Dropping the Hammer: A Preview of the Aaron's 499 at Talladega

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Dropping the Hammer: A Preview of the Aaron's 499 at Talladega
(Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)

Which track on the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series offers high speed and close quarter racing that pits 43 of the best stock car drivers within mere inches of each other?

That racing facility is the 2.66-mile tri-oval beast called Talladega Superspeedway, which is located in the confines of Talladega, AL.

From the steep 33 degree banking along the corners, to the wide chutes offering plentiful passing opportunities, as well as tempting chances to create a massive pile-up, Talladega will be the biggest wild card for the Chase contenders thus far in 2009.

Unlike its counterpart in Daytona Beach, Talladega's most unique, and quite frankly, most drawn-out, aspect is the location of the start/finish line.

Whereas the majority of the ovals of the circuit have the stripe in the middle point of the front straights, Talladega's start/finish line is located just after the tri-oval, within a few seconds of Turn One.

What does this mean for the competitors and crews who'll bravely compete in this Sunday's Aaron's 499?

Generally, this translates into drivers who may be willing to make more daring moves for the lead. All race long, you may see the drivers opting to build momentum in the third and fourth corners to draft right by the slower lane of the track.

Most importantly, this places much importance on the need to find a drafting partner.

With the restrictor plates in use at Daytona and Talladega, competitors must cooperate with each other if they want to stay in contention for the win and advance positions in efforts to avoid being swept up in the "Big One."

As I mentioned in my October preview of the 'Dega race, drivers may opt for two strategies throughout the course of the event:

 

Strategy No. 1

Stay up front. It's easier said than done, but if you have a car that is capable of leading the pack, or at least drafts well amongst the leaders, the odds of avoiding the conceivable multi-car accident increases, or so says the logistics of racing.

Generally, the "Young Guns" will elect to go with this plan, feeling that they are immune to being swept up in someone else's mistake.

However, the pitfall of staying up front is the probability of being around a driver who grows impatient with following the leader. It's human nature to want to lead the field or win the race when the lap count says 60 of 188 completed.

Some of the recent "Big Ones" have been caused by impatience and lack of discipline.

This will be a recurring theme on Sunday, as fans will hear words like "bumpdrafiting" or "dance partner" as many times as Darrell Waltrip will allude to Jeff Gordon's No. 24 car resembling his 1983 Pepsi Challenger ride (more on that later).

 

Strategy No. 2

Drop to the back of the field. This strategy may be employed by drivers who start behind the curve on race day, or find that they have a car that's already fast, opting to "sandbag" and bluff their competitors.

Said technique worked for Gordon in October of 2007, when he drove his Pepsi/DuPont Chevrolet from the gutter to the roof.

Drafting in the back of the pack for most of the race, the Hendrick Motorsports driver overcame a pit road infraction in the waning moments of the 500-miler and into the lead with just half a lap remaining.

Ultimately winning the event, Gordon's strategy showed that starting position may not be of any significance; so long as you play your cards right with a great car in race conditions, find the right drafting alliances, and of course, avoid the accidents that are sure to happen at Talladega.

Of course, there are some cons to this racing tactic. There is always the chance that the race may go caution free, which means that intently falling back to draft with the tail-end of the field translates into lost time and speed to the lead pack.

Additionally, going to the rear of the race field increases your chances of having to maneuver through the "Big One."

Ask Rusty Wallace about the April '98 race at Talladega when he had to play chicken in zero-visibility down the last third of the frontstretch.

With damaged cars literally all over the straight, Wallace just barely survived the junkyard, slightly making contact with the wounded No. 21 Citgo Ford of Michael Waltrip.

The end result?

Wallace went from a mid-20 position on the track to a top 15 finish that helped him retain his early-season points lead in 1998.

 

The Contenders

While it may be simple to exclusively go with the Hendrick Motorsports camp or anyone in the Chevrolet roster, Talladega has lent some surprises to fans and competitors over its 40-year history.

We may yet see the likes of a Jimmy Spencer winning at the 2.66-mile monster of a track, who surprised the Alabama attendees in July of '94 over pre-race favorites like Dale Earnhardt, Ernie Irvan, and Sterling Marlin.

