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4 Burning Questions in Talladega: What Should We Expect from Dale Earnhardt Jr.?

1. Is the Current Rules Package for Plate Races the Best It’s Been?

Plate racing is a tough business for NASCAR. It may be exclusive to the sport, but we don’t seem to have a strong handle of what makes “good” plate racing.

From the introduction to the restrictor plate in 1988, to tandem-style racing, the outlaw of in-corner bumping and the single-file train, every generation of NASCAR fan has their own memory of what plate racing entails.

The late ‘90s and early 2000s had what some would call the pinnacle of pack racing where handling was as big a factor as the strength of the rear bumper – even though the era saw three Talladega races go caution-free between 1997 and 2002.

Today’s style seems to have slowly returned as a must-see event with frantic blocking and lane shifting up front and drivers able to solely drive through the pack to have a shot at the prize.

Additionally, I have noticed that the top eight or so could get out with the lead while the pack behind shuffles into position to hunt them back down.

As of late, we have witnessed more than 160 laps of simply awesome pack racing with single-file to a low degree and a variety of names grabbing must-deserved spotlight. Unfortunately, Talladega races are longer than 160 laps.

Yes, recently the drivers have seemed to find some sort of tranquilizer gun that specializes in taming monstrous, obscene race circuits like Talladega. The once-building anticipation for the finish of the event would soon shift to every fan – other than that of the leading driver – saying to themselves, “OK, come on, let’s go!”

And after the race is done with, even the drivers get out of their cars and ask the same question of why nobody pulled out.

Three of the last four races at Talladega have ended with a concluding 10 or more laps much too organized to grab headlines and mesmerize those in attendance or at home.

But if you think about it, is this an aero package problem or just a driver problem? For me, it belongs on the shoulders of the drivers as the package has proved to bring the passing and drafting needed to make such moves. Simply, the drivers just don’t want to lose positions and deep down certainly believe that, well, somebody else will pull out first. Right?

But then again, many years ago before restrictor plates were sworn in, NASCAR fans would’ve killed for more than three drivers with a shot at the win in the final laps. Remember Pete Hamilton’s victory in 1970 with a 44-second winning margin to the only car on his lap? Or the era of the ‘80s with just the top five on the lead lap by the end of it?

This era of today’s Gen-6 car produces very strong and thrilling racing action from start to almost finish. Having one prior elimination race at Talladega in the history books – which had non-stop pack racing and a finish for the ages with Brad Keselowski making a last-lap move toward a clutch win – I believe the combo of this aero package and Chase desperation will once again make for a heck of a show.

2. Does One GWC Attempt Really Help?

If you’re like me, you were never more awake at 2:30 a.m. in your life than this past July when the Coke Zero 400 was under green at Daytona.

The 400-mile race was thrilling and hair-raising as plate racing tends to be. But the finish switched to spine-chilling horror as Austin Dillon suffered a crash I’ve feared for as long as I have watched the sport.

Immediately, NASCAR was either bashed for the danger or praised by the safety precautions taken to keep the drivers and fans safe. The catchfence and driver compartments did their job despite the nightmarish blows that were suffered.

Skip to this week approaching the first return to a plate track and NASCAR has now removed two potential green-white-checkered attempts to shrink the possibility of another horrendous accident happening this weekend at Talladega Superspeedway.

I feel a lot like the drivers in the subject of saving cars and, much more importantly, saving drivers and fans any way we can. It is with the best of intentions that NASCAR made this move and I believe the line between desiring an exciting finish and being safe must be drawn.

At some point, the race must end. The fans have never been promised a green-flag finish when they walk through the front gate or tune in on TV. This weekend will see NASCAR give it a shot to finish green and if that doesn’t work, well, we tried.

I’m as disappointed as anybody when we see 497.42 miles of fabulous electrifying racing with the best drivers in the world and then the pace car turns out to be the official race winner at a stirring 60 mph. It stinks, but you cannot lose sight of what we’re doing here.

Dillon’s last-lap hysteria in July was far from the first wild ride at a place race; even for Dillon, who got airborne at Talladega in 2013 after a brutal impact from Casey Mears. Penciling on the list are names like Kyle Larson, Dennis Setzer, Miguel Paludo, Joey Coulter, Carl Edwards and Clint Bowyer. Another thing they all have in common? They occurred on the final lap.

Now, I know having three less guaranteed laps in the race will in no way eliminate the hazard of these kind of accidents happening. But this setup does guarantee an attempt to still give fans a green-flag finish?

For a long time now, NASCAR fans and media have begged the sport to be more proactive in decisions regarding safety. I believe this is one of those good decisions.

3. What should we expect from Dale Earnhardt Jr.?

Though Junior Nation may be already polishing their Dale’s Pale Ale for their celebratory victory shower, I’m not ready to put a period where a question mark stands regarding a seventh Talledega win for Dale Earnhardt Jr. this weekend.

Look, the guy is stunning on the high banks, zero question. He learned from the very best in NASCAR history in his father, and the past seven plate races for driver No. 88 have seen a second Daytona 500 title in ’14, a return to Talladega Victory Lane this past May and another July Daytona race on the mantle.

