Talladega: Series round nine preview

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series News & Notes - Talladega Unpredictability A Given, But Upsets Are Special, At Talladega Last year will be hard for Talladega Superspeedway to top, in terms of surprise results. The renowned unpredictability of the racing...

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series News & Notes - Talladega

Unpredictability A Given, But Upsets Are Special, At Talladega Last year will be hard for Talladega Superspeedway to top, in terms of surprise results. The renowned unpredictability of the racing on the 2.66- mile tri-oval carried over to Victory Lane at both of the 2009 events.

Despite the track's long-running reputation as the consummate wild card, the reality is that upsets are hard to come by, on the largest layout in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.

Historically, racing at the big track has been dominated by the series' big dogs, which makes last year's winners -- Brad Keselowski and Jamie McMurray even more shocking.

Both have since gone on to join new organizations, each of their careers boosted by the Talladega triumphs. Keselowski now drives the No. 12 Dodge for Penske Racing; McMurray is in the No. 1 Bass Pro Shops Chevrolet for Earnhardt Ganassi Racing.

Keselowski won the 2009 spring race at Talladega, dramatically emerging from a late-race multi-car accident for his first NASCAR Sprint Cup victory. McMurray won in the fall and used the success as a springboard to a reunion with Chip Ganassi and Felix Sabates, the men who originally hired him for a series ride back in 2002.

Significant upsets, both, at a track not usually kind to upset-seekers.

Check out the history. Prior to last year, the last time there was a true Talladega upset was the autumn of 2006 when Brian Vickers (No. 83 Red Bull Toyota) won.

Prior to that ... you had Bobby Hamilton's victory in the spring of '01 ... Jimmy Spencer in the fall of 1994 ... Phil Parsons in the spring of '88 ... Bobby Hillin Jr. in the fall of '86.

Seems that whenever there is an upset at Talladega, it's a huge one, contrasting vividly with the track's record of high-profile winners.

Coming into this season, of the 81 Talladega events in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, 41 have been won by series champions.

Six of the last 10 Talladega winners have also won NASCAR Sprint Cup championships. Those winners: Jeff Gordon (No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet) (three times), Tony Stewart (No. 14 Old Spice Chevrolet), Jimmie Johnson (No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet) and Dale Jarrett. That group has totaled 11 championships.

The list of all-time Talladega winners doubles as a "who's who" of NASCAR greats.

Topping that list is Dale Earnhardt, winner of 10 Talladega races -- and seven series championships. Gordon, a four-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion, is second on the Talladega wins list with six.

Other past champions in the top five in 'Dega wins: always-contentious rivals Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip, who each have four wins at Talladega.

"You need to make sure you're there at the end -- when all the action is going to happen," said Gordon. "It's hard to have a bad race at Talladega, and that's why I tell my friends this is a race track where they should attend a race."

Outside Looking In: Drivers Below The Top 12 A Surprising Group

For the first two months of this season, there were a number of surprises offered up weekly in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series' Top 12. Now there's another surprise to digest: the group of drivers outside the Top 12. It's a group that starts with 13th-place Tony Stewart (No. 14 Old Spice Chevrolet). After that, you'll find 15th-place Carl Edwards (No. 99 AFLAC Ford), 16th-place Ryan Newman (No. 39 Haas Automation Chevrolet), Jamie McMurray in 21st, Kasey Kahne (No. 9 Budweiser Ford) in 22nd and Juan Pablo Montoya (No. 42 Target Chevrolet) in 24th. Disappointing, yes -- but by no means desperate. Stewart actually has the same point total (941) as 12th-place Joey Logano (No. 20 Home Depot Toyota). Logano has the dibs on being listed as 12th, due to the "best finishes" tiebreak. (Neither have a win and both have one secondplace result. Logano's next-best finish is a fifth while Stewart's is a seventh.) Stewart's status this week is skewed somewhat by his Monday afternoon at Texas Motor Speedway. After starting from the pole, his involvement in a late-race multi-car incident -- which he said he caused -- relegated him to a 37th-place finish. Further down the standings, three more surprises: • Brad Keselowski's expected breakout year driving for Roger Penske has been sort of quiet thus far. He comes to Talladega this week as the defending race champion -- and 25th in the series standings. • Marcos Ambrose (No. 47 Bush's Baked Beans/Kingsford Toyota), the Australian who has at times looked like far more than a roadcourse expert, is 26th. • David Reutimann (No. 00 Alabama National Champ Toyota), who contended last year to make the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup field, is this year struggling mightily by comparison. He's 30th this week. Of the lot, the most puzzling is McMurray who, after his monumental victory in the Daytona 500, has settled into his usual nondescript mode. Post-Daytona, he has had finishes of -- get this -- 17th, 34th, 29th, eighth, 30th, 24th and 30th yet again.

