TALLADEGA, ALA. - Just looking out over the infield at Talladega Superspeedway’s mammoth 2.66-mile banked oval, you get the sense the place is an accident waiting to happen.
Imagine, then, 43 souped- up hot rods inches apart at more than 200 m.p.h., all trying to be the one car that survives 500 miles where a single mistake can transform a race into a demolition derby.
Add to that the pressure the dozen Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship drivers feel knowing how they fare in Sunday’s Good Sam Roadside Assistance 500 could decide whether they are contenders or pretenders for the 2012 championship.
If five-time champion Jimmie Johnson had his way, Talladega would not even be a part of the Chase. He thinks it is just too much of a wild card.
It also may have something to do with the fact in the past three restrictor-plate races the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet team has yet to finish with an intact race car.
At February’s Daytona 500 he crashed on Lap 2; in the spring race at Talladega his engine blew up; and in July he wrecked again at Daytona.
“Well, as you can probably see from our finishes this year, we haven’t had a lot of luck at the restrictor-plate tracks,” Johnson said this week. “It definitely is the one track in the Chase I’ve kind of been a little concerned about.
“This one is definitely one where anything can happen. There are so many things that are out of your control. There is a lot of room on this track to move around though, obviously, and try things.”
Johnson goes into Sunday’s race five points behind Brad Keselowski in the No. 2 Penske Racing Dodge and another early exit, coupled with a good finish by Keselowski, might make getting his sixth NASCAR crown a long shot.
Johnson, however, figures the law of averages is tilted toward his team this time around.
“I think the odds are in our favour to be able to finish one of these restrictor-plate races this year,” he said. “At least I hope so.”
As for Keselowski, he is taking an aggressive approach into the race. He figures the safest place to be is out front and that is where he wants his Dodge to be for most of the afternoon, even though many drivers think the winning strategy is to lay back and attack on the final few laps.
“I don’t know why you wouldn’t want to be leading,” Keselowski said. “I don’t understand that theory at all. If you have a chance to be in the lead, take it and run.
“If you can be in the lead, be in the lead. Why would you not want to be?”
One driver who may have the most on the line at Talladega is Kevin Harvick and the No. 29 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet.
Harvick has slid back to ninth place in the Chase standings, 46 points behind Keselowski and he knows a bad outing on Sunday all but finishes his chances of a long sought after first championship.
Harvick is rather fatalistic about what will happen at the big track.
“I go to Talladega with the approach that you have a 50-50 chance when you get there,” he said. “You’re either going to have a great day because you finished or you’re going to have a torn-up race car.
“It’s just one of those race tracks where you really don’t have any expectations and you just go out and run as hard as you can because there are so many things out of your control.”
It doesn’t mean he hates the living on the edge racing that is part and parcel of restrictor-plate tracks. In fact he says it is the danger that lurks at every corner that makes it fun.
“I love this style of racing,” he said. “I love the strategy and the pushing and the shoving and all of the things that come with it. With that comes a lot of risk as far as getting torn up.”
He would just like a little good luck to go with the fun.
And Harvick’s luck this season has been mostly of the bad variety but he, like Johnson, figures it could all turn around on Sunday.
“Hopefully, we’ve been saving all of that luck up and can get through this weekend and put ourselves up front when it counts,” he said. “It’ll be fun to see how it all shakes out.”
Defending Chase champion Tony Stewart agrees that Talladega is the one race in the final 10 that can make or break a championship run.
“I don’t think anybody can predict what’s going to happen until after you get out of Talladega,” he said. “It can eliminate people’s chances.”
SCHU MEANS IT THIS TIME
Michael Schumacher is retiring — again.
The seven-time Formula One world champion announced on Thursday he is finished as an F-1 driver — for good.
Schumacher first retired after the 2006 season but came back in 2010 after signing a three-year deal with Mercedes F-1.
His second retirement comes just six days after Mercedes revealed it had hired 28-year-old Lewis Hamilton to replace the 43-year-old Schumacher in the car next season.
Schumacher’s seven world championships and his 91 Grands Prix wins leave him at the top when the conversation turns to the greatest drivers in F-1 history.
But his record over the past three seasons with Mercedes — with no wins — sullies his achievements somewhat.
Schumacher denied it was his failure to get a victory for Mercedes that led to his decision to retire.
“In the past six years I have learned a lot about myself,” he said at Suzuka, site of Sunday’s Japanese Grand Prix. “For example, that ... losing can be both more difficult and more instructive than winning.
“Sometimes I lost sight of this in the early years. But you appreciate to be able to do what you love to do. That you should live your convictions and I was able to do so.”
Schumacher said he had been considering quitting for some time.
“I am looking forward to my freedom,” he said. “I have no hard feelings. In a different way we achieved a great deal. Now I will do exactly as I did the first time – to finish and focus 100% on what I do.”