Here’s some quick facts to get you ready for Sunday’s 188-lap showdown in Alabama. NASCAR’s largest track on the circuit, it’ll be the second of four plate races on the schedule for 2013.
- Some say Dale Earnhardt, Jr., who was second in this year’s Daytona 500 is “overdue” for a plate race win. Not so fast. Yes, Earnhardt has more wins at Talladega than any other track on the circuit (five), but none of them have occurred since 2004. That’s right; the man widely considered a plate race expert hasn’t won one here (or at Daytona, for that matter) in nine years. Why? Part of it has been due to bad luck; in three of the last five races here, he’s run 20th or worse, caught up in the wrong time, wrong place when the dreaded “Big One” unfolds. But Earnhardt has also struggled to put himself in position down the stretch. Case in point: the 2011 Fall race, where he and Jimmie Johnson hung near the back too long only to find the road to the front too difficult when it came to crunch time.
How will he do this Sunday? You’d have to believe, with teammate Johnson winning the Daytona 500 he’ll be one of the favorites. But during a race where track position may be key, more than any other at ‘Dega in a decade qualifying will take center stage – and it’s not Earnhardt’s forte here. He’s been top 5 just once on Pole Day in his last 17 attempts and has a ho-hum average start of 15.6. It’ll need to go better than that to get the job done.
- This track holds special meaning for reigning Cup champ Brad Keselowski. After all, he scored his first series victory here over Carl Edwards, part of last-lap Flipgate in April 2009. Ever since, he’s scored six top-10 finishes in eight starts and is one of only two drivers (Jeff Burton being the other) with three consecutive top-10 finishes heading into Sunday here. This weekend also marks an important “statement race” for the Penske group, perhaps their last with the current crew configuration before Tuesday’s final appeal may force suspensions of crew chiefs, car chiefs, engineers, chefs, and their golf cart chauffeurs (OK, I may have made the last two up). When adversity gets thrown his way, Keselowski shines unlike any driver I’ve ever seen… and did I mention he hasn’t won yet on the Cup side? Keep an eye on the No. 2 car, who is also this Spring’s defending champ.
- For those wondering how Denny Hamlin will do this weekend, there is precedent for his “start-and-sub” effort. Back in 1992, Davey Allison came to Talladega after a wicked crash at Pocono the race before left him with a busted forearm and broken collarbone. Needing to at least start the event, in order to remain in title contention (there was no Chase back then) Allison somehow made it into the car with Bobby Hillin, Jr. tapped as a sub. Concerns about safety were similar; heck, Allison could barely see out of both eyes while driving in the car with little more than one arm. Luckily, the first caution came quickly that day, for rain with six circuits complete and Hillin was able to get in the car easily without losing a lap.
What happened next was nothing short of a miracle, considering Hillin’s so-so track record in Cup and the difficulties of jumping into a car of that era, set up for a team you weren’t really a part of mid-race. The speed under the hood of the No. 28 brought the car right to the front; Hillin’s drafting expertise put himself in position to contend. A late pit stop left him without the track position needed to win, but a third-place result was more than enough to actually vault Allison into the championship lead despite only running the car for oh, about five minutes.
Could Brian Vickers give Hamlin the same type of momentum Sunday? The Gibbs engines, stout at Daytona have the type of horsepower where passing is possible even with the difficult rules we have in place right now. And what does this type of restrictor plate setup remind people of, in the garage area? The way these ‘Dega races unfolded in the early ‘90s. Perhaps a good omen for Denny…
- Speaking of ‘Dega, we’re just two years removed from a record 88 lead changes at this facility. Don’t expect to come close on Sunday, now that “tandem drafting” has been replaced by this new plate package. During the plate racing of the early ‘90s, we had as few as 16 lead changes at Talladega and while I don’t expect it to be that low, I’d be shocked if we got anywhere over 30. The key is really in the hands of the drivers, how aggressive they want to be following a Daytona weekend that nearly turned tragic in the Nationwide Series. The scuttlebutt in the garage area, which would be awful for fans is that drivers are looking to make a statement by waiting patiently, in line in one big draft for the first 400 miles before trying to make their move during the final 35-40 laps. “Too smart to be stupid,” the story goes, since they know as long as you’re in the draft it doesn’t matter until the final 100 miles. It wouldn’t be the first time we saw a semi-protest; during the Chase, a few years ago when bump drafting was disallowed you would think the cars held a “ticker tape” parade instead of a race. I think it’ll go one of two extremes: what I just described, or a “hell-raising” type of event where those desperate for a win, like Tony Stewart, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and other restrictor plate aficionados mix it up near the front, and often from the very start in order to stay ahead of the wrecks. Considering the pressure so many are under, with two wins looking like a certainty for “wild card” entry it could tip the scales.
Most fans, I imagine are hoping for the latter.
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