presented moments that have led spectators to dig their fingernails into the armrests of their seats -- if they're even sitting in them at all. That big 2.66-mile race track in the Alabama hills is a beast unto itself, a track that seems capable of generating physical forces unseen anywhere else.
Before the advent of restrictor plates, it was probably the fastest race track on the planet. Even now, it can force you to hold your breath for 188 laps. It sends cars charging out of the turn four-wide and eight deep, in a pack so dense that a driver could probably touch the vehicle next to him if he dared stick his arm out of the window. The sight, the sound, the hair-raising experience -- Talladega is simply unlike any place else on earth.
And goodness has it had its share of moments, which have often epitomized the risk and reward of auto racing at the same time. From surprise winners to record-breakers to incidents that changed the sport forever, Talladega has seen it all. Sunday's pivotal Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup event promises to produce another heart-in-your-throat finish decided by a fraction of a second.
Until then, here are the top 10 moments at Talladega Superspeedway.
10. Bouchard's stunner, August 1981
Talladega has hatched its share of surprise winners over the years -- just look at David Ragan earlier this season, or Brad Keselowski back in his Phoenix Racing days -- but none stand out more than Ron Bouchard, who shocked NASCAR's greats in just his 11th start on the sport's premier circuit. Entering the tri-oval for the final time, Darrell Waltrip and Terry Labonte were side-by-side. Labonte went high to pass, and Waltrip went high to squeeze him toward the wall. Neither of them noticed the No. 47 Buick charging along the bottom, making it three-wide. By the time they did, it was too late. Bouchard won in a photo finish to claim what would be the lone victory of his Cup Series career.
9. Everything that could go wrong, May 1981
The previous event that season featured a winner somewhat more predictable, a member of the Alabama Gang prevailing on his home track. But the road Bobby Allison took to Victory Lane that day was anything but conventional. Relationships on his race team were strained to the point where he hardly visited his own shop. Rule changes led his team to deem the Pontiac they had been using less than competitive, and switch to a Buick the week of the Talladega race. And then there was the event itself, where Allison lost a rear bumper after getting hit by Morgan Shepherd, lost a lap with a flat tire, and suffered a cracked windshield in an accident. Somehow, he overcame it all and outraced Buddy Baker by a car length to win.
8. Record 88 lead changes, April 2010
Talladega has always been known as a record-breaking race track, but not all of those marks involve raw speed. That was certainly the case in the spring of 2010, at the height of the brief tandem drafting era, when Kevin Harvick edged Jamie McMurray at the line to win a race that featured 88 lead changes, the most ever at any track. The previous mark had been 75, set at Talladega in May of 1984. There were also 29 different leaders, another record, breaking the previous mark of 28 set -- where else -- at Talladega in 2008. To top it off, the margin of victory was one-hundredth of a second. It was so good the field did it again a year later, with Jimmie Johnson nipping Clint Bowyer by two-thousandths of a second in another race that featured 88 lead changes.
7. Brickhouse and the boycott, Sept. 1969
Talladega has been polarizing from its very first race weekend, when a number of top drivers were hesitant to compete at a facility then called Alabama International Motor Speedway. The place was bigger and faster than anything they'd ever seen, and there were real concerns that tires wouldn't hold up under the tremendous speeds the track produced. So they boycotted the race, even forming a driver's association -- the closest thing the sport has ever seen to a union -- that would prove to be short-lived. NASCAR founder Bill France Sr. filled the field with drivers from a secondary circuit, and the show went on as scheduled. Richard Brickhouse claimed what would be his lone NASCAR victory, and the authority of the sanctioning body would not be challenged again.
6. Breaking the 200 mph barrier, May 1982
At its essence, Talladega has always been about pure speed. The 200 mph barrier was actually broken there fairly early on, in a test by Buddy Baker in 1970, one year after the facility opened. But fans wouldn't see that magic number approached officially on a race weekend until 1982, when Benny Parsons qualified on the pole at 200.176 mph. The race came down to a four-man scramble between Parsons, Waltrip, Labonte and Kyle Petty, and the finish was electric -- Parsons led on the final lap, but he left the high lane open as the cars barreled through the final turn, and Waltrip surged past to win. Parsons faded to third, but his qualifying lap had set a new standard at NASCAR's biggest race track, and the speeds would only go higher from there.
