Going Caution Free at Talladega: Rare, But Possible
It's a track that is unlike any other on the NASCAR circuit. It's high banks give fans the exciting three and four-wide racing it has been known for.
It's a track where, at some point, one mistake could mean chaos for everyone. It's the largest, fastest and most intense track on the schedule.
That track is Talladega.
The massive 2.66-mile, 33-degree banked track has been widely known for it's large wrecks, appropriately named the "Big Ones." Crashes that occur because of one mistake that end up taking away half the field. The big wreck is not a matter of if it will happen, but more about a matter of when it will happen.
Last season, both races at this track provided the big wreck. It took seven laps last spring for a total of 14 cars to be destroyed. In the fall, as the field came to the white flag, one block sent a driver upside down and others trying to avoid calamity.
The "big one" is never far from this track. But, there have been some races where the big wreck never occurred.
In fact, on three separate occasions, Talladega completed a 500-mile race and the caution flag never flew for any reason.
The first time was in 1997. The original race weekend was a complete washout. Intense rain kept the fans away not just that Sunday, but also the following Monday. Scheduling became an issue, so it was moved to the Saturday before Mother's Day.
When the green flag waved under the sun drenched skies, no one anticipated what would happen. One round of green-flag stops went through with no issues. Another 50 laps later, the next round went through without any issues. The third round went the same way.
Back-and-forth passing, bumping, and intense drafting happened the entire afternoon, but not one driver made a mistake. In the end, it would become the fastest 500-mile race in NASCAR history.
Mark Martin would edge Dale Earnhardt that afternoon, averaging a speed of 188.354 mph. The media and announcers couldn't believe what they had witnessed, and soon began asking, "Could this happen again?"
Fast forward to 2001, and the first restrictor plate race following the death of Earnhardt. The same package that was at Daytona was brought back, and everyone wondered what would be the outcome.
In a way, the race was anti-climatic, but at the same time was an incredible sight. The drivers once again showed a lot of restraint and respect for everyone around them. Bobby Hamilton went on to win that race after passing Tony Stewart coming to the white flag.
Considering how the Daytona 500 ended that year, it was a welcome sight to see everyone return to pit road.
As the year progressed, teams and drivers expressed issues and concerns with the package used at Talladega. They wanted the packs to be broken up, possibly avoiding the large run of cars that end up being involved in the huge accident.
In the fall of 2002, for the second Talladega race, officials reduced the size of the fuel cell from 22 gallons down to 13, hoping extra pit stops would break up the large packs.
Sure enough, the move did what they had expected. But at the same time the drivers kept their aggression in check.
The only incident that happened the entire afternoon happened before the field took the green flag, during the warm-up laps. Pole-sitter Jimmie Johnson got run into by Mark Martin, who was warming his tires up when the steering locked.
Martin came to pit road, Johnson started the race, but after that not one wreck happened. After 188 laps, six rounds of pit stops, and one driver's gamble on fuel, Earnhardt Jr. drove to victory lane.
That race still holds as the last one in NASCAR Sprint Cup competition to go caution free.
It is hard enough for one track to have a race go without a yellow flag, much less having three. It's also hard to fathom a restrictor plate track where the drivers can go 500 miles and not get angry at each other.
At Talladega, more often than not there's someone complaining that they wouldn't draft with them, should have waited to make a move, or had to take the blame for a wreck.
Now, with NASCAR's "have at it" attitude, that feeling will be back to the biggest extent.
Before NASCAR had to monitor bump drafting and attitudes in the garagethat is how they looked at restrictor plate racing. On those three afternoons, the "have at it" demeanor was still honored, but the aftermath was 500 miles of great racing.
Could they go caution-free again at Talladega?
It's hard to say, especially with the unpredictability of the cars and drivers. It doesn't mean it can't happen, but it's very unlikely.
However, never say never.
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