The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series' new playoff system has made for a wild and unpredictable start to the season. All signs point to that continuing on Sunday in the Aaron's 499 at Talladega Superspeedway.
It often feels like anything can happen on superspeedways in this age of racing, and that has been proven true at Talladega in recent years. Seemingly no track on the circuit has produced more surprise winners, which means that the landscape of the Chase for the Sprint Cup could potentially change in a significant way this weekend.
Here is all the information you need to know regarding how and when to watch the Aaron's 499 along with predictions for which drivers will contend for the victory.
Where: Talladega Superspeedway in Talladega, Ala.
When: Sunday, May 4 at 1 p.m. ET
Live Steam: Fox Sports Go
Radio: Motor Racing Network
Qualifying for the Aaron's 499 at Talladega Superspeedway will take place on Saturday, May 3 at 1:10 p.m. ET on Fox, according to NASCAR.com. Here is a look at the order in which the drivers will take the track during qualifying.
|Aaron's 499 Qualifying List|
|No. on Track||Car No.||Driver|
|2||88||Dale Earnhardt Jr.|
|16||78||Martin Truex Jr.|
|37||17||Ricky Stenhouse Jr.|
Drivers to Watch
With a win to his credit and a comfortable fifth-place spot in the standings, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is sitting pretty in terms of qualifying for the Chase. Earnhardt is fully aware that a second win would stamp his ticket and remove all pressure until the final 10 races, though, so expect him to do everything possible to take the checkered flag.
Talladega may represent Earnhardt's best chance for a second victory as he is second among active drivers with five career wins at Talladega. He is also tops in terms of average finish for drivers with at least 20 starts on the superspeedway with a mark of 14.6, according to Racing-Reference.info.
Earnhardt hasn't won a race at Talladega since 2004, but he is racing better now than he has in an extremely long time. Earnhardt also has to be feeling some good vibes after striking a three-year sponsorship deal with Nationwide, per Bob Pockrass of Sporting News.
There is no question that Earnhardt has had his struggles in recent years, however, he finally seems to be developing into an elite driver. A points title is the next logical step in his career, and winning at Talladega will bring him one step closer to that accomplishment.
Jeff Gordon is unquestionably one of the greatest drivers in the history of NASCAR, and he has enjoyed a resurgent 2014 season that sees him atop the points standings. Gordon and the No. 24 car have been absolutely spectacular this year with seven top-10 finishes in nine races. The only downside, though, is the fact that Gordon hasn't yet visited victory lane.
Gordon has essentially done everything but win a race this year. As good as he has been, there has to be some concern within his team due to the importance of winning. Nobody would blame Gordon if frustration started to set in, but he is confident that a win is on the horizon if he continues to run up front, according to Zack Albert of NASCAR.com:
I mean, as good as we're running, I definitely feel like we can win races just about anywhere that we go, and if we continue to perform like this, we are going to win. That's how you win. I mean, yeah, there's sometimes when you just pick the right pit strategy. There's other times you get a good restart, and then there's times when you just go and outrun them. I'll take outrunning them more times than any because I think that's when the multiple wins are going to come.
Gordon's track record at Talladega suggests that his first win of the season could come Sunday. Gordon has six career victories at Talladega, and no regular driver has more experience there than he does. A breakthrough seems inevitable, and it may very well happen this week.
It has been an all-or-nothing season for Brad Keselowski thus far, and there is no doubt that he wants it all at Talladega. The former Sprint Cup champion is in good shape with a win in his back pocket, and his seventh-place overall standing is solid as well. Keselowski has only finished in the top 10 in four of his nine races, though, so he has a penchant for getting lost in the shuffle.
Predicting what will happen at Talladega is an exercise in futility since one big crash can take out half the field. Staying out of trouble is one of the biggest keys to success on superspeedways, which isn't necessarily always one of Keselowski's strong suits.
He will need to be good in that regard Sunday afternoon, though, since he didn't exactly set the world on fire in practice. According to Team Penske on Twitter, Keselowski was a pedestrian 19th during preparation for the Aaron's 499:
There are plenty of equalizers at Talladega, however, so Keselowski will be in the mix as long as he remains on the track and the lead lap. With two wins and six top-10 finishes in 10 tries at Talladega, Keselowski has proven that he knows how to conquer one of NASCAR's toughest tracks.
While past performance and experience at Talladega matter to some degree, there is a certain aspect of randomness involved as well.
That was quite clear last year when David Ragan and Jamie McMurray were the winners in the spring and fall races respectively. Anything can happen in the closing laps, so the goal for most drivers is to simply be in the running late.
Middling drivers often take chances and go for the win at Talladega, but that sentiment will be even greater this year since a single victory can potentially propel an underdog into the Chase.
Among the under-the-radar drivers worth watching are Ragan, David Gilliland and Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Ragan has a win and seven top-10 finishes in 14 tries at Talladega. He is 31st in the standings with a low-level team in the form of Front Row Motorsports, but he knows how to perform well at Talladega, and he was third-fastest in practice.
Gilliland is in the same boat as Ragan. They are Front Row teammates, and neither of them have anything to lose. Gilliland has twice finished in the top five at Talladega, and it will be interesting to see if he and Ragan have a chance to work together in the latter stages.
As for Stenhouse, his sample size is small with just two Sprint Cup starts at Talladega, but his average finish of eighth is intriguing. He has a couple of excellent teammates in tow, and he could be the beneficiary of some teamwork down the stretch.
Another name to keep in mind is Brian Vickers. He has been surprisingly good this season as he sits 10th in the standings, but he really needs a win to solidify his Chase spot. He has won at Talladega before, and he has finished in the top 10 in nearly half of his starts there.
There is little doubt that the Aaron's 499 will provide one of the most exciting finishes of the year, and luck will finally be on Gordon's side as he turns his great racing into his first victory of the season.
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