Biggest NASCAR Storylines to Watch Ahead of Sprint Cup Series at Talladega

Bob MargolisContributor IIApril 28, 2014

Biggest NASCAR Storylines to Watch Ahead of Sprint Cup Series at Talladega

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    Jay Sailors

    Twice a year, Talladega Superspeedway hosts the most entertaining Sprint Cup racing of the season—restrictor plate racing. The fans love it. 

    It gives drivers a headache.

    At 2.66 miles in length and with track banking at 33 degrees, the cars are very, very fast here. Speeds in excess of 200 mph will be common as cars travel in packs, often three- and even four-wide all within inches of each other.

    To do well here you need to do two things: Stay focused for three hours, which is usually the reason for the headache...

    ...and stay out of trouble.

    The second part is the hardest, because more often than not, here at Talladega Superspeedway, trouble finds you.

    What makes Talladega and restrictor plate racing so great is that it’s completely unpredictable. Often, the best car does not win. And the winner, more often than not, turns out to be the driver who is good at chess and is in the right place (and here’s the real secret) at the right time.

    Case in point: David Ragan is the defending race winner of the Aaron's 499.

    *All quotes in this slideshow are taken from official team and manufacturer media releases unless otherwise stated.

The Best Medicine for Winless Drivers

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    Jeff Curry/Getty Images

    Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Matt Kenseth. 

    All are restrictor plate monsters.

    Stewart and Kenseth (one win), Johnson (one) and Gordon (six) have all won at Talladega. 

    If you were a winless driver with a great record in restrictor plate racing and you were looking for a win, this track would be the place to end your winless streak. 

    Of course, there are 39 other drivers who will have something to say about it. All four drivers listed at the top of this page are favorites to win, without even turning a wheel in practice.

    One of them could be standing in victory lane on Sunday afternoon.

Team Penske Having an Outstanding Season

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    Joey Logano (l) and Brad Keselowski
    Joey Logano (l) and Brad KeselowskiRalph Lauer

    The knock on Team Penske has been that its NASCAR teams weren't as good as its IndyCar teams.

    For years, that may very well have been true.

    Not any longer.

    Nine races into the 2014 Sprint Cup season, and these two Cup teams have made a serious statement.

    Joey Logano: Two wins (Texas and Richmond), one pole (Las Vegas) and five top-fives

    Brad Keselowski:  One win (Las Vegas), one pole (Phoenix) and four top-fives.

    These are the kinds of stats we’re not used to seeing from Team Penske's NASCAR teams.

    In a post-race press conference following his team’s win at Richmond, Logano’s crew chief Todd Gordon said:

    I think this whole race team, not just the 22 Shell Pennzoil team but Team Penske, we're focused on what we need to be successful, and that's the chemistry not only between Joey and myself but between Joey and Brad and Paul and myself continue to grow, and I think as we've gotten more successful it's allowed all of our organization to have more confidence in the notebooks of each other and how we build off of each other, and that's the piece that I think it allows us to continue to build and push each other.  

    He said a mouthful, but in all that is the key to this organization’s success.

Dark-Horse Brigade

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    Ryan Newman
    Ryan NewmanJerry Markland/Getty Images

    Martin Truex Jr., A.J.  Allmendinger, Ryan Newman (pictured) and Brian Vickers all had a good night at Richmond last Saturday.

    All but Vickers finished in the top 10 (Vickers was 12th). And all come into Talladega with the kind of momentum that can keep a struggling race team pointed in the right direction.

    Truex Jr. has had a tough time of it since day one of the 2014 season trying to get himself synced up with crew chief Todd Berrier, who last year placed his team and driver Kurt Busch in the Chase.

    Allmendinger has needed some time to adjust to his new team, which not only switched drivers in 2014, but also switched manufacturers and started a new alliance with Richard Childress Racing. No longer considered an open-wheel ace who switched to stock cars, this California native is good in both racing disciplines but chooses to make his living in stock cars—for the time being.

