Juan Pablo Montoya took pole position for today’s Amp Energy Juice 500 at Talladega Superspeedway, the 2.66 mile tri-oval in Alabama. Afterwards Montoya said he did that lap for Jim Hunter, vice president for Corporate Communications at NASCAR who sadly passed away on Friday night after a year long battle with cancer.
Jim Hunter, forever dressed in golfing clothes – trousers, shirt, pullover, even golf shoes – every single day and wearing his trademark yellow NASCAR hat was probably the most revered and respected man in the NASCAR world. Many drivers and journalists have said they owed their careers and success to the man with the ever ready smile and wealth of tales from the days when he used to run – and drink – with the hard living good ol’ boys from NASCAR’s early days. His was the calming influence on the hot-headed drivers, the encouraging support for the budding scribes, and anyone who spent time talking with him walked away feeling better for the experience. He will be sorely missed.
Back to Talladega, as Hunter would want it to be, and for this race the practice and qualifying format was turned on its head, with two practice sessions including happy hour taking place on Friday and qualifying pushed back to Saturday as Talladega is an impound race: to avoid fancy qualifying set-ups for this unique track the cars have to be qualified in race trim.
Clint Bowyer will start from second spot in the #33 Chevrolet, this time racing in BB&T colours, followed by Kurt Busch, owner-driver Joe Nemechek in the HostGator.com Toyota and, in fifth spot, Bowyer’s RCR teammate, Jeff Burton in the #31 Cat Financial Chevy. Busch’s teammates, Sam Hornish Jr. and Brad Keselowski qualified their Penske Racing Dodges well in 10th and 11th places and apart from the three Dodges all the remaining cars in the top twenty are either Chevrolets or Toyotas.
The first Ford, that of Carl Edwards in the #99 car, starts in 23rd and eight of the Fords are scattered between 33rd and 43rd places. Many of their drivers complained of a high frequency vibration through the car which affected their comfort and occasionally their vision too whilst driving, something they have suffered at other tracks but never so badly as at Talladega. So far no team has found the source of the vibration and there is no solution in sight.
There were fears after first practice on Friday that NASCAR might reduce the size of the restrictor plate that goes in the intake system after Joe Gibbs Racing teamsters, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch turned in laps of just over 201 miles per hour. NASCAR were, however, satisfied that those speeds were achieved whilst the pair were practising bump draft running and wouldn’t be replicated in normal running.
For the uninitiated bump drafting is a style of racing peculiar to the Super Speedways and Talladega in particular. The restrictor plates cause all the cars to run at very much the same speeds so it is common to have two long lines of cars running side by side, all running in each others’ draft. To have any chance of breaking away from the pack, or even to get from the back to the front, one driver needs to get a good run in the draft of the car ahead, run his front bumper onto the other car’s rear and then start pushing it along. With two drivers trusting each other and working in unison the speed difference compared to the pack is huge and in the space of one lap that pair can go from somewhere in the thirties in the pack up to the lead. Two of the best at finding someone to push are Brad Keselowski and Dale Earnhardt Jr. It’s an art form worth watching.
Happy hour on Friday saw most drivers whilst trying to find the best set-up for their car also trying to find which car they could best bump draft with and you can expect to see more of this than ever on Sunday. All of this means that with forty-three cars running in such close proximity at close to 200 mph just one small slip by a driver, or, in the closing laps, one determined fight to retain a position can, and usually does, lead to the huge wrecks that everyone associates with this track.
If you were only ever to watch one NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race you should make it Talladega.