The Aaron’s 499 is the ninth race on the 36-race NASCAR Nextel Cup Series Schedule. The Cup Series will visit the 2.66-mile Talladega Superspeedway twice in 2006; they’ll return to run in the Chase for the Nextel Cup in October, the only restrictor plate race in the 10-race “playoff.” Talladega has hosted the Nextel Cup Series since opening in 1969, although the first race was run under protest by many drivers. The first Nextel Cup winner at Talladega was Richard Brickhouse, and the record for most wins (10) is held by Dale Earnhardt. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. leads active drivers with five wins at the superspeedway.
The track is a very fast and high-banked tri-oval track with a huge 33 degrees of banking in the turns. The backstretch, which is one of the longest in NASCAR, has just two degrees of banking, while the frontstretch has eighteen degrees through the tri-oval. Drivers will race 500 miles for the checkered flag. The field will include 2005 spring polesitter Kevin Harvick and race winner Jeff Gordon.
49 teams will compete for 43 starting spots for Sunday, with the Top 35 in car owner points guaranteed a starting position. 2006 owner points determine who is in this group for qualifying purposes for the remainder of the season. Qualifying runs consist of two laps, with the fastest lap setting a team’s time. The Nextel Cup Series qualifying record at Talladega is an eye-popping 212.809 mph, set by Bill Elliott in 1987, the last race in which the cars’ engines were not restricted.
The Nextel Cup Series points race is proving to be almost anybody’s race so far in 2006. Matt Kenseth retook the lead after Phoenix, flip-flopping the top spot with Jimmie Johnson, who trails by a scant nine points. Kasey Kahne is currently third on the strength of his best start ever in his short Nextel Cup career. Mark Martin and Tony Stewart complete the Top 5 once again this week.
What To Expect
Expect close racing; it’s common for all the lead-lap cars to be within three seconds or so of the race leader. This leads to lead changes: a recent race produced nearly fifty official lead swaps and some spectacular crashes. Because the cars run so close together, a spin or even just a loose car can catch several in the mayhem; a wreck in which over twenty cars are caught to some degree is not uncommon here.
In an effort to spread out the field, NASCAR mandated smaller fuel cells for the Cup cars at Daytona and Talladega a few years ago. While it did little to ease racing conditions, the smaller cells have brought fuel strategy into play; there are more green-flag pit stops here than in many other races. On a track this big, fuel strategy can be especially crucial, even more so with the green-white-checkered rule. That said, solid pit stops can mean staying with the lead draft or losing it permanently, so all the crews will be at the top of their game.
It was announced that the cars will run a slightly softer front bumper at Talladega this week, which will be damaged if the drivers attempt to use the violent bumpdrafting techniques that have sprung up of late. A damaged bumper means aerodynamic problems, a huge problem at a restrictor plate track. Still, don’t count on the new rule to eliminate the Big One-the aerodynamic instability of these cars at speed means that the slightest bump or wiggle can send a car spinning.
Who to Watch
The sentimental favorite of many this week will undoubtedly be Dale Earnhardt, Jr. His late father was inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame (located in Talladega) on Thursday, and his son and his D.E.I. teammates will honor him by running special black paint schemes that look very similar to the one run by the Intimidator in many of his Talladega victories. Junior may well back up sentiment with the win: his team seems rejuvenated this year, and the D.E.I. cars are always a threat at the plate tracks.
Beyond Earnhardt, Jr., look for Jeff Gordon to have a strong finish. Gordon dominated the place races last year and his Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Jimmie Johnson, won the Daytona 500 in February; the Hendrick power plants are usually very solid. Tony Stewart has become an outstanding plate racer as well, as has Kevin Harvick, who is also fresh off two wins at Phoenix. From the rookie class, Martin Truex, Jr. is a solid bet for Rookie of the Race honors with D.E.I. power and two Busch Series wins at the track under his belt.
Did You Know…
- The late Dale Earnhardt’s final win came at Talladega in 2000? Pushed by Kenny Wallace, Earnhardt came from eighteenth place with just four laps to go to take the checkered flag.
- That although some of the biggest names in NASCAR history, like the Allisons, Neil Bonnett, and Red Farmer, hail from the state, there are no current Nextel Cup drivers from Alabama?
- As much a part of recent Talladega lore as the "Big One" is, in 1997 there was a caution-free race at the track?
You Don’t Say"¦
"I think there is still going to be some bumpdrafting-"" especially late in the race. But it will make guys have to think a little bit more about how they pass. That goes back to the type of drafting I learned early on. We used the air to push the cars around instead of the bumpers. I like that type of drafting, and I’m curious to see how we’ll manage it." Driver Jeff Gordon on the rule change to reduce bumpdrafting
"Talladega has definitely been good for the Earnhardts. We’ve won five races there, and Daddy won twice as many, and it’s just been a really good racetrack for us. I have a deep respect and understanding for the history of our sport, and Talladega is very much a part of that history. A lot of great drivers have raced there and won there, and the fans are deeply passionate about the sport.” Driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. on Talladega, its history and fans
"I think you learn how to draft and learn how the draft works. It’s a lot fun. I’ve always enjoyed drafting and enjoyed racing at places like Talladega and Daytona. Drafting is fun. It really is, but it’s tough when you have 42 other guys inches apart from you. I think that’s the part people don’t like as much. (But) hey, there’s nothing anyone can do when a bunch of cars are spinning around you. You just hope to get through it. But, yeah, having experience helps not getting into that position. You can’t make any mistakes. You can have a good finish just by avoiding these wrecks. You just have to be smart. I think you learn how to draft and learn how the draft works. It’s a lot of fun. You just have to be smart. " Driver Kyle Petty on the draft and avoiding crashes
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