Talladega: Round nine preview

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series News And Notes - Talladega Owner-Driver Breakthrough Victory Could Be At Hand For Stewart You have to go all the way back to Sept. 27, 1998 to find the last time a driver-owner won an event in the NASCAR Sprint Cup ...

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series News And Notes - Talladega

Owner-Driver Breakthrough Victory Could Be At Hand For Stewart

You have to go all the way back to Sept. 27, 1998 to find the last time a driver-owner won an event in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. Ricky Rudd raced to victory that day at Martinsville Speedway.

After eight races this season, Tony Stewart (No. 14 Old Spice Chevrolet) appears poised to end that drought. Stewart comes into Sunday's Aaron's 499 at Talladega Superspeedway fourth in the series points -- and comes off a season-best second-place finish at Phoenix.

Stewart, in his first year heading up the new Stewart-Haas Racing operation, has accelerated the progress of his team and now, he comes to one of NASCAR's fastest tracks, the 2.66-mile Talladega tri-oval. The high-banked layout, celebrating its 40th season this year (see Page 2 for more info), also happens to be the place where Stewart's last previous NASCAR Sprint Cup win occurred. Last October, Stewart (shown celebrating, right) captured Talladega's fall race -- his final victory for his former team at Joe Gibbs Racing.

Although he's still after his first win as a driver-owner, Stewart has quickly developed a championship style consistency. Which means, for the first time since Alan Kulwicki's magical march to the series title in 1992, the words "driver-owner" and "championship" are compatible when used in the same sentence.

"This is the best start to the season that I've ever had in my career," Stewart said. "The last three weeks have just been amazing. I mean, it's been so much fun. We've been in contention. We've led laps. We're doing everything right. It's just a matter of time.

"We are consistent now and that's the way you've got to be. We're just clicking them off one at a time here. I don't think any of us would have predicted we would be in the top five in points."

At The Four-front: Past Champions Leading The Way In Points

Eight races into the season, things have gotten serious. The top four drivers in this week's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series standings are all former series champions -- and account for 10 championships between them.

Jeff Gordon (No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet), Jimmie Johnson (No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet), Kurt Busch (No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge) and Tony Stewart are the four at the front, separated by only 104 points. This has happened only two other times since the current point-earning system went into effect in 1975 and one of those times was earlier this season -- after Week 2.

The other occasion: 1986 after Week 10. The four back then: Dale Earnhardt, Darrell Waltrip, Bobby Allison and Terry Labonte.

Gordon is a four-time titlist (1995, '97-98, 2001), Johnson is a three-timer (2006-08), Busch has one title (2004) and Stewart is a two-time (2002 and '05) champ.

There At The Start: First Champion Car Owner Ray Parks Among 2009 IMHOF Inductees

The International Motorsports Hall of Fame's 2009 class will be inducted Thursday night in Talladega, a five-member lineup including the first champion owner in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, Raymond Parks.

Red Byron was Parks' driver back in 1949, in the Strictly Stock division -- the precursor to NASCAR Sprint Cup. Byron delivered he and Parks' titles by winning two of the inaugural season's six races and posting four top 10s overall. NASCAR President Mike Helton will introduce Parks during the induction ceremony.

Other 2009 inductees:

Jerry Cook, a current NASCAR Competition Administrator who also is one of NASCAR's 50 Greatest Drivers. Winning six NASCAR Modified championships gets you on such lists.

Donnie Allison, one of the original members of the famed "Alabama Gang." In 1970, he won the Coca-Cola 600 and was rookie of the year in the Indianapolis 500, finishing fourth.

Bud Moore, one of NASCAR's legendary team owners. Moore's drivers won 63 races and 43 poles -- including two championship seasons by Joe Weatherly in 1962-63.

From the open-wheel racing ranks, J.C. Agajanian, car owner and race promoter. As an owner, he twice won the Indianapolis 500.

Thursday night's ceremony will be held at the SPEED Channel Dome, adjacent to the International Motorsports Hall of Fame, at the entrance to Talladega Superspeedway. The event begins with a 5:30 reception. Individual tickets for the evening are $125 and a table of eight may be reserved for $1,000.

