Which team is the best at Talladega Superspeedway? Which drivers on each team will have the best finishes on Sunday? Which cars are most likely to end up as scrap metal?
Predicting what will happen at one of the craziest races of the year is next to impossible, but here are my rankings of each team and best attempts at previewing what to expect in the Aaron's 499 on Sunday.
The drivers at Hendrick have unquestionably had more success at Talladega Superspeedway than the drivers on any other team.
Jeff Gordon has seven career wins, Dale Jr. has five (including four in a row in 2001-2003), Mark Martin has two, and Jimmie Johnson has one. However, none has won at the track since Gordon swept the races in 2007.
Best Finish: Dale Earnhardt Jr. He is due for a win and has been showing more speed and confidence in the last several weeks than he has in a long time. With his winless streak standing at an even 100 races, Talladega is the perfect place for him to break through for a victory, or at least solidify his position in the standings with a top-five finish.
Who will win Sunday's race?
Worst Finish: Mark Martin. He finished fifth and 11th at Talladega last season, but he has three finishes of 28th or worse in his last six races at the track. Martin is known to dislike restrictor plate racing, and don't be surprised if his day ends early.
RCR drivers won both Talladega races last fall, with Kevin Harvick taking the spring event and Clint Bowyer edging Harvick to take the checkered flag in the fall.
Either of those drivers is fully capable of winning a second career race at the track, but I'm going with a driver who has posted career-high finishes at every track but one so far this season.
Best Finish: Paul Menard. He finished a career-high second at Talladega to Tony Stewart in the fall 2008 race, and he has been consistently strong at restrictor plate tracks throughout his career. Menard ran well in the Daytona 500 and if he can avoid trouble, he'll be in the mix for the win at the end of the race.
Worst Finish: Jeff Burton. Burton has endured misfortune after misfortune in the 2011 season. Talladega is an unlikely place for his troubles to come to an end. Burton finished 32nd and 41st here last season, and has five finishes of 27th or worse in the last nine Talladega events.
JGR drivers hope the team's engineers have correctly diagnosed and solved the problems that led to a host of engine problems earlier this year and that their engines will last the entire race. If so, they should be running up front all race long.
Kyle Busch has one Talladega victory, and he and Denny Hamlin often hook up as drafting partners at plate tracks. However, neither is consistent at Talladega; Busch has just two top-10s at the track, while Hamlin has only four.
Best Finish: Joey Logano. He has three top-10s in four career Talladega starts. He's the most likely of the Gibbs bunch to stay out of trouble.
Worst Finish: Denny Hamlin. This one is a toss-up between Hamlin and Busch, who are each prone to poor finishes at plate tracks, but I'll give the nod to Hamlin for two reasons.
First, Busch is more likely to pull off a win (he has four top-2s at restrictor plate tracks, while Hamlin has none).
Second, Hamlin has been struggling mightily all season and the frustration is beginning to show in his communications with his team and crew chief Mike Ford. That is never a good thing when racing door-to-door and bumper-to-bumper for four hours.
Which driver has the best chance to get a second career victory on Sunday?
4. Earnhardt Ganassi Racing
Back when EGR was Dale Earnhardt Inc., fans could count on seeing the DEI cars running up front and winning races, as often as not. Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Michael Waltrip won races at both Talladega and Daytona from 2001 to 2004.
These days, Jamie McMurray and Juan Pablo Montoya are solid at the plate tracks, but neither has won at Talladega with EGR. (McMurray won there in the fall of 2009, but was with Roush at the time.)
Best Finish: Montoya. I'm going with the drivers' overall records here. Montoya has an excellent average finish of 14.75 in his eight races at Talladega. He finished third in both 2010 races and sat on the pole last fall, and finished second in the spring 2008 race.
Worst Finish: McMurray has a win and a runner-up in the last three Talladega events, but his average finish is a mere 19.2. With just six top-10s in 17 races, the odds are in favor of Montoya having a better finish.
5. Penske Racing
Kurt Busch is possibly the best restrictor plate driver never to have won a race at Talladega or Daytona. Brad Keselowski, on the other hand, gained his only Sprint Cup win in this race two years ago, although he wasn't driving for Penske at the time.
Best Finish: Kurt Busch has six top-10s in his last ten trips to Talladega, and with his experience, he's as good a bet as anyone on the track to be in the mix at the end of the race. Finding a good drafting partner might be another matter, as he'll probably be the only Dodge running up front by that time.
Worst Finish: Brad Keselowski. He may have a Talladega win, but with his relative inexperience, he's more likely to find trouble. Keselowski finished 34th in this race last season.
