What To Watch For: Aarons 499

Ben BombergerSenior Writer IApril 22, 2009

TALLADEGA, AL - OCTOBER 05:  Kevin Harvick, driver of the #29 Shell/Pennzoil Chevrolet, leads a group of cars during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Amp Energy 500 at Talladega Superspeedway on October 5, 2008 in Talladega, AL.  (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

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, also happens to be the place where Stewart’s last previous NASCAR Sprint Cup win occurred. Last October, Stewart 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 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 Two.

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.

April 30, 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.


Restrictor-Plate Wins: All-Time

Driver                    Wins 1st Win
Jeff Gordon               12     1994
Dale Earnhardt          11     1990
Dale Earnhardt Jr.       7      2001
Dale Jarrett                 6     1993
Sterling Marlin             5     1994

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 percent (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 percent (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 percent.

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 percent.

Roush Fenway has three drivers in the top 10 in Driver Rating. Only one other team has three—Hendrick Motorsports. Gordon (third with 92.3), Earnhardt Jr. (seventh with 86.8), and 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 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 PM/ET

The Distance: 500 miles/188 laps


Radio: MRN and Sirius Satellite (local station WTDR-FM 92.7)

2008 Polesitter: Joe Nemechek

2008 Winner: Kyle Busch

Schedule: Friday—Practice, 1-2 PM and 2:30-3:30 PM. Saturday—Qualifying, 10:15 AM (All times CT/local.)


2009 Top 12

    Driver                 Points
 1 Jeff Gordon           1,242
 2 Jimmie Johnson    1,157
 3 Kurt Busch           1,144
 4 Tony Stewart        1,138
 5 Denny Hamlin       1,088
 6 Clint Bowyer         1,052
 7 Kyle Busch           1,026
 8 Carl Edwards         1,023
 9 David Reutimann       992
10 Kasey Kahne           975
11 Jeff Burton               953
12 Matt Kenseth           946