Home » Why Surviving A Race At Talladega Isn’t As Random As It Looks

Why Surviving A Race At Talladega Isn’t As Random As It Looks

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Talladega Superspeedway was originally conceived by Bill France Sr in the early 1960s as he was looking to build an even bigger and faster sister track to his Daytona International Speedway, which opened in 1959. Located halfway between Atlanta and Birmingham, Talladega Superspeedway became exactly what he dreamed of way back when. At 2.66 miles in length, it is the longest oval on the schedule, and with 33 degrees of banking in the corners it is also the steepest. Ground was broken in May of 1968 and the first race was held in September of the following year. 

By the 1980s, speeds at both Talladega and Daytona were creeping up into a wild and unsafe territory. In qualifying for the 1987 Winston 500 at Talladega Superspeedway, Bill Elliott set the track record of 44.998 seconds with an average speed of 212.81 mph. During the race, Bobby Allison spun and went airborne, destroying more than 100 feet of fencing and injuring multiple spectators. As a result, for the 1988 season onwards, NASCAR implemented the use of restrictor plates for competition at both Daytona and Talladega and thus “plate racing” as we know it today was born. 

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A restrictor plate is simply a metal plate with holes punched in it that fits between the carburetor and the intake manifold to restrict air intake. The plate acts to reduce power output as an artificial means of slowing the cars down. The net result however is that drivers could now run wide open around the circuit, thus giving us the giant packs of cars that we all know and love.

People tend to say that superspeedway racing is random and that anyone can win because the draft is this “great equalizer” but that is an opinion I disagree with strongly. For the purpose of this examination, we will be looking at the last 20 Cup Series races at Talladega Superspeedway. The idea of randomness likely comes from the fact that the winner of the race on average only led for 12.4% of the race distance, and in three races only led the final lap. On the flip side, the driver who led the most laps has an average finish of 10.2 (this drops to 6.7 if we exclude the 3 DNFs). Zooming in however, we will see that the driver who led the most laps finished inside the Top 5 a whopping 50% of the time and won 3 of these 20 races. That seems slightly less random. 

It starts to appear even less random when we look at who typically wins these races. Yes, we all know about the superspeedway Cinderella stories, but let’s look at who wins consistently. The five winningest active (Yes, I’m including Harvick, he’s only been retired for one superspeedway race) Cup Series drivers at superspeedways are as follows: Brad Keselowski – 7, Denny Hamlin – 5, Joey Logano – 4, Ryan Blaney – 4, and Kevin Harvick – 3. That group includes 4 champions and a future first ballot Hall of Fame inductee. Looking at these stats all time the top of the list is Jeff Gordon with 12 and Dale Earnhardt Sr with 11. Are you beginning to sense a trend? 

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If you’ve seen the trailer for the Netflix documentary “NASCAR: Full Speed” you might have noticed the first clip they show features radio audio from Denny Hamlin at Daytona bailing out of the draft. “When I feel like a wreck is about to happen, I get out of the hornet’s nest.”

That is the essence of superspeedway racing. If it was so truly “random” as people like to carry on about the same drivers wouldn’t be finishing at the front consistently in these races. Surviving is as much a part of the art of superspeedway racing as drafting is. 

While the driver’s “spidey senses” that Denny refers to in the Netflix trailer do play a role in making it to the end of the race, no one on the team is more important at superspeedway races than the spotter.

For spotters, superspeedway races are the days when they truly earn their money. During the race, the spotter must paint a picture for the driver of what is going on around them so that the driver can keep their eyes focused forward and off of their mirrors. This information includes what lanes have momentum, who is leading the lanes behind them, how big of a gap the cars around them have and so much more. The last item here is crucially important. When drafting, a driver can only see the car in front of them. If they are unaware of what’s happening in front of that car, they can push the pair of them into a bad situation. Take a listen to Brad Keselowski’s (White #2 car) spotter, Joey Meier, guide him around Talladega Superspeedway and let’s break down some of the things he says.

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  1. “High lane is coming one back” this tells Brad that the top lane has a run coming to him and that he is clear by one car length to make the block
  2. “Two wide first two rows” now Brad knows that the cars behind him have cars beside them so they are not clear to make a move
  3. “He got air pushed out” The driver that got air pushed out is closing on Brad but they are too far ahead of their help and the run will stall out. There is no need to block them
  4. “Blaney and Joey behind you” now Brad knows that his teammates are the two cars trailing him which means they are more likely to help him and will follow him if he makes a move
  5. “Clear high if you need it” let’s Brad know that there is no one to his outside so he is free to make a move if he so desires
  6. “Lined up behind you, soft behind Kurt” tells Brad that he has more drafting help than the car to his inside and will get pushed ahead of him

So how exactly does the draft work, and how in the hell do you make a pass if everyone is running wide-open? Let’s discuss.