Hamlin Quickly Closing Gap In Bonus Point Battle

So much for Jimmie Johnson running away and hiding from the field this year. While Johnson still leads the series in victories this season with three, Denny Hamlin (No. 11 FedEx Express Toyota) has won twice, cutting into Johnson's potential margin based on bonus points. "Potential" is the operative word, as it's based on who qualifies for the 12-driver Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. At the outset of the Chase, all 12 drivers have their points "re-set" at 5,000; 10 bonus points are then added for each pre-Chase victory, creating "seedings." Right now, Johnson's Chase starting total is at 5,030, with Hamlin at 5,020. (See accompanying "Emphasis On Winning" graphic, at right.) Hamlin won at Martinsville Speedway on Monday, March 29. He won this past Monday at Texas Motor Speedway. Both events were delayed one day by rain but they'll also be remembered as "bookends" to serious knee surgery Hamlin underwent in between -- the Wednesday after Martinsville, to be exact. Prior to the surgery, Hamlin talked about merely wanting to make the Chase and then, with his left knee healthier, being able to challenge for the title over the season's last 10 weeks. "I'm still not 100% by any means right now; I feel like I'm 60% at best," Hamlin said after his victory Monday. "But I knew that for the next month it was going to be tougher to get good finishes than what it would, you know, pre-surgery. I did [the surgery] for September. I knew that if I did it now, come Chase time, if I'm lucky enough to be in one of those top 12 positions, it was going to make me more prepared to make a run for the championship at that time."

Loop Data: Earnhardt Building Consistency

Is it possible for Dale Earnhardt Jr. (No. 88 National Guard/AMP Energy Chevrolet) to do anything quietly?

No, not really. Not when you're a seven-time winner of the Most Popular Driver Award.

But somehow, Earnhardt has done just that in 2010. Now seventh in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series points standings, Earnhardt has opened up a 72-point cushion over the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup cutoff line.

One possible explanation would be his subpar 2009, when he finished the year 25th in points, his worst points position since joining the series full-time in 2000. Maybe there were some low expectations.

But more likely, it's because Earnhardt has been the poster boy for quiet consistency in 2010.

But that might change soon enough.

The statistics from his most recent race, and those in the race to come, suggest that Earnhardt might win sooner than later.

Earnhardt enjoyed his statistically strongest race of the season on Monday at Texas Motor Speedway.

In the eighth-place finish, Earnhardt tallied season-best marks in Driver Rating (116.5), Average Running Position (5.1), Laps Led (46), Fastest Laps Run (24) and Laps in the Top 15 percentage (96.1%).

His previous best race was the Daytona 500, where he scored a Driver Rating of 92.1 in a runner-up finish.

The race was Earnhardt's first with a Driver Rating over 100.0. But consistency was the key, as seven of the eight races were over 80.0:

Now he heads to a track -- Talladega Superspeedway -- at which he has tons of success. Consider these statistics:

* Earnhardt has five wins at Talladega, thirdmost all time.

* Won four consecutive Talladega races from 2001-2003, longest streak at the track.

* Average Running Position of 14.5, fifthbest

* Driver Rating of 92.2, third-best

* 47 Fastest Laps Run, third-most

* 3,203 Green Flag Passes, seventh-most

* Average Green Flag Speed of 192.416 mph, third-fastest

* Series-high 1,209 Laps in the Top 15 (63.7%)

*2,212 Quality Passes, fourth-most Earnhardt's last Talladega victory came in October of 2004, but he seemed on the verge of another in each of last season's Talladega events.

In a runner-up finish last April, Earnhardt scored a Driver Rating of 117.2. In an 11th-place run in November, he had a rating of 110.5.

Overall last season at Talladega, Earnhardt compiled these solid statistics: an average finish of 6.5, a Driver Rating of 113.9, an Average Running Position of 7.7, a Pass Differential (passes minus times passed) of plus-17, seven Fastest Laps Run and a Laps in the Top 15 percentage of 87.1%.

NOBODY'S PERFECT: Because of the back-and-forth nature of Talladega, perfection -- in terms of a perfect Driver Rating 150.0 -- will likely never be obtained. In fact, the top Driver Rating ever scored at Talladega was 135.5 by Jeff Gordon in May of 2005.

Talladega Places Extra-Bright Spotlight On New Spoiler

Racing at Texas Motor Speedway was a good test for the new spoiler being used on cars in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.