5. Four in a row, April 2003
There was a time in the early 2000s when no team was better at restrictor-plate tracks than Dale Earnhardt Inc., and no driver was better at Talladega than Dale Earnhardt Jr. The culmination of it all came in the spring of 2003, when Earnhardt started at the rear of the field due to a last-minute engine change, drove through the grass to avoid a 27-car wreck that damaged his vehicle's front end, and used a controversial pass for the lead to become the first driver ever to win four straight races at NASCAR's biggest track. Some claimed the No. 8 car was below the yellow line when it overtook Matt Kenseth for the lead. NASCAR determined otherwise, and Earnhardt celebrated once again in Victory Lane with 160,000 of his closest friends.
4. 212.809 mph, May 1987
After Parsons broke down the 200 mph barrier at Talladega in 1982, pole speeds would continue to rise -- to over 202 mph in 1984, to over 209 mph in 1985, to finally the apex: 212.809 mph, a number stripped across countless headlines after Bill Elliott reached it in qualifying for the track's spring event in 1987. Stock cars at Talladega were beginning to approach the speeds of open-wheel cars at Indianapolis, a concept both dizzying and white-knuckle all at the same time. But the line between fast and too fast had been crossed, as was evident on the 21st lap of the race when Allison's car turned, lifted off and sailed into the catchfence. The crash led NASCAR to implement restrictor plates, and Elliott's pole speed, still a record, stands as a monument to the limits of man and machine.
3. Beating the heat, Aug. 1977
Sometimes, Talladega could be too much for even one of its native sons. That was certainly the case in the mean summer of 1977, when the mercury on race day approached 100 degrees and the temperature in the car on the race track was considerably more than that. Not even Donnie Allison, charter member of the Alabama Gang and native of Hueytown, was immune. In the late stages of the event, Allison started to feel faint. He chugged soda during a pit stop, but to no avail. The heat had him, so with 24 to go he climbed out and turned his Matador over to Waltrip, whose engine had blown earlier in the event. A broken water cooler on Skip Manning's car with three laps left helped Waltrip secure a victory that technically went to Allison -- although to this day, 'ol D.W. will argue otherwise.
2. Awesome Bill, May 1985
Though it would take three more seasons for him to claim the championship, the year that truly gave Bill Elliott his nickname was 1985. That was when he won three of the sport's four biggest races to earn the first Winston Million, a $1 million bonus from the circuit's title sponsor. But to get there, he had to pull off something truly awesome -- win Talladega after falling two laps down with an oil leak. The No. 9 car began belching smoke, and the pit stop to fix the problem took nearly two minutes. With no wave-around or free pass, Elliott had to come back the hard way -- using raw speed. He had plenty of that, as he showed in winning the pole, and would prove again in record-setting fashion two years later. Turning laps about 5 mph faster than everyone else, Elliott gradually made up the difference. In the end only three cars remained on the lead lap. One of them belonged to Elliott, who won by more than a second in a comeback that was awesome, indeed.
1. The legend grows, Oct. 2000
To this day, people wonder how he did it. Yes, the draft on a restrictor-plate track is capable of slinging cars from the back of the field to the front, but on that fall day in 2000 there just seemed too many vehicles ahead of Dale Earnhardt, and too few laps remaining. On what would prove the final restart with 15 to go, the black No. 3 car was mired in 15th place. With 11 left, he had fallen back to 18th. With eight remaining, he was still in 15th. But Earnhardt hooked up with Kenny Wallace in the draft, and the two began an amazing race up through the pack, one that still seems impossible today. With two laps left, seemingly out of nowhere, he was contending for the lead. At the white flag, he had it.
From there it was over, and the black No. 3 streaked to the checkereds. The lead paragraph in a Charlotte newspaper account the next day summed it up: "The legend grows." It was Earnhardt's 10th victory at Talladega and the 76th of his career, and easily among the most memorable in either category. Five months later came that dark day at Daytona, a blue-sky afternoon that began so much pain and sorrow. It all added more significance to that previous autumn in Talladega, where Earnhardt claimed what would be his final race victory in a manner only the Intimidator could.