Of the Chevrolet drivers who may look to upstage the show of Gordon and Dale Earnhardt, Jr., include Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman, who look to show their new manufacturer partners why Stewart-Haas Racing will be a dominant force to be reckoned with for years to come.

Stewart, who has been a "relative surprise" with his No. 14 Old Spice/Office Depot team, captured his elusive first victory at Talladega last fall in a finish that left many racing fans talking for weeks.

"Smoke" might be licking his chops to win for the second time at the famed speedway, albeit without the spectacle that followed him and Regan Smith following the Amp Energy 500.

Meanwhile, Newman looks to repeat his Daytona heroics of a year ago in this Sunday's race—this time as the driver of the No. 39 Army/Haas Automotive entry.

Rebounding from a slow start earlier in the season, the "Rocket Ryan" may be ready to capitalize on more points as well as a Chase seed amongst the top 12 contenders.

Then there's the Richard Childress Racing quartet of Kevin Harvick, Jeff Burton, Clint Bowyer, and Casey Mears, who are all quite the plate racers in their own ways.

Burton and Harvick are past plate race winners, as both drivers have won on the hallowed grounds of Daytona in 2000 and '07 respectively.

Bowyer, who Lewis Franck of ESPN calls "the most underrated driver in the Cup Series," has been the other surprise amongst the top drivers in 2009. Preseason prognosticators all but counted out the Emporia, KS native after being "sent" to the all-new No. 33 Cheerios team.

Instead, the two-time Chase seed entrant has continued to impress fans with his low-key, super-stardom racing abilities.

The two-time race winner may serve as a "wild card" pick to fantasy race owners who may want to reserve their "A-game " drivers for later events in the season.

Toyota cannot be forgotten about either at this racing facility.

Boasting a season sweep last year by the efforts of Joe Gibbs Racing, the teams of Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, and Joey Logano look to repeat the team's success this season.

Busch captured the Aaron's 499 last April, leading for 12 circuits in a race that was dominated by now-former wing man Stewart.

Shrub may look to duplicate those efforts in 2009 after having a late race collapse in Phoenix last weekend, namely because of a pit road speeding violation that took him from contention and into the last car on the lead lap in 17th spot.

Although Red Bull Racing has run into a bit of a rut in recent races, Brian Vickers has given the middling organization some smiles and hope in a season that has gone awry with the Scott Speed efforts.

Vickers, who previously won at Talladega during his finest moment at HMS in October of '06, is probably Toyota's second-best shot at a victory amongst the myriad of Chevrolet contingencies ready to capitalize on Sunday.

 

What To Watch

Keep an eye on the temporary alliances that will be created and terminated throughout the race. A Ford driver who pairs up well with another Blue Oval pilot may work for some time, but may defect to draft with a Dodge leadfooter or even the Toyota teams.

As the race winds closer to its conclusion, those partnerships will dissolve and the inches of real estate on the track will decrease in a who-blinks-first margin of error.

Impatience and poor judgment of space between the driver wanting to pull out to pass and a driver staying in the drafting line will hugely impact not only whether or not the severe storm happens, but rather how many get collected in someone else's miscalculation.

Lastly, watch how the competitors enter and exit pit road on Sunday.

It may not be as exciting as the action on the track, but recall, in last year's Nationwide race at Dega, NASCAR veteran Kevin Lepage foolishly pulled out from the apron of the track and onto the racing surface.

Lepage's foolish maneuver resulted in a devastating, grinding multi-car crash that took out contenders like Carl Edwards, Reed Sorenson, and Stephen Wallace.

NASCAR strictly enforces its rule for the drivers to stay on the racing apron surface from the exit of pit road into the transition between Turn Two and the backstretch.

Who will win all and take the honors at Talladega on Sunday?

Will Gordon, driving the No. 24 Pepsi Challenger/DuPont Chevy, take a "bite" into Victory Lane like the legendary Darrell Waltrip?

With a victory on Sunday, Gordon, gunning for his seventh victory at the track, would be one win behind Waltrip on the all-time career winner's list.

Watch this and other developing storylines at the Talladega Superspeedway, this Sunday, 2 PM/ET on FOX!

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