As a Result of Talladega’s Unique Finish Line Location, Races to Checkered Flag Second To None
TALLADEGA, AL – Talladega Superspeedway is often referred to as the biggest and baddest race track on the planet. There is no other racing venue like it. Fans and drivers alike will get to experience Talladega during the upcoming Camping World RV Sales 500 on Sunday, October 20.
Let’s turn back the clock, however, to when Talladega Superspeedway was in its infancy. When the design for the iconic facility began to take shape in the mind of NASCAR founder Bill France in the late 1960s, he wanted something a little bit different.
Already the visionary behind the Daytona International Speedway, France didn’t want to just stamp a cookie cutter into the Alabama countryside and produce an exact replica of his Florida facility. He wanted something a little bit more unique. A little bit more breath-taking.
When drawing pencils finally went to paper, “Big” Bill decreed that Talladega would be slightly longer (2.66 miles to 2.5 miles), slightly steeper (33-degree banking in the turns to 31 degrees) and the racing surface would be wider by one lane. Then he added one more twist that ultimately made Talladega unique from almost every other racetrack ever conceived.
His finishing touch, so to speak, was to move the Start/Finish line from its traditional spot coming into the tri-oval area off Turn 4 further down the track nearly 1,250 feet towards Turn 1.
France reasoned it would sell more tickets in that area if fans could expect to see the drivers dash to the finish right in front of them along the main grandstand. He thought a slingshot move in those last few precious yards might decide a race here or there. And just maybe he believed that an unheralded driver or two would achieve NASCAR greatness somewhere along the line thanks to those few extra feet – or inches – they had to maneuver.
Man, was he ever right. In layman’s terms, 1,250 feet is a pretty good ways, more than three football fields to be exact. In Talladega terms, it is literally a blink of the eye, and it only takes about that long for a list of the track’s classic finishes to start rolling off the tongue thanks to France’s foresight.
“For whatever reason they decided to put it there, the results have been tremendous over the years,” two-time Talladega winner Donnie Allison said. “Now maybe some of the drivers didn’t like it, but for what we were there for, which was to put on a good show for the fans, I think it was an excellent choice.”
Countless finishes at Talladega have seen two and three abreast separated by merely inches at the checkered flag. Among those “classic” finishes are six races that would have gone down differently in the record books had Talladega’s finish line been in the usual place. They include the 1974, 1981 and 1993 Camping World RV Sales 500s, as well as the 2009, 2010 and 2011 Aaron’s 499s.
Officially the winners of those races were Richard Petty, Ron Bouchard, Dale Earnhardt, Brad Keselowski, Kevin Harvick and Jimmie Johnson. But on another track a roll call of those race winners would have read David Pearson, Darrell Waltrip, Ernie Irvan, Carl Edwards, Jamie McMurray and Clint Bowyer.
Here’s a brief look at each race and its unique place in Talladega history thanks to the unique placement of the Start/Finish line.
• 1974 Camping World RV Sales 500 – Pearson was looking to win from the pole position, sweep both 1974 races and post his fourth victory in his last six Talladega starts, but “The King” had other ideas when he made his move in the tri-oval. The result was a finish so close that, in the era before electronic scoring, the official margin of victory in Petty’s first-ever Talladega triumph was simply listed as 2 feet.
• 1981 Camping World RV Sales 500 – In what may still may be the most famous of Talladega’s fantastic finishes because of an iconic black-and-white photo snapped at the stripe, rookie Bouchard was third coming off Turn 4 but came home first when Waltrip chose to crowd Terry Labonte to the outside in the tri-oval. Again, the official margin of victory was listed as 2 feet in what is still generally considered one of the closest outcomes in any era of NASCAR scoring history.
• 1993 Camping World RV Sales 500 – Leave it to “The Intimidator” to provide the Talladega fans another exciting finish. In a classic drag race, Earnhardt beat Irvan to the line by .005 seconds and then summed it up by saying “I just had to play the game to the last move. We got the last move, and it worked.”
• 2009 Aaron’s 499 – One moment, Edwards appeared on his way to his first Talladega victory. The next he was out of shape going through the trioval. After the contact that sent Edwards around, Keselowski, who surprisingly picked up his first career win with an underfunded team, still had his hands full and barely held off Dale Earnhardt Jr. by .175 seconds.
• 2010 Aaron’s 499 – With two-car tandems in vogue, Harvick pushed McMurray far enough from the field for the two to settle it between themselves, and that’s exactly what they did. Just before the stripe Harvick was happy to duck inside McMurray and take the win by .011 seconds, breaking a 115-race winless streak in the process.
• 2011 Aaron’s 499 – When they came off Turn 4 there was such a swarm of cars (Johnson was fifth) it was really hard to say who would have been the winner at that point. When they reached the line, it was Johnson, who made a dramatic pass on the low side, stinging the pack with a .002-second victory - so close that calling a winner was difficult to the naked eye even with numerous television replays. It would be a NASCAR record.
For most of those winners, the extra distance was a path to continued or much greater success. For a guy like Bouchard, it was the difference between having a NASCAR win on his career ledger and never finding Victory Lane at all.
“When we first went there, Buddy Baker told me that one of the differences at this track was that when you came off Turn 4 you had to remember that the Start/Finish line wasn’t in the tri-oval,” Bouchard said. “He actually went through the scenario with me where he said if for some reason I was third coming off Turn 4 I needed to wait until the second-place guy made his move then go the other way because, at that point, there was still plenty of time to draft by those guys at the line.
“When we came off Turn 4, I remembered what Buddy told me, and I waited and Terry jumped to the high side of Darrell. Then the only thing Darrell was worried about was Terry, and I got a draft off the two of them. When I passed them, I remember thinking as we crossed the stripe, ‘I’ll be a son-of-a-gun if Baker didn’t talk about this very thing, and it happened just like he said.’”
It’s just one of 88 chapters that have made Talladega what it is and always will be – the fastest, most exciting racetrack in the world.
“If you go back and look at it closely, there are probably only a small handful of races where it didn’t contribute to determining the winner in some way,” Allison said. “It’s something that has made Talladega very, very special that’s for sure.”
Sunday, Oct. 20, should produce more of the same.
The most competitive racing in NASCAR combined with a mix of southern hospitality returns to Talladega Superspeedway October 18-20, 2013 for the Camping World RV Sales 500 Weekend, which also features the fred’s 250 Powered by Coca-Cola NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race. For tickets and information visit www.talladegasuperspeedway.com or call 1-877-Go2-DEGA. This is more than a race…This is Talladega!