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'Dega dynamics present unique challenges

October 15, 2013, Ron Lemasters Jr.,

Air flow the key at massive superspeedway

Talladega Superspeedway is a massive place. The turns rise up out of the Alabama clay like mountains, and the straightaways look more like the runways of an airport than anything we see on a normal race track.

For all its size, the track is really a pretty tame place for crew chiefs and engineers.

There's not a big emphasis on handling, and the brakes are merely formalities for stopping on pit road -- until someone gets out of line and the crashing begins, that is. It's not Charlotte or Phoenix: it's Talladega, and that means the race-winning work is done in the wind tunnel and between the driver's ears.

Driving a car at Talladega is not hard.

"As a driver, I could put my grandmother in on qualifying day the way these cars run here," Marcos Ambrose quipped one day at Talladega. Tony Stewart, when he was feeling a bit on his game, used to say when asked how qualifying went at Talladega that he shifted gears four times and wound up right back where he started.

Racing a car at Talladega is a confounding amount of work.

It all starts in the wind tunnel, where engineers fiddle with Lionel train smoke to make sure the cars are as slick as they can be. That includes rivets on the bottom of the car, too. Body panels are polished, wheel openings snugged down as far as NASCAR will allow to keep the air going over the car, not inside it.

Drag means slow, and slow means you're in the back with a good chance of being in the middle of the mechanical melee when the inevitable big crash is triggered. You can't horsepower your way out of trouble at Talladega; you have to be lucky and you have to be brave.

Ernie Elliott, brother of beloved NASCAR champion Bill and champion engine builder, used to moan that you could make more horsepower in a wind tunnel than you could in the dyno room … and he's right.

It's all about sucking up.

"You just want a car that's not too tight or not too loose, that sucks up to the other cars real well," said Carl Edwards. "That's it. That's all you're looking for. There's no magic feel or anything, you know?"

Roush Fenway Racing teammate Greg Biffle agreed, but added one kicker.

"Talladega is Talladega," he said. "It's just a smooth, fast place. But, really, the cars just drive so much the same because handling is not an issue; you're just going around in a circle. But, you're looking for the same thing: speed."

Everyone who follows the sport knows that Talladega and Daytona are the places where speed and fluid dynamics rule the day. The draft is king, and if the driver in front of you moves, so do you. It's long lines of drivers, nose to tail, working the air and following momentum.

Drafting is the division of the air resistance between the two cars or three cars and so on. The lead car moves through clean air and leaves a trail of turbulent air behind. This makes it easier for the cars behind to catch the lead car because they are not paying the drag penalty of the lead car.

It takes horsepower to stay in line, though not as much as it does elsewhere, which is good because the cars are restricted. It takes vision and anticipation. It also helps if you get the pit strategy right, too.

Having a good car at Talladega isn't as important as having the same thing at Daytona, the other plate track on the circuit, but it always helps. It's all about adjustments, both on the track and in the pits. It's a place where lightning often strikes and creates results other than the usual.

It's about being mentally tough, too.

"At Talladega, the physical demand isn't that big of deal," said Kyle Busch. "You can run around there all day long and not break a sweat, really. Once you get down into the nitty-gritty of the race and try to play the chess game at the end of the race, you've got to really pick and choose your spots and think all the time if you go here and team up with this guy. It really wears on you a little bit, mentally.

"I would say Talladega is 80 percent mental and 20 percent physical, while most other non-restrictor-plate races are 80 percent physical and 20 percent mental."

Brad Keselowski, who won his first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Talladega in a wild finish, broke down plate racing like this:

"You really have to pay attention to how the race unfolds at Talladega," he said. "There are times when you need to be patient. There are times when you need to keep your head about you and race smart. But you are going to have to be aggressive at the end. Those are three elements of restrictor-plate racing that I work on throughout the race."

They’ll be patient on Sunday … to a point. Then they won't be. Clean air, dirty air, draft or no draft, it's hammer down and get back to the start/finish line first.