Talladega Superspeedway, which will host the YellaWood 500 NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs race on Sunday, Oct. 3, is the biggest, baddest and most competitive track in motorsports. The reason? When the design for the 2.66-mile venue 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 slightly more unique. A little more breathtaking.
When drawing pencils finally went to paper, “Big” Bill 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 (48 feet plus 12 more feet for apron). Then he added one more twist that ultimately made Talladega distinctive from almost every other race track ever conceived.
His finishing touch, so to speak, was to move the Start-Finish Line from its traditional middle of the tri-oval area further down the track nearly 1,250 feet towards Turn 1.
Editor’s Note: For photos, click here. Photo credit: Getty Images/Talladega Superspeedway
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. He was right.
“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. While many have seen the leader coming through the tri-oval able to hold off his closest competitors by the smallest of margins, there are eight specific “classic” finishes 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, Jimmie Johnson, Ryan Blaney and Denny Hamlin. 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, Clint Bowyer, Ryan Newman and William Byron.
Here’s a brief look at each race and its mark in Talladega history thanks to the unique placement of the Start-Finish Line.
- Aug. 11, 1974 – Pearson was looking to win from the pole position, to sweep both 1974 races and post his fourth victory in his last six Talladega starts, but Petty 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 seconds 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 seconds.
- April 25, 2010 – Harvick pushed McMurray far enough in front of 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 hard to say who would be 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.
- October 14, 2019 – Coming off Turn 4, Newman had come from nowhere in the pack to vault into the lead. Blaney put the nose of his Ford on the back bumper of Newman’s, and in the middle of the tri-oval, looked to the high side then ducked low. They bounced off each other coming to the line with Blaney muscling his way ahead by just .007 second.
- October 4, 2020 – For a split second, the trio of Denny Hamlin, William Byron and Matt DiBenedetto entered the tri-oval side by side, and in the blink of an eye, Byron, who was in the middle, nudged slightly ahead. With the start-finish line in sight, however, Hamlin was able to sneak by on the inside to win by .086 second ahead of DiBenedetto while Byron slipped to fifth at the checkered flag (DiBenedetto was penalized post-race for blocking earlier on the last lap and was credited with a 21stplace finish).
The Sunday, Oct. 3, YellaWood 500 at the Palace of Speed should produce the same style of finish. It will be the culmination of a tripleheader NASCAR Playoffs weekend, which also features a duo of races on Saturday, Oct. 2 with the Sparks 300 for the NASCAR Xfinity Series and the Chevy Silverado 250 for the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series. The action begins at Noon CDT.
Admission to the traditional Saturday Night Infield Concert, headlined by platinum-selling Dustin Lunch, is FREE to all infield guests, who purchases a ticket to the YellaWood 500. To see all admission options, including the Talladega Garage Experience (includes access to Garage Viewing Walkways, Pre-Race Ceremonies on Sunday and Ruoff Mortgage Victory Lane), visit www.talladegasuperspeedway.com or call 1-877-Go2-DEGA.