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At Talladega, everyone's living life in the fast lane

Fans at Talladega Superspeedway last spring witnessed more than just history when Mark Martin took the checkered flag of the track's only caution-free Winston Cup race.

They saw a miracle.

NASCAR's longest and fastest oval, Talladega has a reputation for more than just speed. Site of today's DieHard 500, Talladega has become a place where accidents happen. And happen. And happen.

"Here is my philosophy on Talladega: I know I'm going to wreck, and I just hope I don't get hurt," veteran driver Darrell Waltrip said. "You are in bumper-to-bumper, side-by-side, door-handle-to-door-handle, three-deep and sometimes four-deep traffic all the time. The intensity is incredible."

Talladega is built for speed: 2.66 miles of open track with 33-degree banking in the turns. Cars used to exceed 200 mph here until spring 1987, when Bobby Allison's car nearly jettisoned into a crowded grandstand. That fall, NASCAR introduced carburetor restrictor plates, which reduce horsepower by limiting airflow.

Speeds at Talladega and Daytona, the high-banked ovals where plates are used, have not hit 200 mph since. Drivers argue the restrictive measures have caused another safety hazard: tight quarters.

Because drivers floor the gas pedal all the way around, cars stay in tight bunches, each drafting off the cars ahead and behind at more than 190 mph. The slightest slip triggers a multicar accident.

"Sometimes it gets four- and five-wide, so you have to depend on the other guys with your life," Martin said. "It's like 43 gnats flying out there, waiting to run into each other."

Close quarters restrictor-plate racing at Talladega has produced some spectacular _ but harrowing _ accidents in recent years.

At the Winston 500 in 1996, Ricky Craven was injured after a 14-car crash that sent his car rolling into the catch fence high above the first-turn wall. In another airborne accident that race, Bill Elliott broke his hip.

In the 1996 DieHard 500, Dale Earnhardt fractured his left collarbone and sternum after an 11-car crash sent his No. 3 Chevy flipping down the front stretch.

The list goes on. Rusty Wallace, Ken Schrader, Jimmy Spencer, Rick Mast, Ward Burton and Randy LaJoie all have been airborne at Talladega in the 1990s.

"I don't know that you hold your breath, you're just uneasy all the time," Ford driver Dale Jarrett said. "When it happens, even though this racetrack is wide, things happen in a hurry. You sit and hope that you're in the right spot and can get through it."

The concept of drafting _ that a long stream of cars cuts through the air more efficiently than a single car _ practically requires nose-to-tail racing at Talladega and Daytona. It looks like a simple single-file line, but nowhere else on the Winston Cup circuit is the racing more complex.

"As fast as this place is, you'd think it would be more of a muscle and bravery track, but Talladega might be more of a finesse track than anywhere we run," Ford driver Jeremy Mayfield said.

"At Talladega, you think about how to get around the guy in front of you, who's going to go with you when you do it, what's going to happen to the guy going with you after you've gone, what the guy in front of the guy who was in front of you is going to do, what the guy behind the guy who is going with you is going to do _ and you've got a good half-second to figure it all out."

NASCAR has tinkered with ways of slowing the cars that would give drivers more control _ bigger spoilers, smaller plates, smaller spoilers, bigger plates _ but changes are not likely to be made anytime soon. "The fans love these 30-car freight trains," Ford driver Ted Musgrave said. "But it's terrible for us because when a wreck starts, you're probably going to be in it."

There are exceptions.

Last spring, Martin won the caution-free Winston 500 in record speed, an average of 188.354 mph. But clearly, it was the exception. By fall, things were back to normal as a flat tire on Jeff Gordon's car triggered a 23-car pileup.

"Once you have one caution, you continue having cautions as the cars get bunched up again," Martin said. "Last spring, everyone drove a smart race and got a little more spread out. I would love to see that happen again, but the odds probably aren't very good."

DieHard 500

WHEN/WHERE: 1 p.m.; Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway.

TV: Chs. 28, 40.

POLE-SITTER: Bobby Labonte at 195.728 mph.

'97 WINNER: Terry Labonte (starts third this time at 194.452).