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Analysis: How ‘Big One’ shapes Talladega strategy

Aric Almirola’s win last October at Talladega Superspeedway was the culmination of a deliberate game plan. Stewart-Haas Racing deployed a four-car bulwark at the front of the field; its drivers thumbed their noses at the track’s well-known crash dynamic. You may crash one of us, but you’re not crashing all of us.

All four cars rode first through fourth for 70 percent of the 500-mile race. Three drivers combined to lead 80 percent of the event. Stewart-Haas claimed the trophy and inspired copycat attempts at the strategy four months later during Speedweeks in Daytona when Team Penske and Hendrick Motorsports aimed for similar defensive tactics in The Clash and the early laps of the Daytona 500, respectively.

Those attempts didn’t work, primarily because Daytona isn’t Talladega. Though the word “Talladega” holds a connotation of chaos, there’s more decorum at the front of its fields than one might expect.

In fact, the most coveted running position also acts as a safe space.

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Leads at Talladega are both valuable and sacred

The threat of the ‘Big One’ is real at Talladega. Dating back to 2013, the track saw 24 crashes consuming at least four cars. Nine of those accidents included 10 or more cars. Because of the close-proximity racing created by tapered spacers and drafting, a large multi-car crash looms constantly as a foil ready to end any semblance of a game plan created by a forward-thinking team. Though such an accident could occur at any moment, it isn’t without predictive nature.

The lead car successfully avoided all 24 of those accidents over the last six years, just one of three running positions on the race track able to skirt Talladega’s landmine crashes.

Crash inclusion rates for every position are visible in this interactive chart:

 

The average crash inclusion rate for any position in the Talladega running order during this span was 22.8 percent, meaning the top four cars were in crashes less often than the field-wide average. This made such a tactic like the one Stewart-Haas utilized last fall viable.

The middle of the field is the area teams should strive to avoid, based on history. Positions 9 through 26 averaged a 36.8 percent inclusion rate. The running order spots of 13th and 17th were included in half of the crashes consisting of four or more cars.

PHOTOS: Wildest wrecks at Talladega

If some of the rates seem jarring, it’s because they are. However, there is at least a definitive area for safe navigation on Talladega’s track. Daytona no longer has such a comfort.

Drafting tracks and ‘Big Ones’ are not created equal

From 2013 to 2016, the front of the field at Daytona was the bubble for which teams pined. The top five cars in the running order averaged a crash inclusion rate of 7.4 percent. Since 2017, the average increased to 33 percent. Third place at Daytona, once the safest spot on the track with an inclusion rate of zero, became its least-safe spot, its rate growing to 50 percent.

There is no singular reason behind this shift. For one, mid-pack refugees sought an escape and overpopulated Daytona’s lead pack. Secondly, the guise of professionalism disappeared. After years of being proactive, Daytona’s drivers became reactive: Crash before getting crashed.

Daytona’s lawlessness hasn’t crept into Talladega’s peloton. Talladega is a wider track, offering more room on the racing surface regardless of running order whereabouts, and better neutralizes handling than its sister track where a hot day gives way to slicker asphalt and setup frustrations.

This doesn’t mean that Daytona’s problem won’t inform Talladega race strategy. Drafting-averse teams might not decipher (or care about) the difference between the two facilities and the races they host. Those recognizing how problematic Daytona’s lead pack has become may choose to, again, ride in Talladega’s middle. The potential for overpopulation in the ill-advised spots means it’s possible their odds of getting caught in a big crash could be greater than recent history’s suggestion.

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The contrarian strategy

Lest we forget, two cars cannot occupy the same running position. If it happens more than one four-car alliance has its hopes set on conglomerating the first four spots, it’ll create a high-speed staring contest. One potential amenity for the side that blinks first is a complimentary tow-truck ride.

Qualifying may dictate who gets first dibs on the most obvious game plan, just as it did last fall when Stewart-Haas placed all four cars inside the first two rows on Talladega’s starting grid. For those unable to win the Busch Pole battle, the best strategy is to ride in the rear.

Positions 31 through 40 were caught in, on average, five percent of the crashes during the aforementioned time frame and as the running order compresses, with crash victims occupying some or all of those spots, “the rear” moves higher in the order but retains a similar value.

It’s not pretty, and it takes teams out of the running for Stage points, but ultimately, it’s an effective survivalist plan. A team can’t win if it isn’t in the race. Being one of the last cars rolling, especially if attrition skews high, is a grounded idea that may reward patience with a choice result.

Preparing for the drafting tracks is a science constantly in flux, with the threat of a big crash acting as the primary hurdle. The “Big One,” when it happens, may only remove a portion of the field from the race, but it informs the stratagems of all the event’s participants regardless of whether it occurs.

David Smith is the founder of MotorsportsAnalytics.com and co-host of Positive Regression: A Motorsports Analytics Podcast.