NASCAR's southern comfort

DEAN MCNULTY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 9:47 AM ET

TALLADEGA, Ala. -- There are many who say that Talladega is a throwback to a time when good old boys ran and ruled NASCAR.

Back to a time when the racing stars were named Richard Petty, David Pearson, Bobby Allison, Bill Elliott and Junior Johnson--all good southern boys from Alabama, the Carolinas, Georgia and Virginia.

That era is long gone and today's stars are named Jeff Gordon, Kasey Kahne, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Juan Pablo Montoya and they come from far away places like California, Wisconsin, Washington, Nevada and even abroad like Colombia and Australia.

But for two weekends a season NASCAR embraces its past at Talladega Superspeedway, which is nestled in the southern most reaches of the Appalachian Mountains.

Here is the last refuge of the stars and bars--the rebel flag that long ago was discarded everywhere else in the South as an ugly symbol of an ugly time.

Yet those folks who fly that flag in the RV lots that stretch as far as the eye can see around Talladega, feel no affinity to the racist signal it emotes.

In fact most just unfold the thing as a one-fingered salute to the NASCAR bosses who would rather forget that the foundation upon which sprung a multi-national, multi-billion dollar business was right here, where moonshiners and teenage rebels without a cause poured out of a post-war South to launch a sport they could call their own.

And Talladega became their Mecca, a race track so big and so fast it could make or break legends in a single lap.

The fact is, not much has changed over the past 40 or so years on the 2.66-mile high banked oval that is Talladega. The 43 drivers who will take the green flag on Sunday for the AMP Energy Juice 500 have pretty much the same fears and trepidations as those who started at the first 500- mile race here back in 1969.

When you come to Talladega you really do discover that the wild west still exists.

Kurt Busch, driver of the No. 2 Penske Racing Dodge, in fact describes racing at Talladega as a bit like playing Russian roulette with 3,400 pound bullets.

"The excitement level that is part of restrictor-plate racing? It's the Russian roulette atmosphere," Busch said. "'Hey, is my number going to get pulled today. Am I going to survive?' That's the whole Talladega atmosphere."

Four-time champion Johnson said he still gets the chills when he climbs into his No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet at the big track, because, frankly, he said, you never can plan for what can happen after the first lap.

"There really is no safe place to be on the track," Johnson said. "It seems like you can prolong your opportunity to crash until later in the event which is a strategy we've played over the years.

"But at the end, when everyone is still trying to get the best finish they can, it's just full chaos at that point."

Denny Hamlin, driver of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, who is chasing Johnson for the 2010 Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, said 100 years from now race car drivers will still be trying to figure out how to survive Talladega.

"No one has figured this thing out simply because you never know where that big wreck is going to happen or start," he said. "I think it's a complete wild card really. We just don't know what's going to happen. All I can control is to make sure that I'm not the one who causes the big wreck."

Resident NASCAR philosopher Jeff Burton, driver of the No. 31 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet, said that Tallladega doesn't discriminate, it will come up and bite you even when you think you have done every last thing right.

"It is without a doubt the biggest opportunity to have something happen to you when you didn't do anything wrong," he said.

dean.mcnulty@sunmedia.ca


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