    Newman took over the No. 31 ride from veteran Jeff Burton and almost immediately breathed life into a program that had been stagnant for the past several seasons. Newman’s four top-10s this season have been like wins to a team that knows that there’s a real win in its future with Newman behind the wheel.

    Vickers has three top-10s this season, but also three races where he’s finished 26th or worse. Talladega is where Vickers scored his first Cup win (2006), although Dale Jr. fans still insist that Vickers won because he wrecked Junior in the closing laps of the race. The Thomasville, North Carolina native knows how (and when) to get to the front—and stay there—in a restrictor plate race.

    All four are drivers with programs pointed in the right direction.

A Real Knockout

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    Marcos Ambrose
    Marcos AmbroseUSA TODAY Sports

    Joey Logano’s win last Saturday night was unfortunately overshadowed by a post-race fight in the garage between Richard Petty Motorsports driver Marcos Ambrose (pictured) and Germain Racing's Casey Mears. 

    Television cameras caught the two arguing after they brought their busted-up race cars into the infield at Richmond International Raceway. Their argument got visibly heated, and Mears shoved Ambrose. The Australian immediately let loose with a right hand to Mears’ left eye. Ambrose was then hit by another individual.

    After the incident, both drivers immediately left the track, and neither had a comment for the media.

    The next day, Mears was in good spirits, sporting heavy sunglasses as he attended a charity event which covered an obviously bruised left eye. He told NASCAR.com that, “He (Ambrose) got me pretty good with that shot.” 

    NASCAR is expected to review the incident, and if there are penalties to be assessed they will be handed down later this week. 

    More than likely the footage will end up being used for future television commercials promoting NASCAR.

    It may have been the best post-race fight since the Donnie Allison and Cale Yarborough dust-up after the 1979 Daytona 500. It made for some intriguing live television.

    Have at it boys, indeed!

Instant Karma

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    Rainier Ehrhardt/Getty Images

    "Instant Karma’s gonna get you/Gonna knock you right on the head."

    Clint Bowyer had a bit of racing karma to work out last weekend at Richmond.

    Now it’s time to get down to business for this potential Chase team. 

    Surely this isn’t the kind of season they were planning on having when they were telling sponsor 5-Hour Energy not to bolt after last season’s huge mistake.

    A two-time winner at Talladega (2010-11) with Richard Childress Racing, this place could be magic for Bowyer’s Michael Waltrip Racing team.

     

Distractions Abound

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    Michael Conroy

    Kurt Busch’s dream to race 1,100 miles in one day is here.

    Right now.

    The Outlaw is set to do “The Double.”

    With Busch expected to participate in rookie refresher practice taking place at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway beginning on Tuesday, April 29, the distraction of something for either the Indy 500 or the Coca-Cola 600 (depending on which day of the week it is) is also here. 

    There’s no question that Busch can do this. He is a talented driver with plenty of motivation.

    There's a lot of racing going on between now and Memorial Day weekend, including this coming weekend's mind-numbing event at Talladega, followed by Kansas and then a bit of cotton candy called the All-Star event.

    Will Busch keep himself focused for the next four weeks?

     

Hamlin's Predicament

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    Drew Hallowell/Getty Images

    Maybe this nifty new Sport Clips haircut will turn Denny Hamlin’s season around.

    The FedEx team was the hottest thing going at Daytona, until it counted. Then, they fell flat on their respective faces, save for a runner-up finish in the Daytona 500. Then…

    Only two top-10s so far this season. 

    Granted, the Joe Gibbs Racing cars in general haven’t been the class of the field, but Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth are muscling them to top-10 finishes.

    This is not the season that was expected of Hamlin’s Darian Grubb-led team. Hamlin sits 15th in points, and a few good finishes could put him in the top 10. 

    But that all-important win seems more elusive every weekend.

Qualifying High Drama

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    Talladega Superspeedway April 2013
    Talladega Superspeedway April 2013Jay Sailors

    NASCAR's knockout qualifying gets its first real test of the season on Saturday afternoon, when the first session of qualifying for the Aaron's 499 begins at 1:00 p.m. ET.

