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In the Rearview: Talladega

May 5th, 2014 12:40 pm by Dave Ongie

In the Rearview: Talladega

Kurt Busch (41), Joey Logano (22), David Ragan (34) and Michael McDowell (95) collide in turn 4 during the Aaron's 499 on Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway in Talladega, Ala. (AP Photo)

If Darlington is the Lady in Black, Talladega Superspeedway is NASCAR's Witchy Woman.

There isn't another track on the circuit that causes drivers to hold their breath so deeply when the green flag falls and let it out in such a long sigh of relief when the checkers finally fly at the end of the day. The tight pack traveling at such a high speed is always an accident waiting to happen, and for racers obsessed with being in control of their fate, there is nothing comfortable about being along for the ride.

Drivers are acutely aware of racing luck as it plays a supporting role in the outcome of every race. But at Talladega, luck morphs into a monster of Godzilla-sized proportions, casting its shadow over the entire event. With restrictor plates on the cars, anybody with a top-30 machine at the beginning of the day has a reasonable shot at landing in Victory Lane. It all comes down avoiding The Big One and getting the right push at the right time.

While Talladega hasn't changed much over the years, the racers that challenge its high banks have. Today's drivers are more like fighter pilots than barnstormers. The colorful characters that dotted the NASCAR landscape in the past have been replaced with drivers who are steeped in risk management.

Most races, particularly on mile-and-a-half speedways, are won and lost by engineers back in Mooresville. The driver's job is to find the edge and stay there in order to get the maximum result out of his or her machine. Emotions get in the way of that. Emotions wad up race cars, essentially flushing a lot of money down the toilet.

For this new breed of driver, Talladega is particularly maddening because reason gives way to a strange racing voodoo that seems to lurk around every corner. The more conservatively you drive, the more likely it seems that you end up getting caught in the freakiest of freak accidents.

Stories have circulated for years that Talladega was built on an Indian burial ground. Others say the entire valley in which the track lies was cursed by a Native American shaman. Back in 1973, Bobby Isaac actually pulled off the track on lap 90 because he heard a voice that told him to park his car and get out.

One thing is certain: Luck runs amok at Talladega, and it cuts both ways.

Brad Keselowski ended up on the wrong end of that luck on Sunday. He was involved in a wreck with Danica Patrick early in the race and fell six laps down. While racing hard to get one of those laps back, Keselowski cut a tire and took out a lot of race cars, drawing the ire of many in the garage area.

Not only did Keselowski take one of the faster race cars in the field and tear it up, he also put a target on his back by taking out a lot of other good cars. He no doubt left Alabama cursing whatever spirits may be haunting the massive tri-oval.

On the other side of the coin, Denny Hamlin came to Talladega expecting the worst. Misfortune has hung around him like a thick cloud since he suffered a back injury in California last season and missed several races. The 2014 season didn't start out much better for Hamlin, who was forced to miss a race at Auto Club Speedway when a small sliver of metal became lodged in his eye.

Hamlin spent the month of April missing a few golden opportunities to win races, a stretch that culminated in a bitter loss at his home track in Richmond. After running up front for most of the race, Hamlin was collected in a late wreck and left empty-handed.

So when he arrived at Talladega, his expectations weren't high. Before Sunday, Hamlin was 0-for-33 in Sprint Cup points races at restrictor-plate tracks. So naturally, he went out, dodged all the trouble and won the race when the caution flag came out on the final lap.

With Talladega in the rearview, it remains to be seen how long the track haunts Keselowski. As for Hamlin, the boost he got from winning on Sunday could end up being just what the doctor ordered.

When fate smiles upon you from the dark shadows that lurk around the edges of that giant tri-oval in Alabama, it's hard not to leave feeling invincible.

Dave Ongie covers motorsports for the Times-News. On Twitter, he is @KTNSportsOngie. Reach him via email at dongie@timesnews.net. You can hear him Monday mornings at 9:10 on "Good Morning Tri-Cities" with Tom Taylor on 870 AM and 100.7 FM.

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