Talladega Superspeedway, and Sunday's Aaron's 499, will represent a different sort of 2.66-mile animal.

Call this the ultimate test for the spoiler, which has replaced the wing that had been on cars' rear decks.

And it's one test that NASCAR has been preparing intently to pass. A recent test of the spoiler at 'Dega resulted in NASCAR settling on a height of 4.5 inches and a width of 63 inches. (Compared to measurements of 4 inches and 64 1/2 at Texas.)

In addition, the openings on carburetor restrictor plates will be 15/16-inch, smaller than the 63/64 openings used in the Daytona 500, the first of four "restrictor-plate races" each year.

The smaller openings will mean less air flow -- and less horsepower.

"I think no matter what, it's going to be an extremely exciting race," said Jeff Gordon.

"You're going to see where the cars can be pretty aggressive in the draft. You can bump draft a lot and all those things."

Added Kevin Harvick (No. 29 Shell Pennzoil Chevrolet): "The cars drove great [at the test]. I think the race is going to be good. I don't think it will be much different that it normally is. It will be typical Talladega, three-wide, exciting, pushing and shoving.

"The cars themselves didn't really change much as far as how they drive in the draft [without the wing]. The biggest change is your ability to be able to see out in front of you. That has improved significantly.

"With the wing it was hard to see out in front of the car directly in front of you. But now with the spoiler, it definitely improves your vision which helps tremendously in the draft."

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, Etc.

Stat of the Week: Competition at Talladega is a close-quarters situation to say the least, evidenced by this telling statistic -- Since the inception of electronic scoring in 1993, every Talladega race ending under green has had a margin of victory under a half-second.

Kyle Busch (No. 18 Pedigree Toyota) is well-known for being less-than-impressed with a finish that doesn't involve a Victory Lane celebration. So, somewhat surprisingly, Busch offered this assessment of his third-place finish on Monday at Texas Motor Speedway:

"It's just been our [kind of] year so far -- just trying to get [decent] finishes," said Busch. "The car was a little bit off and the guys did an awesome job working on it all day long. We were plugging through our pit stops and kept going. This was a good third-place finish for us." ...

A number of career milestones are on tap for Talladega, starting with reigning four-time champion Jimmie Johnson, making his 300th start.

In addition, Robby Gordon (No. 7 Monster Energy Toyota) is trying to make his 350th start while Denny Hamlin shoots for his 50th top five.

And from the "holdover" department, Mark Martin (No. 5 GoDaddy.com Chevrolet) is still trying for his 50th Coors Light Pole Award, Bobby Labonte (No. 71 TaxSlayer.com Chevrolet) is aiming for his 200th top 10 and Brian Vickers is after his 50th top 10.

Up Next: Race 10 @ Richmond

From Talladega, the biggest track involved in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, we head next to Richmond International Raceway, one of the series' shortest ovals. RIR will host the "Crown Royal Presents the Heath Calhoun 400" on the evening of Saturday, May 1 (7 p.m. ET, FOX).

Richmond is often called the "perfect track" -- with good reason. The three-quarters-mile oval has the fender-banging elements of shorttrack racing, but a length that allows for good speed on the straights. Throw in an electric, under- the-lights atmosphere and you have one of the highlights of the series, in any season.

That atmosphere has some history behind it, of course. RIR has gone through a variety of incarnations, it started out as a half-mile dirt track, first hosting a race in NASCAR's premier series in 1953. The track was paved after the 1968 spring race and thereafter went through several facelifts, the last coming in 1988 when the current track length was established.

The first NASCAR Sprint Cup night race there was in the fall of 1991; since '99, both of Richmond's races each year have been at night.

Kyle Busch will be the defending champion of the May 1 event. Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt Jr. are tied for most Richmond victories among active drivers with three apiece.

Fast Facts

The Race: Aaron's 499
The Place: Talladega Superspeedway (2.66-mile tri-oval)

The Date: Sunday, April 25
The Time: 1 p.m. (ET)

Race Distance: 500 miles/188 laps

TV: FOX , 12 p.m. ET
Radio: MRN and Sirius NASCAR Radio Channel 128

2009 Polesitter: Juan Pablo Montoya
2009 Winner: Brad Keselowski

Schedule Prior To Race Day: (All times CT/local.)
Friday -- Practice, 1-1:45 p.m. & 2:30-3:30.
Saturday -- Qualifying, 10:35 a.m.

-source: nascar

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About this article
Series NASCAR Sprint Cup
Drivers Juan Pablo Montoya
Teams Team Penske , Chip Ganassi Racing