Tickets and tables are available by calling (256)362-5002 or going to www.racetickets.com.

Talladega 101: Historical Highlights Mark Track's 40th Year Of Operations

Bolstered by the immediate success of Daytona International Speedway and the Daytona 500, NASCAR founder Bill France Sr. took his ambitions to the next level when it came to building Talladega Superspeedway, which originally was known as Alabama International Speedway.

DIS opened in 1959, debuting with the 500 and immediately revolutionizing stock car racing. In 1969, Talladega opened. It was longer than Daytona (2.66 miles compared to 2.5), higher-banked (33 degrees in the turns compared to 31) and inevitably, it became renowned as being faster.

Talladega's layout was designed by Charles Moneypenny, the City of Daytona Beach, Fla. engineer who designed DIS.

Some highlights from Talladega history follow.

May 23, 1968: Construction begins on what would become known as Alabama International Motor Speedway.

Sept. 14, 1969: The track holds its first NASCAR Sprint Cup event, the Talladega 500, won by Richard Brickhouse.

March 24, 1970: Buddy Baker becomes the first driver to post a test-run speed in excess of 200 mph in a stock car. His Dodge Daytona ran a lap at 200.447.

May 16, 1971: Brothers Donnie and Bobby Allison, charter members of the "Alabama Gang," finish 1-2 in the Winston 500.

May 2, 1976: Buddy Baker takes a third consecutive Talladega win, a record that goes unbroken until 2003.

May 6, 1984: The Winston 500 features 75 lead changes -- still a record for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.

May 1, 1987: Bill Elliott sets a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series qualifying record at 212.809 mph. Due to the advent of carburetor restrictor plates at Talladega and Daytona, the record has never been broken.

May 10, 1997: Mark Martin's victory in the Winston Select 500 comes in a race without a single caution flag. Martin sets a track and series record for fastest race average speed -- 188.354 mph -- which still stands today.

Oct. 25, 2000: Dale Earnhardt wins the final race of his career, coming from 18th place in the final laps.

April 6, 2003: Dale Earnhardt Jr. wins his fourth consecutive race at Talladega, breaking Buddy Baker's record of three straight.

Sept. 19, 2006: The track's latest repaving project is completed, marking the fourth time the tri-oval has been repaved.

Oct. 5, 2008: The AMP Energy 500 has 28 different leaders -- a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race record.

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, Etc.

* When Jeff Gordon hit the NASCAR Sprint Cup scene in the mid-1990s, he immediately set his sights high, aiming directly at Dale Earnhardt's superiority. Gordon started winning championships. Earnhardt stopped. This of course endeared the younger driver to Earnhardt's many fans.

Adding fuel to that fire was Gordon's quick adaptation to the nuances and nervousness of restrictor-plate racing at Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway -- another area where Earnhardt had long ruled. In the year since Earnhardt's 2001 passing, Gordon has assumed the role as NASCAR Sprint Cup's top restrictor-plate racer, although he has had plenty of competition, starting with Dale Earnhardt Jr. (No. 88 National Guard/AMP Energy Chevrolet) and continuing with Tony Stewart, Kyle Busch (No. 18 Pedigree Toyota) and Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson.

Earnhardt, though, still sits atop the all-time leader board of combined Daytona/Talladega victories with 13; two of those came before the 1988 safety initiative of mandating the horsepower-reducing plates.

When talking strictly plate racing, Gordon sits at the head of that table with 12 victories, split evenly between Daytona and Talladega.

"I like to get to the front as fast as I can," said Gordon, regarding his restrictor-plate approach. "That way I can stay away from a lot of the jockeying for position. But even then you're not out of harm's way because you can get shuffled out of the draft quickly. If you get shuffled out, you can lose 10, 20 or 30 positions in the blink of an eye."

"I've had races at Talladega where my eyeballs hurt afterwards," added Gordon. "Your head hurts just because of the high level of concentration you must have for the entire race. Mentally, you have to prepare yourself for this race. And, during the race, you have to know when to be aggressive and when not to be aggressive."

* "We'll get them at Talladega," was Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s proclamation at Phoenix, where an encouraging run ended in a 31st-place finish.