As any object moves through a fluid, like a car moving through air, there is a high-pressure region formed in front of it as the fluid is pushed out of the way, and a low-pressure region behind it in its wake. You can think of drag as the combined force of both the high-pressure pushing and the low-pressure pulling backward. When two cars are drafting, they are lined up nose to tail and the following car moves into the low-pressure region left behind the leading car. The effect of this is twofold. The low-pressure pulling on the rear of the leading car is reduced and the high-pressure pushing back on the front of the following car are both reduced. Overall, the two cars have less drag together than they would by themselves.

Front Rear Drag

The effect is multiplied, albeit with slightly diminishing returns, as the number of cars lined up nose to tail increases which is why you see such large packs of cars at Daytona and Talladega. For an Xfinity Series car, the difference in lap time from single-car qualifying to racing in the pack is about 2 seconds. While nose-to-tail drafting is simple to understand, another crucial aspect of superspeedway racing is something called side drafting.

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Side drafting is what happens when one driver places the nose of their car alongside the tail of another car. The wake rushing off the nose and hood of their car dumps a tremendous amount of airflow onto the spoiler of the car beside them. This essentially places an aerodynamic boat anchor on the leading car and slows them down.

This technique can be used to break apart a line of cars drafting together. When one car in the line is slowed down by a side draft, they will lose ground to their drafting partner ahead of them which then slows both cars down. One thing worth noting is that the side draft is much more effective when applied to the right rear of a car as opposed to the left rear. Both Cup Series and Xfinity Series racecars have something called a “shark fin” on the left side of the rear window and decklid, as seen below.

Nascar Xfinity Series 2023: Nascar Xfinity Series Ag Pro 300 April 22
#48: Parker Kligerman, Big Machine Racing, Big Machine Racing Spiked Chevrolet Camaro

The purpose of the shark fin is to disrupt airflow over the car during a spin and prevent it from flipping over. When being side drafted though, it acts to shield the spoiler from a large portion of air being directed at it. For this reason, you will tend to see drivers favor the top lane at superspeedways as it allows them to protect the right rear of their car as well as allows them to play better defense against cars in the inside lane. Done properly, side drafting is an extremely handy technique for drivers on both the offense and defense. However, due to the close proximity it requires between the cars it can easily go wrong in a hurry as it did here for Jimmie Johnson (Black #48) and Paul Menard (White and red #21). Johnson was attempting to side-draft Menard, but Menard thought Johnson was going to pull all the way to his inside to make the pass. A slight attempt at blocking from Menard caused contact with Johnson and a massive pileup.

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This weekend you will hear the commentators frequently mention how drivers are “generating runs” or “building energy” in the draft. To understand what they mean let’s consider an example of three cars drafting in a line. Car A is leading, Car B is in the middle, and Car C is in the back. If they are evenly spaced apart and the drivers are running wide open, then this system of cars we’re examining is essentially in stasis. Let’s say that the driver of Car B wants to take the lead from Car A. Well, they can’t just push the throttle harder they’re already wide open. So, what do they do? Counterintuitively, to pass Car A the driver of Car B will either drag the brake pedal or lift slightly out of the throttle. What this does is it will increase the distance between Car A and Car B while simultaneously decreasing the gap between Car B and Car C. Now that Car A has a slightly bigger lead, there is also more aerodynamic drag on Car A. Conversely, there is less drag on both Car B and Car C. With less drag, Cars B and C will accelerate slightly and “generate a run” quickly closing on the back of Car A and the opportunity to create an overtake has arisen.  If they can time it properly, the driver of Car B will pull out of line at the last second, apply a slight side draft to Car A and then shoot past them.  

Backing up into a run is also where the idea of bump drafting comes from. The name is quite literal as it means that the following car gives a slight bump to the leading car. If you’ve ever played with a Newton’s Cradle then you’re already familiar with the principle on which it works.

Momentum is transferred from the following car into the leading car which nudges it ahead. While the following car has lost some of its momentum, it will be pulled forward along with the leading car by the vacuum of the low-pressure region between them. The result is that both cars end up travelling forward at a net speed that is greater than before the bump draft.