    It should be amazing to watch.

    Single car qualifying on the big tracks like Talladega and Daytona was the worst show in all of motorsports, often taking hours to complete. The new qualifying rules will make for an entertaining show for the fans as drivers will be qualifying in conditions only seen during the actual race.

    Former Talladega race winner Brian Vickers:

    "I have no idea what to expect. It’s going to be a lot of fun and it’s going to be way more entertaining. Nothing was more painful than the old way of qualifying at a superspeedway. I’m looking forward to Saturday and who knows how it is going to come out. I think the speed of the car and engine will matter less and chance will matter more."

    Unpredictable and dramatic. What else makes a better show for the fans? 

Goodyear in the Crosshairs Again This Weekend

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    Ralph Lauer

    Goodyear continues to be at the center of a tempest.

    The exclusive tire supplier for NASCAR’s top three national series has run three at-track tests already, with many more on the books.

    The testing season started with a two-day session at Sonoma Raceway on March 25-26. The goal was to improve overall grip for cars on the 1.99-mile, 10-turn road course.

    Two weeks later, on April 8-9, Goodyear tackled Michigan International Speedway in an effort to monitor the track surface since its repave in 2012 and evaluate the impact of the 2014 rules package on performance at the ultra-fast, two-mile track. Speeds at the test session, according to reports on NASCAR.com, were unofficially clocked at well over 200 mph.

    Just last week (April 15), Goodyear visited another recent repave in Kansas Speedway. The initial focus of this test was to refine the multi-zone tread right-side tire raced at Kansas last October. With sustained testing speeds at the existing track record, heat and wear rates were up, necessitating a change in direction.

    The first three tire tests of the year have been fruitful. Goodyear will follow up with sessions at Dover International Speedway (May 6-7), Kentucky Speedway (May 20-21), Chicagoland Speedway (June 10-11) and Indianapolis (June 15-16) in the coming weeks as it continues to fill in its 2014 tire lineup.

    The problem Goodyear faces is that the new Gen 6 car is faster and aerodynamically produces more downforce, especially in the corners. This creates a much higher level of stress on the tires. Goodyear engineers have come up with the “multi-zone” tires as a solution to the issue, but as was seen last weekend at even the slower speeds of Richmond, those tires, which were designed for durability, lasted far shorter than expected.

    With speeds this weekend expected to be back above 200 mph, what can we expect from the tires? Hopefully good and even tread wear and few, if any, failures. Despite having to run inner liners at Talladega, a tire failure at 200-plus mph could be catastrophic.

Rookie Report

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    Steve Helber

    Nine races into the season, and the Sunoco Rookie of the Year race has drawn a focus on two drivers—Austin Dillon and Kyle Larson (shown above).

    Larson’s first-lap takedown by Clint Bowyer, despite Bowyer's "apology," was a below-the-belt punch against Larson. Bowyer would never have tried the kind of cheap shot he pulled on Larson against another of his “buddies.” Instead, he made a move that he knew would almost guarantee he was going to spin the rookie out—and out of contention for the rest of the night.

    Was Bowyer afraid that the Chip Ganassi rookie would upstage him? Or was it just a case of Bowyer’s karma, as mentioned earlier?

    Larson maintained his composure and finished 16th. He moved up to 13th in points.

    Dillon had a “character building” kind of a race, struggling with a race car that never let him get comfortable, nor had the kind of speed needed to be competitive.

    Dillon started 27th and finished 27th. His performance lost him two spots in driver points, and he fell to 12th.

    His record on restrictor plate tracks is very good (he sat on the pole at Daytona this year), and the No. 3 car could be a factor in Sunday’s Aaron’s 499, as it should be—if you’re a fan of the late Dale Earnhardt.

    As for the rest of the rookie class, Justin Allgaier is 28th, Michael Annett is 33rd, Alex Bowman 34th, Cole Whitt 35th and Ryan Truex 38th. Parker Kligerman’s Cup career is temporarily on hold.