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First Talladega experience one drivers don't forget

May 05, 2012, Mark Aumann,

TALLADEGA, Ala. -- The high banks and high speeds of Talladega Superspeedway can put the fear in an experienced driver, let alone a fresh-faced rookie making his first trip to NASCAR's biggest, baddest oval.

But it's an eye-opening experience -- racing inches apart at speeds close to 200 mph -- that sticks with nearly every driver from that point forward.

"I quickly learned that there is a specific art to work the draft and to be competitive here."


Sometimes the memories are positive, like when Matt Kenseth first visited Talladega in 1997 in what was only his third start in what's now known as the Nationwide Series.

"Charlotte was my first race the year before and I ran Nashville the week before and then came right to Talladega," Kenseth said. "It was interesting to say the least. We actually ran pretty good.

"I remember going out in practice and being in a draft and passing cars and thinking it was the coolest thing I had experienced at the time."

The biggest problem? Kenseth hadn't thought to practice pit stops. And during the race, he got in a situation where he had to make a green-flag stop.

"I remember we decided to pit with Michael Waltrip so that I could try to get on pit road," Kenseth said. "[I remember] that feeling of trying to get on pit road that fast and how crazy that seemed and shooting through my pit box.

"It was a lot of fun. It was something I had only watched before I got to go do that. I showed up and raced and it was only my third race. It was a pretty cool experience."

Jimmie Johnson was "excited" to get to Talladega in 2000, particularly after failing to qualify for the season-opener at Daytona.

It didn't take him long to figure out that high-speed drafting was a whole lot harder inside the cockpit that it looked from the stands. He started 28th and finished 29th, five laps off the pace.

"I went in with high hopes and just thought you could hold it wide-open and create moves and things would happen," Johnson said. "I quickly learned that there is a specific art to work the draft and to be competitive here. I didn't find those skills that day. I have been working on them ever since.

"I grew up watching this stuff. I enjoyed watching the plate races and all that went on with it and I wanted to be one of those guys. I finally had my chance to here."

For Tony Stewart, his first Talladega moment was definitely not nearly what he'd list as one of his career highlights.

In 1996, he barely made it to the halfway mark before wrecking one of Harry Ranier's Pontiacs. But what made it worse was that it wasn't a single-car accident.

"I remember I wrecked in a Nationwide car in [Turns] 3 and 4, backed up and caught Mark Martin between me and the fence," Stewart said. "It peeled the whole door off the car. I remember how bad I felt crashing Mark Martin.

"It was a different animal than it is now, obviously. It had a lot more bumps, sealer and seams and everything."

Denny Hamlin remembered being overwhelmed by the speed when he first raced ARCA at Talladega. But like Stewart, the crashes seem to stand out more than the successes.

For example, Hamlin started third in the 2005 Nationwide race but was caught up in a 10-car accident with less than 40 laps remaining.

"I do remember a car flipping over right in front of me," Hamlin said. "For the first three or four years ... pretty much [all I] did on superspeedways was wreck.

"For me, it's just been a learning curve at this track. It just takes a long time to figure out how the draft works."