If you listen to any team scanner audio during the race, you will hear spotters constantly reminding drivers not to get too far out and to mind their gaps. This is the only type of racing where you don’t want to have a big lead on your competition. Honestly, leading a superspeedway race is one of the most difficult things to do in circle track racing. Energy ebbs and flows between lanes constantly as either the inside or outside lane surges ahead and then falls behind. To maintain the lead, a driver must constantly switch back and forth from top to bottom of the track and pick up the lane that has more momentum in that instant. Commentators will refer to this as “working the lanes”. Watch below as Daniel Hemric in the #11 car bobs and weaves from top to bottom of the track trying to protect his lead.

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As the race nears the finish or the conclusion of a stage, the blocks and side drafts will become more and more aggressive and this is where you get the infamous “big one” type crash from. These wrecks generally start in one of three ways. The first is a bad block that’s simply late and causes contact between the blocker and the blockee. Second, is a bad block that causes the blockee to lift out of the throttle and creates a sort of accordion-like effect as drivers try to check up and eventually someone gets turned. The third is simply a side draft gone amiss as we saw earlier. Case in point for a type 2 big in this video.

William Byron (Blue and red #24) attempted to block Brad Keselowski (White #2) who was coming with help from Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (Blue #17) Brad lifted out of the throttle to try and stay off of William, but Ricky did not and Brad got turned.

So how does a superspeedway race play out? Well, there is a typical cadence that you will see most of these races follow. Each run has three phases to it: an exciting opening scene, a quiet lull in the middle, and a dramatic crescendo at the end. After a start, or restart, drivers will fight for every inch of track position that they can get. Drivers know that once the field gets settled and begins saving fuel it will be much harder to make moves and advance through the pack. The opening laps of a run will see teammates and cars of the same manufacturer attempting to link up with one another and then quickly try to get their group towards the front of the pack. After the opening ten-ish laps or so, drivers will start to settle in line and begin to just “log laps” as the broadcasters will say. In the Xfinity Series, this typically looks like the field getting single file around the top groove. The Cup Series rarely goes single file, but if you watched the Daytona 500 you will remember how the field ran two by two at about half throttle for most of the first stage. Finally, coming to the end of a stage you will see drivers in the middle to back of the pack start trying to pull out of line to try and get to the front before stage points are awarded. 

The reason for this mid-run lull is fairly simple. The most important part of superspeedway strategy is fuel savings. Tire wear at a superspeedway is generally negligible and handling is rarely an issue. Instead of taking four tires on every pit stop like you see on most weeks, what happens on the pit stop is determined by how long the team needs to wait on fuel. The driver’s job during each run is to reduce the refueling time by as much as possible. In the Cup Series, the difference between no fuel saving and maximum fuel saving over about 2 seconds of pit stop time. 

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Because the draft is so crucial, you will see any planned green flag pit stops occur in large groups with cars of the same manufacturer. The manufacturers do not care which one of their cars win, just as long as it’s one of their own. A Chevrolet driver may be told “I don’t care if you win, just make sure you’re pushing a Chevy” for example. For this reason, the manufacturers will meet with team officials pre-race and determine a lap on which their group plans to pit. The goal being to have their cars come down pit road as a group and then be able to form a draft of all the alliance cars once they re-enter the racetrack. Coming off of pit road, the drivers will need to form a single-file draft as quickly as possible to make up time on the other groups who may not have gotten re-organized as quickly. 

If one driver tries to pull out of line and make a pass in these smaller drafting packs it will slow the entire all of them down. The easiest way to jump past cars in the group without slowing everybody down is to spend less time in your pit box. Less fuel needed equals less time stopped in the box which then equals free track position. Sometimes, even when more fuel is needed, teams will forego taking tires to minimize the risk of a mistake causing them to lose the draft. A slow tire exchange, the jack falling, or a loose wheel could essentially end a team’s day if they get left behind on pit road and rejoin the race by themselves, as they will be multiple seconds per lap off the pace without any drafting partners. 

There are two key moments in this pit cycle for a driver. The first is their pit road entry. At superspeedways, teams will run the smallest brake package of the season. The tiny brake rotors significantly reduce rotating weight and make it easier for the car to accelerate. This makes it extremely challenging for drivers to decelerate into the pit lane. They will turn off of the racetrack at around 190 mph (305 kmh) and decelerate to 59.9 mph (96.4 kmh) for pit road entry. When a group of cars comes to pit road they will fan out as drivers try to out brake one another to gain a couple of spots on the entry to pit road. This carries a great risk though. If the team is planning to do a fuel only stop, any amount of brake lockup on pit entry will force them to change tires and could cause them to lose the draft as the other cars in their group do not have to wait. Even more detrimental would be a speeding penalty as the driver would have to come back down pit road to serve a pass-through penalty. High risk, high reward.

