Finish line’s closeness to Turn 1 makes for thrilling finales at Talladega Superspeedway

Finish line’s closeness to Turn 1 makes for thrilling finales at Talladega Superspeedway
In one of the biggest upsets ever, Ron Bouchard (No. 47) came from third in the tri-oval on the final lap to slingshot past both Darrell Waltrip and Terry Labonte and claim his first and only NASCAR career win in 1981. With Talladega Superspeedway’s start-finish line 1,250 feet closer to Turn 1 from the center of the tri-oval, Bouchard had the real estate to maneuver his car past the two Hall of Famers. (Talladega Superspeedway)

Editor’s Note: This is the fourth in a series chronicling the creation and history of Talladega Superspeedway, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary during the Oct. 11-13 NASCAR Playoffs doubleheader weekend, featuring the 1000Bulbs.com 500 and Sugarlands Shine 250. Read about the track’s creation and highlights from the 1970s and 1980s. We will feature highlights from key events throughout the decades at the world’s greatest racing venue, which will also debut the culmination of the Transformation Infield Project presented by Graybar, featuring the Talladega Garage Experience, where fans will be immersed into the sport like never before.

When the design for Talladega Superspeedway began to take shape in NASCAR founder Bill France’s mind in the late 1960s, he wanted something a little different.

Already the visionary behind Daytona International Speedway, France didn’t want to just stamp a cookie cutter into the Alabama countryside and produce an exact replica of his Florida facility. He wanted something a little more breathtaking.

Two-time Talladega champion Donnie Allison says the unusual placement of the track’s start-finish line has been great for the fans, although some drivers don’t like it. (Jason Smith/Getty Images)

When drawing pencils finally went to paper, France decreed that Talladega would be slightly longer (2.66 miles to Daytona’s 2.5 miles), slightly steeper (33-degree banking in the turns to 31 degrees) and the racing surface would be wider by one lane. Then he added one more twist that ultimately made Talladega distinctive from almost every other racetrack ever conceived.

His finishing touch, so to speak, was to move the start-finish line from its traditional place in the middle of the tri-oval area farther down the track, nearly 1,250 feet toward Turn 1.

France reasoned it would sell more tickets in that area if fans could expect to see the drivers dash to the finish right in front of them along the main grandstand. He thought a slingshot move in those last few precious yards might decide a race here or there. And just maybe he believed that an unheralded driver or two would achieve NASCAR greatness somewhere along the line thanks to those few extra feet – or inches – they had to maneuver.

All-time Talladega champion Dale Earnhardt Sr. was the victor in one of the track’s most exciting finishes in 1993. (contributed)

Man, was he ever right. In layman’s terms, 1,250 feet is a pretty good ways — more than four football fields, to be exact. In Talladega terms, it is literally a blink of the eye, and it takes only about that long for a list of the track’s classic finishes to start rolling off the tongue thanks to France’s foresight.

“For whatever reason they decided to put it there, the results have been tremendous over the years,” two-time Talladega winner Donnie Allison said. “Now maybe some of the drivers didn’t like it, but for what we were there for, which was to put on a good show for the fans, I think it was an excellent choice.”

Countless finishes at Talladega have seen two and three abreast separated by merely inches at the checkered flag. Among those “classic” finishes are six specific races that would have gone down differently in the record books had Talladega’s finish line been in the usual place.

Officially, the winners of those races were Richard Petty, Ron Bouchard, Dale Earnhardt, Brad Keselowski, Kevin Harvick and Jimmie Johnson. But on another track with a tri-oval finish line a roll call of those race winners would have read David Pearson, Darrell Waltrip, Ernie Irvan, Carl Edwards, Jamie McMurray and Clint Bowyer.

Here’s a brief look at each race and its mark in Talladega history thanks to the placement of the start-finish line:

Aug. 11, 1974 – Pearson was looking to win from the pole position, sweep both 1974 races and post his fourth victory in his last six Talladega starts, but Petty – “The King” – had other ideas when he made his move in the tri-oval. The result was a finish so close that, in the era before electronic scoring, the official margin of victory in Petty’s first-ever Talladega triumph was simply listed as 2 feet.

