Fan at the Track: Spring Talladega

‘Fan at the Track: Spring Talladega’ is an in-person perspective of the action at Talladega Superspeedway from Fan4Racing writer, Mike Orzel.

‘Fan at the Track: Spring Talladega’ is an in-person perspective of the action at Talladega Superspeedway from Fan4Racing writer, Mike Orzel. (Author commentary is their own opinion, and does not necessarily reflect the overall views at Fan4Racing.)

Talladega is always a wild, unpredictable experience.  The track’s slogan “This is more than a race, THIS IS TALLADEGA” plays prominently in track promotional materials and is spot on.  Talladega offers an experience far beyond what most fans expect at a more typical track, both in terms of the on-track action as well as the broader character of the track itself and the die-hard fans in attendance. 

The Elephant in the Room—COVID Restrictions 

Fans who have attended a race before the COVID-19 pandemic may be wondering how the experience has changed in light of the pandemic.  For the spring race at Talladega, there are still COVID restrictions in place.  These restrictions range from the ‘standard’ required mask and social distancing to the nonsensical. The 35% capacity restriction on outdoor grandstands versus the 50% capacity for indoor suites seems backward.  The CDC states that outdoor transmission of COVID is less likely than indoor, which makes the disparity a bit odd. 

By and large, the restrictions were ignored by fans in a concerted act of civil disobedience.  Like many states, Alabama lifted its mask mandate at the beginning of April, and fans were content to follow state guidelines.  The state mandate is that mask use is optional, and perhaps 5% of fans did wear one. 

There was no effort to enforce any of the restrictions by track personnel, who were more interested in fans enjoying their experience. 

Due to the decreased number of people attending, a significant part of track services was not open.  This led to long lines and large groups at the few restrooms and concession stands that were open.  Hopefully, as large-scale vaccination continues and reason prevails, lifting restrictions will allow life for fans to return to normal. 

Saturday’s Action — The General Tire 200 

Saturday started ominously with heavy rain and thick overcast skies covering most of north-central Alabama.  At first, a pessimistic forecast for the rest of the day was discouraging.  As the morning went on, fortunately, the rain left and blue skies returned. 

Track drying crews did a heroic job, and the track was dry and ready for an on-time start of the ARCA Menards General Tire 200 at noon.  The race was an average ARCA race.  The first half was largely uneventful, with some decent racing through the pack.  Eventually, Corey Heim scored the win after a hard-fought last few laps of intense racing. 

An unfortunate and terrifying crash in the latter part of the race will stay in the minds of fans for some time. 

Late in the race, Derrick Lancaster in the No. 29, made hard contact with the outside wall on the backstretch.  Lancaster’s car caught fire and continued down the backstretch before finally coming to a stop at the entrance to the third turn.  The car was still burning as safety crews rushed to the scene. 

Once they arrived and put the fire out, Lancaster was able to get out of the car with the assistance of the safety crew. He was airlifted to Birmingham after a visit to the infield care center.  His wife is posting updates via social media. The most recent post says that Lancaster remains in critical but stable condition with second-and third-degree burns.  

We all wish him a full and speedy recovery.  Lancaster’s crash reminds us of how dangerous racing can be despite the heroic improvements in safety over the years.   

The AgPro 300 

The NASCAR Xfinity Series was next to hit the track for the AgPro 300.  The racing was excellent, with Daniel Hemric, Austin Cindric, Justin Haley, Noah Gragson, and the Burton cousins Jeb and Harrison all trading the top spot on nearly every lap.  As the race progressed, and the skies began to darken. With the weather growing more ominous, the racing became more intense.  

Photo by Michael Orzel

Note: All remaining photos by Michael Orzel

Aggression through the pack continued to build as drivers knew that the race could end at any time.  This aggression came to a head when a tire failure on Joe Graff Jr’s No. 07 car collected multiple cars on a lap 84 crash.  Unfortunately, this would be the end of the race.  During the caution period the skies opened up and the rains returned to Talladega.  The race was declared official, and Jeb Burton earned his first NASCAR Xfinity Series win.  Burton doing donuts at the start/finish line in a torrential downpour was quite a sight to see!  

Shortly after the race ended the rains let up.  This allowed most of the fans to safely leave the track before another line of severe storms came through bringing torrential rains as well as strong winds and hail.  NASCAR certainly made the right call to end the race when they did. 

Sunday’s Main Event—The GEICO 500 

The weather on Sunday was quite a contrast from Saturday.  It was a beautiful day for racing at Talladega with temperatures in the low 70s, blue skies, and just the slightest breeze.   On the track, the racing was just as excellent as the weather.  

The first stage was mostly clean, hard racing with Denny Hamlin, Matt DiBenedetto, and Daytona 500 winner Michael McDowell among the many drivers at the front of the pack fighting for the lead.  Joey Logano’s No. 22 Ford went for a wild ride in the third turn to end the stage, with Matt DiBenedetto picking up his first stage win of his career.   

The Next Two Stages have Plenty of Action

The second stage saw similar hard racing, but with a few different players.  Back-to-back pit road penalties took the No. 11 Toyota of Denny Hamlin out of contention.  The racing remained intense throughout the stage, with differing green-flag pit strategies leading to distinct groups of manufacturers in different positions on the track. 

A slower pit stop led to fan-favorite Chase Elliott losing the Chevrolet pack and briefly going a lap down.  A late-stage caution for a mechanical issue on Kurt Busch’s No. 1 Chevrolet led to a wild finish.  A block by Brad Keselowski on Denny Hamlin caused another big wreck to end the stage and handing Bubba Wallace his first stage win of the year, as well as collecting all three remaining Hendrick Motorsports cars. 

The third stage started a bit calmer.  After the initial restart, the field settled into mostly single-file racing along the top.  Probably the most impressive part of this was Kurt Busch.  Busch was several laps down due to his previous mechanical issue.  When the field forming into single file racing, Busch was near the back of the line.  One by one he went about his business, passing cars, and working his way toward the front. With the main pack losing strength to the leaders, multiple lanes of racing began to form.   

And the Winner is…

After another series of pit stops and caution, a late-race mechanical failure and subsequent crash by Martin Truex Jr. sent the race into overtime.  Matt DiBenedetto was in the lead for the restart and held on for the first lap of overtime.  Shortly after taking the white flag Brad Keselowski’s No. 2, Ford surged to the lead.  Keselowski led his only lap of the race to pick up the win. 

Final Thoughts 

Talladega is an amazing experience, and every NASCAR fan should make the journey at least once in their life.  The facility is incredible, and the racing is second-to-none.  It certainly deserves its reputation as a fan favorite and as the track is so often called, ‘the biggest, baddest, track on the circuit!’ 

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