Engine package takes center stage

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Kyle Busch had an average finish of 31.6 in six career starts at Talladega Superspeedway heading into the April 2008 race. Only once had he finished better than 32nd, and he'd led a total of 11 laps.

Naturally, his expectations weren't high a year ago.

They were even lower when he fell down a lap.

But Busch methodically worked his way back onto the lead lap, and when race-long contenders Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Tony Stewart were caught in a six-car wreck with 15 laps to go, Busch found himself out front as the race restarted.

Then came another wreck on the white-flag lap, bringing out the final caution and giving Busch his first restrictor-plate victory before second-place Juan Pablo Montoya or Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin had a chance to make a move.

So the secret to success at Talladega?

"The key there is to somehow stay out of trouble," Busch said.

The other key is arriving at the track with a car capable of winning. Most of the crucial work for plate races is done back at the shop and wind tunnel, where horsepower and aerodynamics are refined.

"It's that way every week, but especially at Talladega, we really have to make sure we have the car ready off the truck, even much more than Daytona," said Busch's crew chief, Steve Addington. "Talladega isn't much of a handling race track now since it's so smooth and wide.

"Handling doesn't really play into anything. The car has to be driving good, but it's not a big of deal as it is when you go to Daytona."

Pit stall selection isn't a huge factor at Talladega, either. You can afford to lose a few spots on pit road and easily make them up.

Busch's strategy is to get the car set up to stay around the bottom of the track "since there is a lot of grip there and you can pretty much run wide open every single lap."

"When you get single-file at the bottom, sometimes it's hard to get a lane on the outside with enough good cars to get something going," Busch added. "It can be frustrating at times because of that. It also seems to still put on a good race each time we go there.

"If you can be a contender and stay in line on the bottom, you can make it a pretty easy and safe race. Normally, guys are not content doing that, so that's when it starts to get crazy."

Having a car with horsepower doesn't hurt, either. The work JGR engine guru Mark Cronquist does the weeks before Talladega is just as important as what Busch does Sunday.

"Engine tuning is the key at Talladega, because what you have there is pure speed and that is what you are going for at Talladega," Addington said. "Where at Daytona, you work on your handling package more than your engine-tuning package."

Busch struggled in almost all plate races before last season. In his first seven starts at Daytona, he had four finishes of 23rd or worse before winning the July 2008 race.

He went to Talladega in the fall with the chance to become only the second driver to win three plate races in a row, matching Dale Earnhardt's feat in 1990.

He led 20 laps, eight more than he did in April, but finished 15th after being caught up in a 12-car wreck with 16 laps remaining.

He followed that with a 41st in this year's Daytona 500, where he was caught up in a multicar wreck triggered by Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Brian Vickers after leading more laps (88) than any other driver.

So maybe his original premise was right: Stay out of trouble.

"Your fate is controlled by others around you, as we learned last year," said Bob Osborne, the crew chief for Carl Edwards, who caused a big wreck late in the fall race at the 2.5-mile track. "One wrong move can ruin the day for a lot of people.

"But that's restrictor-plate racing, and you just deal with each situation the best you can."

Addington agreed.

"If you can get your engine package right and stay out of the big wreck and be there at the end," he said, "we know we've got a shot with Kyle behind the wheel, just like anywhere else."

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.


ESPN Travel track guide: Talladega Superspeedway