TALLADEGA — It’s not some manufactured hype and marketing, like the latest mattress-store holiday sale, that touts the unpredictable nature of Talladega Superspeedway races.
This is the twice-yearly Sunday morning when crew chiefs take an extra dose of stomach medicine and NASCAR fantasy players just close their eyes and click, knowing anything can happen and anybody can win.
The unpredictability of Talladega takes a different turn in Sunday’s GEICO 500 (1 p.m., WBRC-Fox 6). Increased speeds in practice prompted NASCAR to shrink the intake holes on the restrictor plates that govern air flow into the motor’s innards.
“It’s not that much slower — four or five tenths (of a second per lap) by yourself, which you can barely feel that,” defending NASCAR champ Martin Truex Jr. said Saturday after qualifying. “The big test will be tomorrow when we get out there drafting in the pack, and see what these drive like.”
Added Kurt Busch: “I couldn’t tell much difference. It was bogged down a little bit with independent speed itself but it is supposed to really slow us down in the draft. We will see what that does tomorrow. Will it do much difference? I really don’t think so.”
Though going slower might seem contrary to the purpose, Brad Keselowski noted that the faster the cars go, the less apt drivers will be to participate in the close-quarter drafting to which fans are accustomed. And as Ricky Stenhouse Jr. pointed out, “(Fans) get pretty frustrated when we get in single-file.”
Thus, Sunday's unpredictable factor: Will the GEICO 500 be 490 miles of single-file, well-spaced racing until the last 10 miles of bedlam, or will the cars have been slowed down enough to encourage the usual scenario of two-dozen cars within inches of each other?
The new plates may have slowed cars a whit, but Kevin Harvick captured the pole Saturday with a speed of 194.448 mph, almost four mph quicker than last fall’s pole-winning speed.
Kurt Busch, Harvick’s teammate at Stewart-Haas Racing, starts on the outside front row, with Truex third, Dennis Hamlin fourth, Chase Elliott fifth, Erik Jones sixth and defending GEICO 500 champ Stenhouse in seventh. Stenhouse won last spring’s race from the pole, but was the first pole-sitter to do so in 11 years. Only 14 previous Talladega winners have started from the No. 1 spot.
As to the unpredictable nature of this 2.66-mile trioval, when last year’s GEICO 500 got the green flag, few expected the winless Stenhouse to hang around up front that long.
“When we qualified on the pole by a decent amount (we knew) we had a car that was pretty special and you want to capitalize with that,” he said. The win has helped create a positive mindset at a track where most folks acknowledge a love-hate relationship.
“I feel like I am on the ‘love it’ side right now,” he said. “I think it can quickly turn to crashing out of three of them in a row and then you are back bummed about it. Right now I do think coming into a race like Talladega with a thought process of enjoying this place and wanting to run well and feeling like you can, keeping an open mind about it, definitely makes the race go better.”
Stenhouse won’t venture a prediction about the personality of the GEICO 500 but he did acknowledge some bit of responsibility.
“We should want to put on a show for the fans,” he said. “I think there are a ton of fans that come to Talladega and expect three and four-wide racing all day. For one, that is a product of what they got used to for a long time. I think right now when we are three and four-wide, the racing is way better than it was back in the day.”
Whether the GEICO 500 provides that show, or a different style, nobody seems able to predict.