Earnhardt has the credentials, the know-how and most definitely the equipment, as the team is bringing back a past winner of a racecar. Additionally, Earnhardt has shown remarkable poise and assurance the past two weeks in talks of Talladega.

However, don’t you think he will have his work cut out for him this time around? Surely there is more on the line than just a trophy this weekend. Not only is established competitor Matt Kenseth in the same air of must-win, but nine other guys are out to confirm their destiny by winning or surviving the untidy chaos and the 2.66-mile mishmash.

And yes, the other remaining 31 racers who have every darn right to go out and grab a win for themselves and their team. Come on, who doesn’t want to play spoiler?

If I had to chose one driver who I thought could win at Talladega with all the chips on the table, it wouldn’t be Kevin Harvick, it would be 41-year-old Earnhardt.

Junior Nation, I applaud your faith and Junebug patriotism, but what takes the cake for me is the sudden rebirth in Earnhardt’s stature. Legendary author Mark Twain once said, “All you need in life is ignorance and confidence, and then success is sure.”

Earnhardt has the confidence of thinking he will win and the ignorance of knowing he will win. We will see if success follows.

4. Is Any Chaser Really Safe?

It’s a ‘yes’ for Logano. The 11 others left standing? No.

Some may be in better positions than others for Sunday but the goals couldn’t be any more straightforward. You can examine and study the Chase points as much as you can but by now, it’s a simple target for 11 men: Win or survive.

Earnhardt and Kenseth are clearly in the win column after each had loathsome endings at Charlotte and Kansas, and nine others are dreaming of checkered flags – those who can sleep this week, that is.

At Talladega, the grand behemoth of fear and uncertainty, there can be 25 points up for grabs every half second on track. Heck, when it comes down to the checkered flag at the end of 500 miles, you could nearly reach out and touch the leader with your hand and yet not make the Chase due to a handful of others cars wedged in unison.

Unlike any other racetrack in the Chase, there is basically a one-in-43 chance for victory for every driver who takes the green flag. That fact may boost the spirits of the likes of Alex Bowman, Jeb Burton and Michael McDowell, but it will only compact the pressures for ones who are quick every week and have a championship on the line.

The Chaser-to-non-Chaser ratio in Victory Lane is 50/50 in Talladega’s fall event as of late. Thanks to Jamie McMurray winning twice in ’09 and ’13 and then Bowyer in ‘11, non-Chasers have tasted Talladega victory in three of the last six Chase races. Though a Chaser won last year’s event, the race featured six non-Chasers in the top 10, including underdogs like Landon Cassill and Travis Kvapil.

The 2014 Chase race at Talladega also provided the level of bewilderment and concern that we all expected. Kyle Busch went in with back-to-back top-five finishes and was strategically hanging in the rear of the field to avoid the very thing that soon claimed his season. Kasey Kahne, Earnhardt and Jimmie Johnson also received the chop after the extended race.

Simply watching the action last year, the charge of anguish and anxiety was visible by the on-track racing. Like last year, the race may not be on Halloween weekend anymore, but the race hasn’t seen a reduction of spooks. Unlike last year, however, the Chase points are even tighter and there are many massive storylines looking at the next step toward Homestead.

Luck will be a repeated term used on Sunday without a doubt. The Chase points will take a U-turn every lap and each driver will have a change of heart following every minor move on the track.

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J. Smith

I am really looking forward to watching practice, qualifying and the race this weekend. Sunday night, long after watching the race, I plan on watching the show at Talladega.

janice

i have a feeling jr will do as he’s done most of the year, be a non-issue. even though he’s at talladega, it’s either all or nothing with him. of course na$car needs him to move to the next round to get butts in the stands, but i honestly don’t think it will happen.

Carl D.

I can’t speak for the race itself, but I read on Jayski there will be a B2 flyover before the race. I’ve been at Charlotte a couple of times when there were B2 flyovers and it’s an awesome experience. It will almost make you feel bad for the enemy… almost.

janice

i saw that. several years ago a b-2 did flyover at ams. that was awesome site to see.

Bill B

If Jr does win I predict a large number of fans crying “FIX!!!”. So, business as usual.

DoninAjax

Pete Hamilton won the race by the margin he did because he had the best car and there were no “debris” cautions to close up the field. What a concept. How often has that happened since Brian’s had his brilliant ideas? Start the race and let it play out.

Upstate24fan

This is a pretty good package. I would say it’s a bit tougher to pass with then the early-2000 package with the “twisted sister”. The leader seems to have an easier time blocking, more so at Daytona. Sunday’s late race action will all depend on where the Chase drivers are. If an early wreck knocks multiple Chase contenders out, I see most taking it conservative. However, if Dale Jr. and Kenseth are near the front they will do everything possible to win. That will probably cause more carnage.

DoninAjax

I wonder who the winner is according to the book in Back To The Future? Or who the “Champion” is? I’ll bet there’s no chase in the results. Maybe it tells us how much longer Brian has before NA$CAR crashes and burns.

Do you think the baseball slogan “The Hunt For October” had some movie executives seeing Red?

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