Tony Stewart A Gambling Man

Know when to hold ‘em and know when to fold ‘em. That’s the counsel at the heart of Kenny Rogers’ 1980 Grammy Award-winning song “The Gambler.” It’s sage advice for anyone participating in a game of chance, and chance is something every NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver is well acquainted with, especially when it comes to the kind of action they will see at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway in Sunday’s 500.

The stakes are always high at Talladega. The vast, 2.66-mile oval produces speeds so quick that NASCAR forces team to put restrictor-plates on its engine’s intake manifold, which keeps speeds just a tick below the 200 mph mark, slowing cars enough so that if they get sideways, they won’t carry enough speed to launch into the air as the car’s aerodynamics become reversed. Chevrolets, Fords and Toyotas weren’t made to go 200-plus mph, even when they have crazy paint schemes and numbers painted on their roofs. Formula One machines they aren’t, and in the name of safety, the restrictor-plate is rudimentary technology that keeps these rudimentary cars grounded… most of the time.

But every now and then a launch button is pushed, and a spectacular somersault of a crash that appears over and over on the next day’s rounds of network morning shows penetrates the mainstream. Multi-car accidents, better known as Big Ones, jumble the point standings as front-runners are collected while others emerge unscathed.

The Big One is bound to happen again at Talladega, and if history is any indication, more than once during Sunday’s 188-lap contest. For those still in the running for the 2015 Sprint Cup championship, it’s about surviving and thriving. But for others, Sunday’s 500-miler could wind up on the other end of the spectrum with their championship hopes mirroring the potential look of their racecars – unsalvageable.

Tony Stewart, driver of the No. 14 Bass Pro Shops/Mobil 1 Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing, isn’t in position to further any championship aspirations this weekend, but he is still searching for his first win of the 2015 season and ending a drought that dates back more than two years to June 2, 2013 at Dover (Del.) International Speedway. The three-time Sprint Cup champion’s record on the superspeedways offers plenty of cause for confidence.

Twice Stewart has enjoyed the spoils of success at Talladega, both in 2008. The first came in the NASCAR Xfinity Series in April, when he won from the pole, leading five times for a race-high 81 laps in the 117-lap race. The second came in the Sprint Cup Series in October when he outdueled Regan Smith for the win in a green-white-checkered finish.

While there is only one check in the Sprint Cup Series win column at Talladega, it’s a figure that could easily be greater. Of his nine career top-five finishes, six have been second-place finishes – a feat that has Stewart tied with Hall-of-Fame driver Buddy Baker for the most runner-up finishes at Talladega. Additionally, Stewart has 13 top-10s and 328 laps led. He’s completed all but 182 of the 6,062 laps that have been run in his 32 Talladega starts since 1999 for a lap completion rate of 97 percent. On the flip side, Stewart has a total of eight DNFs (Did Not Finish) at the track – six of which occurred in the closing laps.

And that’s only a portion of Stewart’s body of work on the superspeedways.

The Columbus, Indiana-native’s record at Talladega pales when compared to his efforts at its sister track, Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway, where he owns four point-paying wins in the annual Coke Zero 400, three wins in the Budweiser Duel qualifying race, three victories in the non-points Sprint Unlimited, two IROC Series wins and seven Xfinity Series wins, a record he shares with the late Dale Earnhardt. Tally them all up and Stewart owns 21 wins on NASCAR’s restrictor-plate tracks. 

What will this round of racing at Talladega bring? No one really knows. Restrictor-plate racing is like a game of high stakes poker and anything that can happen will happen at the notorious, high-banked oval. Given the track’s history, this weekend’s race at Talladega may be the biggest gamble of the 2015 Sprint Cup season.