TALLADEGA, Ala. — If or when drivers go banging and slamming into a major wreck in Sundays Good Sam 500 at Talladega Superspeedway, theyll at least do so with a measure of confidence they will survive it.
Talladega, at 2.66 miles NASCARs biggest track, is also considered its most dangerous. With cars racing at speeds often exceeding 200 mph, whats known as the big wreck is potentially always around the corner.
But a certain element of fear and foreboding about Talladega has been lessened in the new, more safety-conscious NASCAR.
The cars are much safer than what they were 10-15 years ago, said driver Tony Stewart, the Sprint Cup champion in 2011. It definitely gives you a little bit of that sense of security.
There hasnt been a driver killed in NASCARs top three series Sprint Cup, Nationwide or Trucks since 2001, the year Dale Earnhardt died in a wreck in the Daytona 500.
Earnhardts death was the catalyst for a series of safety improvements in NASCAR, including mandatory head-and-neck restraint devices, safe barriers in walls and the safety-based Car of Tomorrow.
You cant lose sight of the fact that it is dangerous to go out there and crash, but theyve done such a great job of creating a safe environment for us that its really changed your thought process, said Clint Bowyer, who is fourth in the Chase points standings and has won the past two fall races at Talladega.
When we crash, we dont think about getting hurt any more and you used to get hurt a lot when you wrecked. Now, what we worry about is our points situation and hurting that not necessarily your body.
The nature of Talladega a restrictor-plate track with long, broad straightaways and banking lends itself to speed and a sense of daring to drivers.
I dont know how organized it is, but its pretty chaotic, Jeff Gordon said. The problem is trying to get everybody on the same page. Everybody has different agendas.
Youve got guys outside the Chase who say its all about wins here. Youve got guys who dont like restrictor-plate racing who say, I just want to survive. Youve got guys in the top five in points who want to come out of here with a top 10. And youve got guys like myself, in the Chase but further back, who say, What do we have to lose?
Thanks to some rules tweaking, the two-car tandem racing at Talladega and Daytona is now a thing of the past. Its all pretty much wide open now.
Everyone is kind of going all out, said Denny Hamlin, who is third in the points. Four-wide is nothing. You hear on a regular track four wide and you perk up because something is about to happen. Here it is protocol.
If the straightaways and corners were wide enough, we would run six-wide.
Stewart doesnt want to make it too complicated.
(Racing at Talladega) is a chess match, he said. And Im a checkers player.
Then Stewart sounds a note of caution.
I dont think anybody in the garage will tell you they are 100 percent as safe as we would like them to be, he said. I dont think youre ever going to get in that scenario.
I dont think there is ever going to be a case where you are thinking I cant get hurt in a race car. You trust the guys you are around and you know that is why they call them accidents because it truly is an accident.
Scott: 704-358-5889; Twitter: @davidscott14