Amanda Vincent, NASCAR correspondent
With the weekend racing schedule at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway modified because of rain, qualifying for Saturday’s Aaron’s 312 NASCAR Nationwide Series race at the track was dropped from the schedule. As a result, the starting lineup was set based on car owner points.
The starting grid for the weekend’s Nationwide event pits the two series leaders, Elliott Sadler in the No. 2 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in the No. 6 Roush Fenway Racing Ford, against each other right off the bat.
Sadler, the series leader, is only two points ahead of second-place Stenhouse heading into Talladega. Sadler will start from the pole on Saturday, as RCR’s No. 2 team leads the series in owner points, and the RFR No. 6 team is in second.
Both drivers have near matching stats heading into the eighth race of 2012. Both have two wins and six top-10s. A quick glance at season-to-date statistics only shows one difference between the two, aside from the two-point differential. Stenhouse has five top-five finishes to Sadler’s four.
Stenhouse has been on somewhat of a roll as of late. Since racing at Bristol (Ten.) Motor Speedway in March, he has almost eliminated the 25-point lead Sadler then had over him.
But this may be the weekend that Sadler puts a stop to, or at least slows Stenhouse’s recent surge. Sadler posted a strong top-five finish a year ago at Talladega, while Stenhouse ended up leaving Talladega early with a did not finish (DNF) and a 38th-place finish after getting caught up in an accident on lap 67.
Stenhouse has only two Nationwide Series starts at Talladega under his belt. Prior to his 38th-place finish a year ago, he posted a finish of 29th, two laps down, in the 2010 Aaron’s 312.
Despite his lackluster past performance at Talladega, Stenhouse is looking forward to Saturday’s race and hoping to bank on his current hot streak that has seen him finish in the top-six in the last six races on the schedule.
“I am looking forward to racing at Talladega,” Stenhouse said. “We had a strong Ford Mustang at Daytona but were caught in the last-lap wreck. We need to find a drafting partner early on in the race to work with. Our plan is to stay out of trouble and be up front at the end to be able to go for the win.”
Sadler doesn’t have much more Nationwide experience than Stenhouse at Talladega with only one more start. In his three series races at the track, his statistics are better that his rival, though. Sadler did finish fifth there last year after leading eight laps.
Sadler also has a significant amount of Sprint Cup Series experience at Talladega to draw from. Prior to rejoining the Nationwide Series last year, Sadler competed in 23 Sprint Cup races there, posting four top-10 finishes that include a top-five.
“Talladega is always a wild race,” Sadler said. “You have to be lucky, and you have to be smart. We are bringing the same car that we brought to Daytona earlier this season. It’s definitely a fast car, and we finished third (at Daytona) and led some laps. I think we’ve learned a lot about these new Nationwide Series cars since the last time we were at Talladega, so I’m looking forward to getting back there. It’s definitely one of the races you circle on your calendar, because you don’t know what is going to happen.”
Talladega most definitely is a wild card if there ever was one on the Nationwide Series schedule. Circumstances brought on themselves, or even someone else’s making, could separate these two series leaders somewhat or maybe bring them even closer together. One thing is for sure – expect the unexpected.