Rest assured that "Junior Nation" was listening, and preparing for its twice-yearly coming-out party at Talladega. Nowhere is Earnhardt's massive popularity more evident.

In recent years, though, the pro-Earnhardt crowd has been frustrated.

Following a seven-race 'Dega run between 2001-04 when he finished first five times and second twice, Earnhardt's best result there has been seventh.

* This week, Regan Smith (No. 78 Furniture Row Chevrolet) returns to Talladega -- the scene of a race that last year was perhaps both the highlight AND the lowlight of his season.

Smith, the 2008 Raybestos Rookie of the Year, used an inside last-lap pass last October at 'Dega to challenge Tony Stewart at the finish line. After Stewart was declared the winner Regan still thought he might have won. That pass, though, was ruled illegal because Smith's car went below the yellow line. The infraction dropped him to 18th in the final results.

Smith comes back to Talladega driving for a team outside the top 35 in car owner points -- meaning Smith has no guaranteed berth in the Aaron's 499 and must qualify based on speed.

* Robby Gordon (No. 7 Robby Gordon Motorsports Toyota) has the 35th and final guaranteed berth this week. Gordon's self-owned team is only 26 points ahead of the No. 71 TRG Motorsports Chevrolet driven by David Gilliland.

Next up, 37th in points, is the No. 82 Red Bull Toyota team and driver Scott Speed.

* The NASCAR Foundation has announced that NASCAR Day will "Go Pink" through a joint partnership with FOX Sports Supports and Susan G. Komen for the Cure during the weekend at Talladega.

Through the partnership, a portion of net proceeds raised through the program will benefit Komen for the Cure, supporting its promise to save lives and end breast cancer forever. Susan G. Komen for the Cure founder Ambassador Nancy G. Brinker will attend the Aaron's 499 and serve as an "Honorary Race Director" on April 26.

In 2009, FOX Sports has aligned with Komen for the Cure through the FOX Sports Supports program as one of their benefiting organizations. NASCAR on FOX personalities will don their pink apparel and show their support by wearing their NASCAR Day pins throughout the race weekend. FOX Sports launched FOX Sports Supports last year to raise awareness, provide financial assistance and spur volunteerism for worthy health-related charities.

Volunteers from Komen's North Central Alabama Affiliate will be at the track Friday through Sunday collecting $5 donations. In return for the donation, fans will receive a collectible NASCAR Day lapel pin. The NASCAR Foundation will also have commemorative NASCAR Day pink T-shirts available for a limited time at the NASCAR.COM Superstore and at The NASCAR Foundation booth at Talladega Superspeedway. The T-shirts are available now online, and fans are encouraged to wear them to the track on race weekend. Half of the net proceeds from these efforts will benefit the Susan G. Komen Scholarship Fund. For more information visit WWW.NASCAR.COM/NASCARDay.

* NASCAR President Mike Helton is scheduled to sign autographs for fans at the Official NASCAR Trackside Merchandise Trailer at Talladega Superspeedway's midway on Saturday from 1-1:30 p.m. (CT/local) Tickets will be available Saturday when gates open at approximately 6 a.m.

Roush Role Reversal: Ragan, McMurray Tops At Talladega

Talladega Superspeedway is known for its unpredictability. Nowhere is that more evident than among the Roush Fenway Racing stable of drivers.

The three Roush Fenway Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup mainstays are Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth. Their teammates -- David Ragan and Jamie McMurray -- have yet to earn a Chase berth.

Yet, roles are reversed at Talladega. Statistically, Ragan and McMurray rank well above their more prolific teammates in practically every key Loop Data statistical category.

Ragan, who posted two top-five finishes at Talladega last season, has a Driver Rating of 91.4 (fourth-best), an Average Running Position of 17.0 (11th) and a Laps in the Top 15 percentage of 54.1% (11th).

McMurray, who has three top-five finishes in the past eight races, has a Driver Rating of 87.6 (sixth), an Average Running Position of 16.2 (seventh) and a Laps in the Top 15 of 56.7% (ninth).

Then there's the uncharacteristically average stats belonging to Edwards, Biffle and Kenseth -- all of whom were involved in the same accident the last time the series visited Talladega.