6. Stewart-Haas Racing
SHR has Hendrick equipment, so they have the hardware to do well. Both drivers have also won races at restrictor plate tracks, although only Stewart has won at Talladega. They paced the field for the first practice on Friday, so look for them up front on Sunday.
Best Finish: Stewart has one career Talladega win to go along with nine top-5s and 12 top-10s in 24 career races. His average finish of 15.5 is respectable, due to DNFs in just four Talladega starts.
Worst Finish: Ryan Newman has seven top-10s in 18 Talladega events, which isn't bad, but he also has six DNFs and an average finish of just 20.6.
Which driver will score the best finish on Sunday?
RFR has had success at Talladega, but not with any of its present drivers. In fact, Matt Kenseth, Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards have been downright awful at the track, while usual fourth wheel David Ragan is a decent fantasy play for this weekend.
Best Finish: David Ragan. He has only two finishes worse than 17th at Talladega, to go along with three results of sixth or better in eight starts. For whatever reason, Talladega is the one track at which he's better than his teammates at avoiding trouble and bringing his car home in one piece.
Worst Finish: This could be any of the three, but I'll go with Greg Biffle. In 16 Talladega races, Biffle has four DNFs and just two top-10s. Ouch.
One of Brian Vickers' two career Cup wins came at Talladega in 2006. Interestingly, Kasey Kahne finished second in that race, although neither was driving for Red Bull at the time.
Best Finish: Vickers has a better record than his teammate at 'Dega, with four top-10s, including three top-5s, in his last eight races at the track. He also has 69 laps led at Talladega, as opposed to just 24 for Kahne.
Worst Finish: Kahne has two runner-ups at Talladega, but other than that, he's struggled. His average finish is just 21.9, and he has just one top-20 since 2007.
9. Richard Petty Motorsports
Back in the day, Petty collected two of his 200 career wins and zero poles at the high banks of Talladega Superspeedway. Needless to say, it wasn't one of his favorite tracks. Currently, I suspect neither of his drivers list it among their favorite stops on the Sprint Cup circuit, either.
Best Finish: A.J. Allmendinger. I'd be shocked to see Allmendinger in the final top ten, but he finished higher than his teammate in both Talladega races last season, so I guess I should pick him to do so again. Even still, his 2010 finishes of 19th and 32nd don't exactly inspire confidence.
Worst Finish: Marcos Ambrose. The Tasmanian finished a surprising fourth in his Talladega debut in 2009, but since then he's finished 34th, 37th, and 34th. I don't expect that trend to improve on Sunday.
Michael Waltrip scored one of his four career victories at Talladega, but that came while driving for Dale Earnhardt Inc. Martin Truex Jr. has three top-10s at Talladega, but those all came with DEI (and its various permutations in the last few years).
Will Michael Waltrip wreck on Sunday?
Michael Reutimann, meanwhile, hadn't done better than 20th at the track until last season, when he broke through with a 14th-place result, and then surprised everyone with a fourth-place run last fall.
Best Finish: Michael Reutimann. Even with the good results he had last year at Talladega, Reutimann is unlikely to do as well on Sunday.
However, even with three DNFs in eight starts and an average finish of 22.6, Reutimann's stats are better than his teammate's. (Actually, I should pick Waltrip here, who is running this race. But I'm sticking to the regulars.)
Worst Finish: Martin Truex Jr. came to MWR from an organization with a strong history at plate tracks, but no longer has that confidence going for him.
He has three Talladega top-10s, which is better than Reutimann, but he has a whopping eight DNFs in just 12 races, leading to an ugly average finish of 25.2. That doesn't bode well, any way you look at it.
Robby Gordon has had a few good runs at Talladega over the years, with five top-10s to his credit. However, he's not the remaining driver with the best shot at a top finish on Sunday.
Best Finish: This is a toss-up between Regan Smith and David Gilliland. Smith crossed the finish line here first in 2008, but was disqualified for passing Tony Stewart below the yellow line coming out of Turn 4.
He had a strong car in the Daytona 500 before a late-race altercation led to an eight-place finish. Gilliland, meanwhile, had one of the best cars late and nearly pushed Carl Edwards to the win en route to a third-place finish.
Gilliland has one previous top-5 at Talladega and could do well if he can stay out of trouble.
Worst Finish: This is actually a trickier pick than it might seem. Travis Kvapil and Tony Raines are actually decent at Talladega. I'm going with Andy Lally, who has never run a Cup race at Talladega. He finished 33rd at the first restrictor-place race of the year, the Daytona 500.