Some drivers relish Talladega. Some drivers hate it.
I still remember this time—it was probably 2003—and there was this video game called “NASCAR Racing 2003 PC.” And I would run it and have a great time. There was this online community, and we would race all kinds of different tracks.
It was a lot of fun, but there weren’t a lot of great drivers. I wasn’t a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series driver then, but I was a decent online racer. We’d go to all these different tracks. We’d go to a Bowman Gray or a Dover or a Michigan, and I had a blast with that. But you’d only get maybe five or 10 guys who were any good, and the rest were intimidated, so it was almost like it was too easy.
So this online league I was racing with started this thing where we would race on Tuesday nights, and we had this series where we would race on superspeedways, and like 80 to 100 people would show up and race it. Talladega was two of the races, and my bother (Brian) and I would race on it together. I remember winning those races and thinking, ‘That’s so cool to beat all these guys’ and kind of almost falling in love with Talladega online.
And so the first time I went there, it was a little bit of a shellshock being in a pack for real. It was a lot different from being in a pack on a damn computer—I can tell you that right now. But the moves and the techniques and all those things are really similar, and when you can slow it down and think of it as a giant chess match, where things aren’t just happening—they’re happening because you want them to, it starts to breed a lot of confidence in you. You feel comfortable at those tracks. And that why I’m looking forward to Sunday’s GEICO 500 at Talladega (2 p.m. ET on FOX).
You’ve still got to get over the wrecks and the big packs and all those things you know you’re susceptible to. You still have to get over that, and that’s a tough challenge, but the moves to me are like a game of chess, and I enjoy that game.
Learning the moves is like anything else in life. How do you learn to ride a bicycle? Sometimes you bust your ass. Sometimes you learn by watching somebody else and what they can do. What’s interesting about Talladega is that it seems like every year—or maybe every three or four years—a new move comes out that no one has ever thought of, no one has executed before.
That’s what made Dale (Earnhardt) so special there. He was always creating the new moves. Because of that, he was always a step ahead. I think that continues to happen now. The great racers at Talladega are the ones that can innovate and create a new move that nobody knows how to defend. And that’s really, really tricky. It takes a lot of research, a lot of timing, a lot of work, a lot of study. But some of it’s just intuition and learning the hard way, too.
I guess what I’m trying to say is, like anything else in life, there’s a lot of ways you can learn. You can learn the hard way. Sometimes you learn because you just have a natural talent at it, or sometimes you learn from studying. I think it’s really all three.
In my first win in the No. 2 Miller Lite car, when I broke the draft on the final lap, someone else had made that move, but they made it at a time that wasn’t critical to the outcome. Going into that race, I had that move planned, but not until the end when the timing was most beneficial. That won that race, and now that move is defunct.
You always think you’ve found the next move, but you never know until the race is over, and it either worked or it didn’t. But I can’t tell you what it is—it’s a trade secret.
I think it goes in waves. I think you have a year or two where it’s like nothing’s clicking, and you get frustrated. Then you find a new move, find a new technique, and things start to click, and you feel like you’re in charge and dominant. And then everybody eventually catches up to those moves, or those moves are made irrelevant by rules changes and so forth, and you have to find a new one.
I think there’s a bit of an ebb and flow to it. At this point in time, we have a series of moves that are pretty strong, that have put us in a position to win a lot of plate races at Team Penske with a lot of things that Joey (Logano) and I have learned and worked on together.
But those moves eventually will become irrelevant. There will be something different. Hopefully, it will last a long time, but history shows it won’t. That’s OK. I look at probably the last three years on the plate tracks, and I feel like Joey and I have been the most successful, and we hope to continue that.
As told to Reid Spencer of the NASCAR Wire Service.