Aug. 2, 1981 – In what still may be the most famous of Talladega’s fantastic finishes because of an iconic black-and-white photo snapped at the stripe, rookie Bouchard was third coming off Turn 4 but came home first when Waltrip chose to crowd Terry Labonte to the outside in the tri-oval. Again, the official margin of victory was listed as 2 feet in what is still generally considered one of the closest outcomes in any era of NASCAR scoring history.

Aug. 25, 1993 – Leave it to “The Intimidator” to provide Talladega fans another exciting finish. In a classic drag race, Earnhardt beat Irvan to the line by .005 second and then summed it up by saying, “I just had to play the game to the last move. We got the last move, and it worked.”

April 26, 2009 – One moment, Edwards appeared on his way to his first Talladega victory. The next he was out of shape going through the tri-oval. After the contact that sent Edwards around, Keselowski, who surprisingly picked up his first career win with an underfunded team, still had his hands full and barely held off Dale Earnhardt Jr. by .175 second.

April 25, 2010 – With two-car tandems in vogue, Harvick pushed McMurray far enough from the field for the two to settle it between themselves, and that’s exactly what they did. Just before the stripe Harvick was happy to duck inside McMurray and take the win by .011 seconds, breaking a 115-race winless streak in the process.

April 17, 2011 – When they came off Turn 4 there was such a swarm of cars (Johnson was fifth) it was really hard to say who would have been the winner at that point. When they reached the line, it was Johnson, who made a dramatic pass on the low side, stinging the pack with a .002-second victory – so close that calling a winner was difficult to the naked eye even with numerous television replays. It would be a NASCAR record.

For most of those winners, the extra distance was a path to continued or much greater success. For a guy like Bouchard, it was the difference between having a NASCAR win on his career ledger and never finding Victory Lane at all.

Brad Keselowski is sprayed with champagne after one of his five wins at Talladega Superspeedway. One of them was a 2009 thriller in which he edged Dale Earnhardt Jr. by .175 second. (Karim Shamsi-Basha / Alabama NewsCenter)

“When we first went there, Buddy Baker told me that one of the differences at this track was that when you came off Turn 4 you had to remember that the start-finish line wasn’t in the tri-oval,” the late Bouchard said. “He actually went through the scenario with me where he said if for some reason I was third coming off Turn 4 I needed to wait until the second-place guy made his move, then go the other way because, at that point, there was still plenty of time to draft by those guys at the line.

“When we came off Turn 4, I remembered what Buddy told me, and I waited and Terry jumped to the high side of Darrell. Then the only thing Darrell was worried about was Terry, and I got a draft off the two of them. When I passed them, I remember thinking as we crossed the stripe, ‘I’ll be a son-of-a-gun if Baker didn’t talk about this very thing, and it happened just like he said.’”

It’s just one of 100 chapters that have made Talladega the fastest racetrack in the world.

“If you go back and look at it closely, there are probably only a small handful of races where it didn’t contribute to determining the winner in some way,” Allison said. “It’s something that has made Talladega very, very special, that’s for sure.”

Sunday, Oct. 13, could produce the same.

The tradition continues at the Palace of Speed with the Sugarlands Shine 250 for the NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series on Saturday, Oct. 12, and the 1000Bulbs.com 500 for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series on Sunday, Oct. 13 – both crucial NASCAR Playoff events.

In addition, the track will debut the new Talladega Garage Experience, the major part of the Transformation Infield Project presented by Graybar, where fans will be immersed into the sport and the venue like never before. It will feature a fan walkway in the garage bays under the same roof as all of the race teams, free Wi-Fi, value-priced concessions, access to witness the race winner celebrate in Gatorade Victory Lane, and much more.

For ticket information and to learn more about the Talladega Garage Experience and all ticket questions for the upcoming weekend, log onto www.talladegasuperspeedway.com or call 855-518-RACE (7223).

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