Kenseth's numbers are the best of the three. Finishing outside the top 25 in each of the last three races, he has a Driver Rating of 84.3 and an Average Running Position of 16.2.

Edwards and Biffle consistently struggle at Talladega. In fact, it is Edwards' worst track in terms of Driver Rating and Biffle's second worst (second only to Watkins Glen).

At Talladega, Edwards has a Driver Rating of 68.6, an Average Running Position of 24.2 and a Laps in the Top 15 percentage of 35.6%.

Biffle has a Driver Rating of 66.7, an Average Running Position of 24.1 and a Laps in the Top 15 percentage of 27.0%.

Roush Fenway has three drivers in the top 10 in Driver Rating. Only one other team has three -- Hendrick Motorsports. Jeff Gordon (third with 92.3), Dale Earnhardt Jr. (seventh with 86.8) and Jimmie Johnson (10th with 83.9) are in the top 10 of Talladega Driver Rating. The third member of Hendrick -- Mark Martin -- has a surprisingly low Talladega Driver Rating of 60.4, which is 40th-best.

Up Next: 'The Perfect Track' -- AKA, Richmond International Raceway

Richmond International Raceway has come to be considered one of NASCAR's true showcase facilities, largely because of its three-quarter-mile oval that is considered "just right" in competitive parlance.

Especially interesting is how the RIR race track reached this preferred status. Talk about a roundabout route.

The track started out as a half-mile dirt track and stayed that way from 1953 until the second RIR race of 1968 when it was transformed into a .625-mile of asphalt.

At the start of the 1968 season the oval was re-measured, to a .5625-mile.

For the second '69 NASCAR Sprint Cup event, another re-measurement returned the distance to a half-mile.

At the start of the 1970 season, re-measurement upped the distance to .542.

In time for the track's second 1988 race, an actual reconfiguration lengthened the oval to its current three-quarters mile.

The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series returns to Richmond on Saturday night, May 2 for the most uniquely named event in all of racing -- the Crown Royal Presents the Russ Friedman 400. Friedman won a promotional contest, and the right to have his name attached to the race title.

Friedman, from Huntington Station, N.Y., and was chosen from a group of seven finalists from around the country based on a submission that detailed his experience serving in Iraq.

Throughout the contest, finalists submitted online or video entries describing an honorable act or achievement. Nearly 5,000 entries were received, detailing a myriad of achievements from the heroics of firefighters to dedicated fathers going the extra mile.

Friedman has his name associated with an event sure to spark interest. Richmond's 2008 spring race is where Dale Earnhardt Jr. got his last victory (prior to Talladega this week).

There's also the annual aside that Richmond's spring race affords some drivers a chance to "warm up" for the series' return visit on Sept. 12. That will be the final race and the start of NASCAR's "playoffs" -- the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. The top 12 drivers in the series standings after that event will qualify for the Chase, which is contested over the season's last 10 races.

Fast Facts

The Race: Aaron's 499
The Date: Sunday, April 26

The Track: Talladega Superspeedway (2.66-mile tri-oval)
The Time: 2 p.m. ET

The Distance: 500 miles/188 laps

TV: FOX , 1 p.m. ET
Radio: MRN and Sirius Satellite (local station WTDR-FM 92.7)

2008 Polesitter: Joe Nemechek
2008 Winner: Kyle Busch

Friday -- Practice, 1-2 p.m. and 2:30-3:30 p.m.
Saturday -- Qualifying, 10:15 a.m. (All times CT/local.)

-credit: nascar

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About this article
Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Dale Earnhardt , Dale Earnhardt Jr. , Bill Elliott , Jeff Gordon , Darrell Waltrip , Matt Kenseth , Terry Labonte , Tony Stewart , Joe Nemechek , Greg Biffle , Robby Gordon , Kurt Busch , Jimmie Johnson , Jamie McMurray , Scott Speed , Regan Smith , Bobby Allison , Donnie Allison , David Gilliland , Mike Helton , David Ragan , Buddy Baker , Kyle Busch , Mark Martin , Alan Kulwicki
Teams Stewart-Haas Racing , Hendrick Motorsports , Roush Fenway Racing , TRG Motorsports , Robby Gordon Motorsports