Other than the yahoos gleefully looking forward to The Big One - the spectacular wreck that takes out a third of the field - nobody likes Talladega. For the drivers, running by themselves is stupid simple, and in traffic, it's a crapshoot. For team owners and crew chiefs, Talladega means torn-up cars. But for Speed, it's a chance to run a doubleheader in ARCA and in the Truck series.
The ARCA race turns out to be a dud. Speed blows a tire, smacks the wall, then soldiers around in a dismembered car to salvage points. In the Truck race, he runs up front early and gets shuffled to the back near the end. "I held him back too long," crew chief Wolcott admits. "I told him to stay on the bottom, because I figured the guys up front would wreck. When he finally went high, he was able to go from twenty-third to fifteenth. I'm happy about that."
Not Speed. He's sweaty and flushed when he climbs out of his wrinkled car and marches back to his motorhome, annoyed by the superaggressiveness of the other drivers and frustrated that team orders - to run conservatively and log laps - prevented him from driving more assertively. But he's remarkably clear-eyed and dispassionate about the challenges that await him.
"It's easy to drive a Cup car fast," he says. "It's not easy to know what the car wants to set it up, and it's certainly not easy to race, especially at the Cup level. There's a lot going on that you can't see from the outside, that I didn't even know about until I started doing it. I've got a ton of respect for guys like Kyle Busch, Jimmie Johnson, Carl Edwards, and Jeff Gordon. I mean, as an overall package, they're amazing, and I'll probably never be as good as them. But I could have zero success over here and it wouldn't matter. After Formula 1, I have nothing left to prove. I just want to learn. There's always someone out there who's better than you. That's something that eludes most race car drivers."
Speed climbs into his motorhome and closes the door behind him. Next year, he's going to have a harder time escaping scrutiny, and some of his comments - whether hopelessly honest, helplessly naive, or just plain goofy - are bound to get him into trouble. Fans, writers, and other drivers will have issues with him at one point or another, and somebody surely will put him into the wall, maybe even a couple of times. But don't expect Speed to back down. And don't expect him to quit. He may have traveled a different road to get here. But it wasn't an easier road or a shorter road. And it just might lead him to NASCAR's victory lane.