On Sunday the NASCAR Nextel Cup series stops at Talladega, one of the circuit's two superspeedways (the other's Daytona), which often produce a multicar crash known as "the big one." The 2.66-mile tri-oval has sharper banking than standard tracks; its long straightaways enable higher-than-normal speed; and because velocity is controlled by mandatory restrictor plates, cars tend to travel in packs. Jimmie Johnson, No. 1 in the points standings, gave SI PLAYERS an inside look at how he, his crew chief, Chad Knaus, and his spotter, Chris Osborne, prepare for the most notorious dustup in motor sports--and what it's like to drive into a smoke-shrouded crash at 190 miles per hour.
Chad Knaus: "The best thing you can do is get out front--even though that's sometimes where it starts. You have to be aggressive in getting track position, so maybe you just take two tires on a pit stop. Once you're in the top five or 10, the drivers you're racing against are typically good, so you won't see many stupid mistakes. These guys will try to preserve their cars and won't take chances."
Chris Osborne: "There's continuous three-wide, even four-wide, racing at Talladega. Everyone has his foot to the floor for 200 laps. The big one usually happens late, when guys are going for the win and they forget about the consequences of their actions."
Jimmie Johnson: "All you can do to prepare is try to race near people that you're comfortable with. When I'm in the back of the field and see a white cloud of smoke in front of me, I try to slow down as fast as I can. Then I rely heavily on Chad [who's on a platform above the track] to tell me where the cars are sliding. When you're slowing down, it never fails that someone is on the brakes late and smashes into the back of you."
Knaus: "When I see a crash and that big cloud of smoke, I tense up. It's out of my hands. I hold my breath until our spotter says something. When he says, 'Good job, Jimmie, you missed it,' that's music to my ears." Osborne: "When I see the big one, I have to react immediately. I try to look through the smoke and predict where Jimmie should go. If cars are spinning toward the infield, I tell him to take the high line. If they're moving toward the wall, I tell him to go low. I better be right because there are no second chances."
Johnson: "There's fear at first, but you only understand what's happening for a split second. Then, it's over. Plus, if you hit something hard enough, it'll rattle your head, which means you don't really remember anything from the crash." --Lars Anderson
PHIL MANSON/AP (BIG ONE ABOVE)
During a wreck, Johnson (fleeing the scene in the 48 car) relies on his spotterto tell him whetherto go high or low.
J. PAT CARTER/AP (JOHNSON)
DAVID WALBERG (KNAUS)
Crew chief Knaus
DONALD MIRALLE/GETTY IMAGES (JOHNSON IN HELMET)
Johnson (inset) has learned what to do when he sees smoke and fire.
JAMIE SQUIRE/GETTY IMAGES (JOHNSON CAR IN FLAMES)
¬† [See caption above]