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Talladega! Flat amazing every time. So picking a 'Bests' list is, well, not easy, but here goes...

 Every race at Talladega is Trick-or-Treat (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   By Mike Mulhern



   This place never ceases to amaze me.
   And it rarely if ever disappoints.
   Surprises? The bizarre? Sad moments, thrilling moments.
   Talladega has had it all over the years, beginning with that first driver's strike back in 1969, when this joint was just too darned fast for the tires.

   Heck, Talladega has always been too darned fast.
   That's the point.
   Old buddy Nate Ryan, now with USAToday, has been coming here nearly 10 years now, seen a lot of races, and is thinking about putting together a Top-Five Greatest Talladega 500s.
   And that got me to thinking myself about this Dry Valley track, built on a World War II air field, itself built on Indian grounds, and supposedly even haunted. I've seen more than 70 of these races here over the years....and picking out the highlights and lowlights, well, there's been a heck of a lot of high-voltage action.
   And not always on the track itself. Certainly some Saturday nights before Sunday's race things tend to get just a little weird....
   I remember the time Jeff Byrd, who just died, far too young, took me wheeling around the Saturday night campgrounds before one of those vintage Winston 500s that he, as an RJR man, was helping promoter. And, whoooeeee, it was wild. Think Burning Man.....
   This Hallow'dega weekend was perhaps a little quieter than usual, but Sunday's game was certainly another thriller.
   They typically are here.
   Never can tell just what to expect.
   Great finishes, of course. Impossible to plan out, or plot out. Even post-race it's sometimes hard to figure out just what happened....except someone cross the finish line first. And that's usually the winner, but not always. Ask Regan Smith.

  Carl Edwards sprinting to the finish line after that last lap crash....(Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   But great finishes are one thing, great races another....and here at Talladega there's more to it than even that. There is frequently, too frequently sometimes it seems, the weird....and the tragic.
 A lot of men have died here. That first race I saw here, back in the summer of '73, Dick Brooks winning, but what I remember was the death of Larry Smith, and his crew chief sobbing uncontrollable and pounding his fist on the walls of the infield hospital.
   And I remember Bobby Isaac, then a giant of the sport, the 1970 champion, abruptly parked his car in the middle of that race and said he's heard voices that told him to quit driving "these cannonballs."
   These races typically come close after Martinsville races, and the contrast of short-track racing on the tour's slowest, tightest track with the high-speed close-quarters action at the sport's biggest, fastest track is sharp.
   "Ol' Talladega...." Darrell Waltrip once said softly and eerily during a break in his own victory celebration at Martinsville and looking ahead to coming here: "Wonder who she'll get next....."
   Yes, there has been a decided reverence for this place in drivers' minds.
   Most of the time.
   Every now and then they all do just seem to go flat crazy.

   The king of superspeedways: Dale Earnhardt (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   A few years back, when the close quarters action was just too much for too many drivers, and they'd climb out of their cars afterwards visibly shaken, angry crew chief Jimmy Makar accused the sport's powers of turning drivers into Roman gladiators here.
   And remember Wendell Scott's Big Chance Special....and that humongous pileup. What was left of that car remained parked behind Scott's Danville, Va., home for years, rusting away.  http://bit.ly/9VZhBn
   Then there was the 1974 'attempted murder' spree – when someone from the infield sneaked into the garage and deftly sliced a number of tires, not enough to deflate them, just enough that they'd eventually blow out.
   And the next year Randy Owens, a member of the Petty family, was killed on pit road when a pressurized air tank – with no relief valve – blew up.
   This place can bite even when there's no race: Like 1993, the day after finishing third in the tour stop in Loudon, N.H., when Davey Allison, flying over from his nearby home, in a new helicopter just too darned powerful, crashed near the garage and was killed.

   Best races? Tough category.
   Try best finishes:
   Hard to beat this one: 2000: Dale Earnhardt http://bit.ly/Urdxt

   Other classics: Cale Yarborough in 1984... Bill Elliott in 1985 (made up two laps under green!)...Neil Bonnett in 1980... Lennie Pond in 1978...Ron Bouchard in 1981 http://bit.ly/9VZhBn ...Dale Earnhardt in 1984....Bobby Hillin in that very strange 1986 race, with that big last-lap crash with Sterling Marlin taking out Bobby Allison and a whole bunch more.
   Of course the 1987 race, with Davey Allison winning but Bobby Allison crashing violently, tearing down part of the frontstretch fencing and leading the current restrictor plate rules. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DUnvd7-hZRE&feature=related
   Actually faster may be safer, Denny Hamlin was pointing out the other day here, after running laps at 201 – past the once-dreaded 200-mph 'limit.' And that's just what Bonnett used to say: some guys can race at 200 mph, some guys can race at 204 or 206 mph, and a very few can race at 209 mph, which is what the race pace was in the early 1980s -- remember Bill Elliott's 212? Ernie Elliott, Bill's engine building brother, the day Bill set that mark, said he had more speed he could put in the car....to which Bill retorted 'And then you'll have to find someone else to drive it.'

