Commentary

Talladega has Chase drivers on edge

Updated: October 19, 2011, 3:12 PM ET
By Terry Blount | ESPN.com

I'm going to go out on a limb and say that the Sprint Cup race Sunday at Talladega, always a dangerous and unnerving event, will be safer than many people expect.

This Talladega race has a lot of unknowns with a new rules package, but the death of Dan Wheldon will weigh heavily on everyone's minds.

It's a different series and a different situation, but there are similarities to Las Vegas. The IndyCar event was the open-wheel version of pack racing at high speeds.

[+] EnlargeTalladega Superspeedway
Jerry Markland/Getty Images/NASCAR Will recent rules changes by NASCAR eliminate pairs racing at Talladega Superspeedway? We'll find out Sunday.

"There's much more comfort when you've done it year after year after year and you trust the 43 guys that are out there," Chase contender Kurt Busch said on a conference call Tuesday. "It was tough what happened out in Las Vegas. A lot of new guys were racing in a pack that weren't necessarily familiar with it, and when you throw so many new variables in, that's the risk that happens."

Restrictor-plate racing in NASCAR has evolved into a two-by-two affair in recent races, but the thought of the terrifying 15-car accident at Vegas is sure to be in the back of every driver's mind.

And no one knows whether Sunday's Talladega race will continue to be pairs drafting or go back to the big packs that characterized plate races for two decades.

NASCAR is switching to a slightly larger plate opening that will increase horsepower. The teams will not be allowed to lubricate the bumpers, which should make it more difficult to pairs draft.

Whether the drivers race in pairs or packs, the danger remains. Along with the Wheldon tragedy in their thoughts, drivers are one week removed from watching Jimmie Johnson escape injury in a scary crash at Charlotte Motor Speedway when he went head-on into the outside wall.

The crash was eerily similar to Dale Earnhardt's fatal accident 10 years ago in the Daytona 500. But Johnson walked away, gingerly, only needing to catch his breath.

Much has changed in 10 years -- SAFER barriers, head and neck restraints, the new car that made major safety advancements, etc.

"I feel very safe, especially in a stock car with the roll cage," Busch said. "And the speeds that we run aren't as great as the Indy cars. But you know, Talladega is Talladega. Everybody knows it going in."

And they all know what they see. What they've seen during the past week likely will make every driver a little more cautious in this Talladega race.

Take note, NASCAR

NASCAR should take a lesson from the NHRA. When it comes to qualifying, there are no guarantees. No one gets a free pass into a race. The biggest stars of the sport can miss the event, along with the driver leading the standings.

Spencer Massey went to Phoenix this past weekend as the Top Fuel points leader with three races to go in the Countdown, the NHRA's playoff system.

Massey's team packed up and went home Saturday after he failed to qualify for Sunday's eliminations.

Can you imagine if Cup points leader Carl Edwards failed to qualify for the race this weekend at Talladega?

Funny Car driver Ron Capps, Massey's teammate at Don Schumacher Racing, also failed to qualify. It was Capps' first DNQ in the past 105 NHRA events.

"This probably ends our chances at this year's championship," Capps said at Phoenix after falling to seventh in the standings. "But we'll continue to fight. This will help make our team stronger for the final two races of the season."

Massey entered the event with a 65-point lead (about three rounds of racing) in the standings but left in third place 25 points back. He still could win the title.

"We're kind of scratching our heads," Massey said after failing to qualify. "We just couldn't seem to tame the beast."

The beast for NASCAR is its system of guaranteeing spots into the race to the top 35 in owners' points. I would much rather see a format that requires every driver to qualify every week.

It's unlikely that any of the top drivers would fail to qualify because only 45 or 46 cars show up to attempt to qualify for 43 spots each week, but the possibility of it happening would add tons of interest.

It won't happen, of course. A sponsor paying millions of dollars to place its logo on the hood would howl if its team missed a race and probably would want some money back. And fans don't want to see their favorite driver miss a race.

One question: Why isn't the same thing true in the NHRA?

Big battles brewing

I'm a big proponent of the Chase, but this season, the Nationwide Series and the Camping World Trucks Series have intriguing championship battles without a playoff.

Elliott Sadler has pulled within 15 points of Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in the Nationwide title race with three events remaining.

The Truck series has five drivers separated by only 25 points with four races to go. Austin Dillon leads it by five points over Johnny Sauter and seven points over James Buescher.

The great thing about the trucks battle is that four of the past five races were won by Truck series regulars.

No such luck in Nationwide. Cup regulars have won the past nine races. The last victory for a real Nationwide driver was Stenhouse on Aug. 6 at Iowa, one of his two wins this season.

Sadler could become a winless champion. At least he would be the champ instead of a Cup star, a positive move by NASCAR this year not to allow drivers to compete for multiple championships. But a winless champion might be what it takes for NASCAR to change the series domination by Cup stars.

Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Blount can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.

Terry Blount

ESPN Seattle Seahawks reporter

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