The UAW-Ford 500 is the 30th race on the 36-race NASCAR Nextel Cup Series schedule. The Cup Series visits the 2.66-mile Talladega Superspeedway twice in 2006 – Jimmie Johnson won here in May. 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. 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 18 degrees through the tri-oval. Drivers will race 500 miles for the checkered flag. The field will include 2005 fall polesitter Elliott Sadler and race winner Dale Jarrett.
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.
To the Point
The points have shuffled in every Chase race so far and last week at Kansas was no exception. Jeff Burton widened his lead to 69 points, but now it’s over rookie Denny Hamlin. Mark Martin made the biggest gains of the week, moving up three spots to sit in third. Matt Kenseth dropped one to fourth, and Kevin Harvick holds steady in fifth. Jeff Gordon slipped from second to sixth after a broken pin on the fuel pump ended his day early at Kansas. Earnhardt Jr., Johnson, Kyle Busch and Kasey Kahne round out the top 10.
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 50 official lead swaps – and to some spectacular crashes. Because the cars run so close together, a spin or even just a loose car can catch several in the mayhem; over 20 cars getting caught to some degree is not uncommon.
In an effort to spread out the field, NASCAR mandated smaller fuel cells a few races back. While it did little to ease racing conditions, the smaller cells will bring fuel strategy into play again this week; there are more green-flag pit stops 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.
Who to Watch
If you want to put your stakes on a Chaser this week, try one of these three. Gordon won at Talladega in 2005 and is always outstanding on plate tracks with Hendrick horsepower behind him. Gordon’s teammate Johnson is two for three on the plate tracks this year. Johnson may be slightly more prone to plate track mistakes than Gordon, but the woes of previous years seem to be firmly behind Johnson after his ’06 successes. Finally, despite not quite having the equipment to win the last few plate races, never overlook Earnhardt Jr. on any plate track at any time. Junior, like Gordon and Johnson, needs a top finish now if he’s going to contend for the title. For any of these three, it could happen on Sunday.
Never count out Tony Stewart on any track, any time, either, because he can win at any one of them on any given weekend. Another driver hungry for his first win and showing himself ready to do just that in recent weeks is Brian Vickers. Vickers nearly won here in the spring and he’ll have a good car, quite possibly a recipe for victory. Finally for a darkhorse candidate, look at Ken Schrader. Always an outstanding plate driver, Schrader and his team has made huge gains since the return of crew chief Fatback McSwain.
Did You Know…
- The late Earnhardt’s final win came at Talladega in 2000? Pushed by Kenny Wallace, Earnhardt came from 18th place with just four laps to go to take the checkered flag. Earnhardt also leads all drivers in wins (10) top fives (23) and top 10 finishes (27) at Talladega.
- Back in 1986, a ‘Dega race ended with only 14 cars still running at the end?
- Stewart drove Talladega in an interesting vehicle? Stewart drove one of the monstrous paving machines during a visit to the track as it was being repaved this summer.
You Don’t Say
“Yeah, they are going to have to replace one of the side-view mirrors on that Monte Carlo, because I knocked one off. I was driving the car around the high groove and all of a sudden the wall jumped out and slapped the side of the car. The wall (SAFER barrier) was real uneven – it wasn’t aligned with the track all the way around. So, it kind of jumped out and grabbed me. It was pretty funny. I was dragging the mirror all the way around just to let them know how close we were.” – Dale Earnhardt Jr., who gave the media rides around the newly-repaved Talladega Superspeedway last week in a street car and brushed the wall
“My goal for this weekend is to get through unscathed.” – Reed Sorenson on his goals for Talladega
“It’s such a crap shoot.” – Casey Mears on Talladega
“No, I don’t really think that much about it, to be honest with you. I mean, I feel like I hit just as hard in that wreck at New Hampshire [International Speedway] a few weeks ago as I would at a place like Daytona or Talladega. The restrictor-plate races aren’t going anywhere, so there’s no sense in getting too worked up about it, because you’re going to have to race in them, regardless.” – Jeff Green on whether he worries about the Big One at restrictor-plate tracks
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