Maybe it's those impossibly high banks, or that strangely off-center start/finish line, or all that myth and legend that envelops the place like so much firewood smoke. There's just an atmosphere about Talladega Superspeedway, one of chance and unpredictability, and it's been that way since the day they scraped it out of the red Alabama soil.
And the result? Sometimes shocking, sometimes confusing, sometimes confounding, sometimes all of the above. No race track on the planet is quite as big, quite as overwhelming, quite as liable to leave spectators asking -- wait a minute, who is that in Victory Lane again? It's a place that produces surprise winners, or first-time winners, or only-time winners, with the regularity of touchdowns scored by the Crimson Tide. Around Talladega, indigenous species include the woodpecker, the yellow-bellied slider, and the underdog.
We witnessed that much one year ago, when eventual championship runner-up Matt Kenseth dominated the race but found himself in the wrong lane at the wrong time, and drafting partners David Ragan and David Gilliland came busting up the middle to steal an unlikely 1-2 finish for their little Front Row Motorsports team. And this isn't a recent phenomenon -- even before the advent of restrictor plates and pack racing, the place was impossible to figure out.
Now it's time to return to the Alabama hills, and find out what surprises that most capricious 2.66-mile layout may present this time around. You can never rule out such a thing at Talladega, where last year's result is more rule than exception. Perhaps because of the electricity that fills the air as those 43 cars buzz toward the green flag, the place loves delivering shockers. Here are the top 10.
10. Brad Keselowski, 2009
Oh, sure, we know who he is now. But in April of 2009, Keselowski was just a promising Nationwide Series driver with moxie to spare. Which is why it was so stunning when he defiantly held his line at the bottom of the race track, and beat Carl Edwards in a finish that left his rival spinning into the fence. Keselowski went on to win four Nationwide races that year, make the leap to the Sprint Cup Series the next year, and two seasons later claim the title. But back then, driving for the little can-do team of owner James Finch, the future champion left us all bewildered when he wound up in Victory Lane.
9. Richard Brickhouse, 1969
Talladega has been polarizing from its very first race, when a number of the day's top drivers refused to compete at the former Alabama International Motor Speedway over concerns about tires holding up at a track bigger and faster than they'd ever seen before. NASCAR chairman Bill France Sr. went ahead with the show anyway, filling the field with lower-tier drivers for that inaugural event in 1969. Brickhouse went on to record what would prove his lone career victory in 39 starts at the sport's top level. It wasn't against the best of competition, but it still counts.
8. Brian Vickers, 2006
Vickers is a three-time winner on NASCAR's top series, and he was driving for the Hendrick Motorsports powerhouse eight years ago at the time of his Talladega victory -- factors that wouldn't seem to indicate an upset. But then there's how the end of the race unfolded, with Jimmie Johnson pulling out to pass leader Dale Earnhardt Jr. on the final lap, Vickers going with his teammate -- and catching the bumper of the No. 48 car, wiping it out and Earnhardt's No. 8 in the process. Vickers claimed a bittersweet first career victory under yellow, although that day did set the stage for the amazing comeback which netted Johnson's first title.
7. David Ragan, 2013
Like Vickers and Keselowski, Ragan is a driver who has shown over the course of his career that he can win races, particularly on plate tracks -- his first career win was at Daytona in Roush equipment, and he might have a Daytona 500 title had he not jumped the start in 2011. Even so, last spring he found himself driving for a Front Row Motorsports team that had two total top-five finishes to that point, an amount Ragan and Gilliland doubled in one afternoon. Edwards held the lead on the final lap, but Ragan burst up the middle, used a nifty block to keep the No. 99 car at bay, and led Front Row to the biggest day in the little team's history.
6. Lennie Pond, 1978
By August of 1978, Pond was overdue for a victory. He had beaten Darrell Waltrip for top rookie honors five years earlier, and in 1976 had amassed 10 top-five finishes that left him fifth in final points. He had finished as a runner-up seven times, but still the win never came. Until Talladega, where Pond raced amid rumors that he was going to lose his ride with Harry Rainier's team. He led the final five laps, his victory was ensured when his closest pursuer, Benny Parsons, ran over debris from a blown tire off of Bill Elliott's car. Pond did lose his ride, and never raced a full schedule again, his victory at Talladega stands as his lone triumph in 234 career starts.