The second key moment is how they get into the pit box. The amount of fuel needed and the rate at which it flows into the car is a fixed quantity. We call this the plug-in time, or the amount of time that the fueler must be plugged into the car. When a driver is pulling into the pit box the fueler is allowed to be standing in the box waiting for them instead of trying to jump off the wall with a 100lb (45kg) fuel can on their shoulder. The fueler will have a mark to stand on that is referenced off of where the pit sign is placed. If the driver stops short or long of the pit sign the fueler will have to shuffle fore or aft in the pit box, while carrying a 100lb can, to meet the car and begin fueling. This slight delay can easily negate any amount of fuel savings that the driver has accomplished during the course of a run. 

So how does a team make a car go fast around a superspeedway? You can think of a normal oval car as a Monaco spec F1 car, and a superspeedway car as one as being in a Monza spec. Downforce isn’t necessary and drag is the enemy. The only thing that truly matters in superspeedway racing is increasing the cars terminal velocity. Terminal velocity refers to the fastest speed at which an object can move through a fluid. In racing terms, it is the point at which horsepower can no longer overcome drag. For all intents and purposes, we can consider horsepower a fixed quantity. That means that the only way for teams to increase the terminal velocity of their car is to reduce drag. Teams will go to literally any length to get a count or two of drag off of their racecar. Dale Earnhardt Jr posted this photo of ~15 Bud stickers stacked on top of one another to create a trip lip in front of the roof camera pod.

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He also notes in a reply to this post that several years ago the Hendrick Motorsports cars were getting sprayed with about 10 layers of clear coat so that there would be no edges from the decals. Anything to save a smidge of drag.

Most of the body gimmicks have been stripped away over the years as every good idea inevitably becomes a new line item in the rule book. The last remaining great horizon lies in rear suspension travel and skew. The lower a team can get their car’s spoiler the faster it will run. In pre-Next Gen era days of the Cup Series with no rear ride height rules, it was very common to see sparks flying out from under the back of cars during superspeedway races. Maximum rear suspension travel was literally determined by when the bottom of the car would drag the racing surface.

Source: NASCAR/Giphy

With no ride height rules, teams were free to accomplish this in generally one of three ways:

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  1. Start the car statically as low as possible with a massively stiff right rear spring, I mean like 10,000lb/in rate (180kg/mm) and not let the rear suspension move at all
  2. Start with a more normal right rear spring rate, say 3,000lb/in (55kg/mm) and a slightly higher static ride height. This would allow for some amount of suspension compliance and drivability. Teams would then set the right rear shock to bottom out just before the car drags the race track to act as a travel limiter.
  3. Instead of using the shock as travel limiter, teams would do what’s called “coil binding” with the right rear spring. When teams are coil binding, the spring coils are literally touching at max load, turning the spring into a solid cylinder of metal. Spring rate and pre-load can be tuned to have the spring bind at the correct suspension travel.
Spring Height
Source: Eibach

In the present-day NASCAR Xfinity Series, there are both ride height rules and specific rear suspension rules to prevent teams from getting their cars as low as they would ideally like to. Upon arriving at the track, teams are provided spec rear springs and shocks. The shocks are rented from Penske Racing Shocks and the springs are purchased from Eibach. The springs are 12” (30.5cm) tall with a rate of 450lb/in (8kg/mm) and their installation into the rear suspension is strictly regulated by NASCAR. 

I can guarantee you that every single dimension specified here was the result of someone’s late-night lightbulb moment on a pull-down rig somewhere in North Carolina. Racing is a constant game of cat and mouse between teams trying to go faster and regulators trying to slow them down.

SpringperchesIn the past, teams had gone as far as to safety wire the brake pads back away from the rotor so that there wouldn’t be any friction drag during their qualifying laps. Now, NASCAR makes teams perform a brake check when rolling off of the weight station during inspection. Cat 1, Mouse 0. Note the sign hanging from the door.

Xfinitytramps

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As we discussed last week ahead of the race at Texas Motor Speedway, NASCAR teams skew the rear end of the cars to create side force by exposing more of the right side of the car to the wind. At a superspeedway, the goal is exactly the opposite. In this image from Daytona 500 practice, you can see how the back of the car is more towards the inside of the track than the front. The effect of this is that is hides the side profile of the car from the wind. You may also notice in these head-on shots that you can’t see the spoiler of the cars either as it is hidden by the cockpit area of the car.

