They see it first from the sky, peering down 5,000 feet from their private jets as they approach the landing strip set alongside the biggest, wildest, scariest racetrack in America. This week the top drivers in NASCAR will descend into the heart of Alabama to prepare for the fourth race in the Chase, on Sunday afternoon at Talladega Superspeedway. They will pass below the layer of smoky haze rising from the campfires that burn for three straight days in the RV-filled infield of the vast 2.66-mile, high-banked tri-oval, and all say the same silent prayer: I hope that damn Big One doesn't get me.
Title dreams are often crushed at NASCAR's most unpredictable track, which is famous for producing at least one massive, multicar wreck in virtually every race. That's the Big One. In the fall of 2008, Carl Edwards trailed Jimmie Johnson by just 10 points in the standings when the Big One ruined his playoffs, as he plowed into a swirl of smoking, spinning cars and wound up in the wall while Johnson slipped unscathed through the carnage. Johnson left Talladega with a 72-point cushion over Edwards and then light-footed it to the title. "I thought that 2008 was going to be my year," Edwards recalled recently. "But then Talladega got me."
Indeed, at Talladega, more than at any other stop on the Sprint Cup schedule, a driver is not in control of his destiny. He can be rolling along at 200 mph—motoring the length of a football field per second—and then, in a heartbeat, all hell breaks loose: The Big One erupts in front of him, and the next thing the driver knows, his car is crumpled and on fire. This is why drivers universally loathe the place. It's also why Talladega is the most arresting—and most important—race of the Chase.
"If you're a championship contender, the goal at Talladega, right after winning there, is just to make it to the end of the race," Johnson told SI last year. "Drivers are control freaks, but at Talladega once cars start crashing in front of you, there isn't much you can do to avoid it other than pray."
Even those who deal in the divine understand that the Big One can't be stopped. In 2005, during his prerace invocation at the track, Birmingham minister Rick Ousley asked the Man Upstairs for His blessings because "we know the Big One is coming." About an hour later, it did: 25 cars were taken out in a Turn 1 pileup.
Ironically, safety concerns are why these mammoth wrecks are so common at Talladega. Left unchecked, modern stock cars would hit untenable speeds around the huge tri-oval, NASCAR's longest track. So they are fitted with carburetor restrictor plates, which reduce airflow to the engine, cutting power and limiting top speeds to around 200 mph. This causes the cars to run around the track in tight packs. The slightest driver mistake—or even running over a piece of debris as small as a lug nut—will trigger a crash that can wipe out half of the field. In a sense, 'Dega is like a horror flick: You know the man with the knife is going to jump out from behind the bedroom curtain, you just don't know when.
But this is not a bad thing for NASCAR. With its flat TV ratings and attendance figures this season, the sport needs more races in which anything can happen. After Talladega, four of the last six races of the season will take place on cookie-cutter, 1.5-mile tracks, which have been dominated by Johnson for the last six years. In fact, if you talk to drivers in that land of honesty called "not for attribution," they'll tell you that at these intermediate-length tracks only a handful of drivers have a real shot at winning. But Talladega is different, because the Big One is the great equalizer, giving nearly every driver in the race a credible chance to reach Victory Lane if he can keep his car in one piece.
"Everybody knows they can win at Talladega," says Jeff Gordon, who heads to 'Dega this week 10th in the standings. "We hope this is the time where we survive the Big One."
To which we say to Gordon and the other 42 drivers: Good luck. We'll be watching.