5. Phil Parsons, 1988
The younger brother of 1973 champ Benny Parsons had been best remembered around Talladega for a crash five years earlier, when he sustained a broken scapula after his car flipped a dozen times. In May of 1988, Parsons was mired at the back after his team had miscalculated on fuel. But a caution allowed him to latch onto Geoffrey Bodine's rear bumper and draft his way back to the front. With 15 laps left he took the lead, and held on for what would prove his lone victory in 203 career starts. Bobby Allison took second, and then collapsed due to heat exhaustion. A.J. Foyt drew a six-month suspension for driving recklessly on pit road. Just another day at Talladega.
4. Bobby Hillin Jr., 1986
Before young drivers became the rule in NASCAR, there was Hillin, who was a 17-year-old when he debuted at the sport's top level at North Wilkesboro in 1982. He finished 11th at Charlotte less than a week after graduating high school in 1983. And he was just 22 when he won at Talladega on a scorcher of a July day that had engines going off like popcorn kernels. In one of the last races before the advent of restrictor plates, Hillin outran Tim Richmond for a victory that seemed to be the first of many -- but it wasn't. It would be the lone win in 334 career starts for Hillin, who eventually left racing and became a successful businessman in his native Texas.
3. James Hylton, 1972
These days he's an ageless wonder who raced into his late 70s, but back in the day Hylton was a fierce independent who set a rookie standard by finishing second in points in 1966. But he was often at a financial disadvantage, as was the case at Talladega in 1972, when he couldn't afford the new treaded tires being used for the race. So he stuck with his slicks -- which proved the difference when better-funded drivers began having problems with the new rubber. Suddenly the race boiled down to Hylton and Ramo Stott, with Bobby Allison five laps -- yes, laps -- behind in third. Hylton won to claim his second and final career victory, on an afternoon which once again showed that Talladega can have a mind of its own.
2. Dick Brooks, 1973
Then there was August of 1973, an infamous day at Talladega when Larry Smith died in a single-car accident and 1970 champion Bobby Isaac pulled into the pits claiming "voices" had instructed him to quit racing. In the middle of it all was Brooks, who wasn't even supposed to drive Jimmy Crawford's Plymouth -- the owner was going to wheel it himself. But track officials ruled Crawford didn't have enough experience on the big speedway, pressing Brooks into service. Battling a mammoth 50-car field and a vehicle prone to overheating, Brooks overtook David Pearson on the 64th and final lead change of the race, this one with eight laps remaining. He then outran Buddy Baker for what would be his lone victory in 358 career starts.
1. Ron Bouchard, 1981
But in terms of sheer shock value, nothing at Talladega tops August of 1981. Bouchard was a promising racer who would go on to win the rookie title that season, but nobody expected what happened in just his 11th premier-series start. He had cut his teeth on shorter tracks in his native New England, where he had driven modified cars. He landed in Jack Beebe's car only after Harry Gant left for the Skoal Bandit. He soaked up all the information he could from Buddy Baker, who was parked next to him in the garage. Then he completely stunned Darrell Waltrip and Terry Labonte in a three-wide finish no one saw coming, not even the other drivers involved.
"Where did he come from?" Waltrip would ask later, a sentiment many echoed. Bouchard came from the inside, streaking by while Waltrip and Labonte were more concerned with one another, and won by a few feet in a finish officials reviewed to ensure the order was correct. It would be the lone victory in 160 career starts for Bouchard, who raced only four more full-time seasons. But on that day, he became the 13th different winner in as many summer races at Talladega. And even now, he remains the architect of the biggest shocker in the history of NASCAR's biggest track.
FULL SERIES COVERAGE
- Motor Racing
- Sports & Recreation
- David Ragan
- Lennie Pond