Fs1 Screenshot

NASCAR limits the static toe settings for cars in all series, but with an independent rear suspension, Cup Series teams have more opportunity to skirt these rules.

Toe link slugs are specified as part of this rule update from 2022 because teams would use them to set their bump steer to turn the rear of the car to the left as the suspension compresses in travel. The left rear toe would be set to bump out and the right rear would be set to bump in. 

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Aside: Bump steer refers to the amount that a wheel is steered in suspension travel. The tie rod (or steering arm) must rotate about a common point and along a common arc as the upper and lower control arms. If the chassis end of the tie rod is too high the wheel will be steered outwards in travel. If the tie rod is too low the opposite is true. Bump is typically used to alter the amount of front tire slip while cornering, but in this case Cup Series teams were using it to create skew.

In subsequent rule updates, NASCAR has begun mandating all 8 rear suspension pickup points for the Cup Series cars. Don’t worry, I’m sure a workaround will be found soon.

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Younork
Younork
29 days ago

Can someone help me fill in the blanks? How many teams are there in NASCAR? This article makes it sound like 3: Ford, Chevy, and Toyota. However, there are also teams like Hendrick, which field 2 or more cars. How does the team aspect factor into a race? Is it like F1, where each car has a corresponding teammate, or is it less formulaic than that? Is there a hierarchy of which teammates you help? First would be to the other drivers of the same sponsor, then to the ones of the same manufacturer, and then everyone else. Hopefully, my question makes sense.

Lizardman in a human suit
Lizardman in a human suit
1 month ago

Man, this deep dive actually made things more interesting this race, since I knew the science. Poor McDowell though, heck of a break.

67 Oldsmobile
67 Oldsmobile
1 month ago

I love deep-dives into NASCAR, so much more to it than just going fast as fuck in a circle.

VolksWinkle
VolksWinkle
1 month ago

This was an amazing analysis. So much thought to every position on the racetrack. NASCAR is a team sport for sure.

CSRoad
CSRoad
1 month ago

Thanks for the insight, it’s far more entertaining when you have a clue what’s going on. (-:
IIRC there is some interesting history leading up to to and including the first race at Talladega, a whole soap opera buried and largely forgotten by time. I don’t know how much survived even to be dig-able on the internets.

TOSSABL
TOSSABL
1 month ago

Ended up watching some 40 minutes of that Xfinity race: it’s much more interesting with a bit of insight into the forces at play. I’m not rushing to buy tickets, but certainly have an appreciation for what the drivers do.

Good article!

Ron888
Ron888
1 month ago

Ive had exactly one perfect drafting race in my life and i thought it one of the coolest things ever.
But do it for hours at a time?Thanks but no thanks

Jb996
Jb996
1 month ago

Fascinating. Thanks!

Speedway Sammy
Speedway Sammy
1 month ago

Love these insights. From the wild and wooly days of Smokey Yunick to today’s corps of engineers and aerodynamicists, it’s always been a battle with the rulebook and inspectors.

Drive By Commenter
Drive By Commenter
1 month ago

This is a whole lot more scientific than “stuff in big V8, go fast”. A lot more appreciation for how the race goes and how innovative teams are to find an advantage.

As an aside, I always wondered why people brought scanners to the track for big races. Now I know that it’s the “insider knowledge” to give more context.

Thank you for the great article!

Col Lingus
Col Lingus
1 month ago

Thanks for a great article. Learned a lot.

Just praying for decent weather at Talladega tomorrow. And a great race too.

Last edited 1 month ago by Col Lingus
Old Busted Hotness
Old Busted Hotness
1 month ago

Fearless Prediction (also spoiler alert): Next week’s pre-race show will feature many puns like Love conquers all, The Power of Love, etc etc.

Also, I really appreciate these articles. Been watching both Xfinity and Cup for many years, and having it all spelled out like this makes it more fun to watch.

H4llelujah
H4llelujah
1 month ago

This was wicked cool. Ive never given much thought to just how much thought and strategy goes into it these races. Definitely have a whole new respect for it.

Urban Runabout
Urban Runabout
1 month ago

There’s clearly a lot more that meets the eye due to the physics and skill involved in making the most of the aerodynamics needed to win. But it’s still just vehicles that are almost completely unrelated to what you can buy going around an oval.
Which is so yawn inducing.

Give me DTM and BTCC any day.

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