   Among the weirdest finishes – Harry Gant, in 1991, getting pushed by teammate Rick Mast the last few miles after running out of gas. http://bit.ly/bjuor7
   That was a brutal race, with Kyle Petty getting caught up in a big crash and having his leg several injured.
  Not to mention the addendum post-race, when an angry Davey Allison punched the wall inside his trailer and broke his hand....
   Irvan's 1993 win came in a highly controversial two-lap shootout, with Dale Earnhardt tagging Rusty Wallace the last lap and Wallace went flying and flipping, and for a few tense moments it wasn't clear if Wallace were dead or alive. http://bit.ly/d8JBW4
   The summer race here that season – given the brutal summer temperatures here, it's hard to recall this was for so long a tour summer staple – came just a few weeks after Davey Allison's death. And Allison was one of Ford's biggest stars. Finding someone to take his place wasn't his in Robert Yates' legendary 28.....but Ford and Yates picked a then little-known Robby Gordon. It was a sad day, of course, without Allison, but also another strange day – Jimmy Horton crashed and literally flew out of the track. And Bonnett – who had been forced to retire after that weird crash at Darlington  in 1990 – was making a comeback, against many people's better judgment, considering his hard hits over a great career and the apparently cumulative effect. Bonnett, even with plates on the engines, got airborne on the frontstretch and tore down fencing.  


  Dale Earnhardt and Ernie Irvan, great Talladega-Daytona rivalry (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

  Earnhardt, perhaps the greatest plate driver ever, won all over the calendar here. His 1994 win, and of course his legendary 2000 fall sprint from 18th to win in the final miles. Ten years ago this month....Earnhardt's final victory. And that ill-fated 1995 run, Earnhardt versus Mark Martin versus Jeff Gordon, and where did Morgan Shepherd come from?
    Ricky Craven made the highlights film in 1996 in another of Talladega's infamous big ones. http://bit.ly/bWaPc8And the second race that season was marked with another chaotic crash, Earnhardt the big loser in the high drama, breaking his sternum and his collarbone and suffering other painful injuries too.   http://bit.ly/9I67Br 
   Immediately after Earnhardt's death at Daytona in 2001, the two races here were remarkably restrained, Bobby Hamilton winning one, in an unusual caution-free run, Dale Jr. winning the other, in an emotional finish.  http://bit.ly/cp7qxG 
   That was the start of Earnhardt Jr.'s strong series of plate runs.

   In 2002 the big story was a different kind of crash: Jack Roush sailing his plane into a nearby lake and nearly getting killed. And what was really going on at the start of the race when Mark Martin and Jimmie Johnson, on the front row, crashed each other on the parade lap?
   The 2004 Beer Can 500 was another strange finish. Under caution. No racing back to the flag. Jeff Gordon was declared winner over Dale Earnhardt Jr.,  based on TV video. But the fans weren't buying any of it, and showered Gordon with beer cans.   http://bit.ly/cIxslv
    Junior came back to win the next race here....only to get fined by NASCAR for some victory lane comments. Elliott Sadler sailed across the finish line in the air.
   Sadler in 2005 went flying again, this time after a hit by Johnson, whose early days here were marked with controversial crashes. That was another brutal day filled with bad crashes.
   And who could forget Brian Vickers' 2006 win, after a big last lap crash he triggered by running into Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Johnson in an ill-timed pass.
   No wonder drivers talk about getting brain-fried headaches in their three hours here at the wheel.

   Big Bill France Sr., who dreamed up Talladega, and made it happen (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

A plethora of issues here - 1

A plethora of issues here -

1 - Hamlin is flat wrong. Faster has never been safer and the reality is most of the field can race at 212; the problem is the sport has known in the roof flap era that 194 at the highest is the cut-off point for keeping the cars on the ground (Edwards' 2009 flip came with speeds hitting 205) and the G-readings of crashes confirmed what experience and common sense already knew - too fast is too dangerous. NASCAR needed to mandate a smaller restrictor plate and permanently stop the speeds from even flirting with 200.

2 - Jimmy Makar accused the sport of turning the drivers into Roman gladiators - he failed to realize they were such when the sanctioning body started.

3 - As far as safety goes, just what is worse - accordion melees at Talladega at speeds a tick below what the track can handle, or the numerous melees on unrestricted tracks posting G-readings substantially higher than Talladega? If you remember wrecks such as the mid-1990s epidemic of injuries at Atlanta (not to mention Brad Keselowski's attempted Bobby Allison imitation), the chaos of Texas Motor Speedway in its early years, Charlotte's periodic spasms of bad wrecks, Watkins Glen's bottleneck melees, Bristol's yearly production of wrecks, and so forth, criticizing Talladega goes beyond foolishness.

4 - A stat that says it all -

Number of Talladega races to break 40 official lead changes - 35. There's an old sports cliche - why can't we get guys like that? It's worth asking of all the other tracks - why can't they get races like that?

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