Complete Preview and Prediction for 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup at Talladega

Bob Margolis@BobMargolisContributor IIMay 1, 2014

Complete Preview and Prediction for 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup at Talladega

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    USA TODAY Sports

    It's easy to run out of superlatives when you describe a NASCAR Sprint Cup weekend at Talladega Superspeedway.

    First of all, the track is truly one of the great wonders of the modern world. At 2.66 miles in length, it is NASCAR's biggest oval. It's also its fastest track. The tri-oval shape and 33 degrees of banking was designed to be a faster Daytona International Speedway. 

    It is.

    Once inside, you'll find yourself standing in an infield area that on NASCAR race weekends is a scene from Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, the asphalt track acting as a boundary line for the inhabitants of this strange village who come here to worship the gods of speed. 

    Talladega is NASCAR's most unpredictable race track. The race is a high-speed chess match where the winner is usually not the best car, but more often than not, the one that's in the right place at the right time.

    Forty-three drivers will start the Aaron's 499 on Sunday, and all of them stand a chance at winning. It's not often this can be said of a NASCAR Sprint Cup race. 

    But this is Talladega.

    All quotes are taken from official team and manufacturer media releases and official media guides unless otherwise stated.

Important Stuff to Know

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    Jay Sailors/Associated Press

    The Place: Talladega Superspeedway

    The Date: Sunday, May 4

    The Time: 1 p.m. ET

    TV: Fox, noon ET

    Radio: Motor Racing Network (MRN), Sirius XM Ch. 90 

    Distance: 500 miles (188 laps)

    Winner of last year's race: David Ragan

    Youngest Pole Winner: Jimmie Johnson (04/21/2002 - 26 years, 7 months, 4 days)

    Oldest Pole Winner: Mark Martin (10/23/2011 - 52 years, 9 months, 14 days)

    Youngest Winner: Bobby Hillin Jr. (07/27/1986 - 22 years, 1 months, 22 days)

    Oldest Winner: Harry Gant (05/06/1991 - 51 years, 3 months, 26 days)

    Races Won from Pole: 13

    Last Race Won from Pole: Jeff Gordon (04/29/2007)

    Race Record: Mark Martin 188.354 mph (05/10/1997)

    Qualifying Record: Bill Elliott 212.809 mph (04/30/1987)

    All-Time Winner: Dale Earnhardt (10)

    All-Time Winner (active): Jeff Gordon (6)

    Talladega weather (important this time of year)

Key Storylines This Weekend

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    Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

    Drivers In Search of a "W"

    Jimmie Johnson (above) is among a small group of former Talladega winners who will be looking to score their first win of the season and a sure ticket into the 2014 Chase.

    Expect Tony Stewart, Matt Kenseth, Denny Hamlin and six-time Talladega winner Jeff Gordon to be at or near the front of the field with 20 laps to go.

    "The spring Talladega race is always a great race," Johnson said. "Granted, things can happen out of your control and you can be taken out in heartbeat, but for the most part, to me it's a lot of fun. With the rules package as it is, it encourages racing from the drop of the green flag to the checkered so you have to have strategy throughout the race."

    Knockout Qualifying to be the Main Event on Saturday

    NASCAR's new qualifying rules were made for tracks like Talladega, where single-car restrictor plate qualifying was unquestionably the worst show in all of motorsports. While the new qualifying formula has already offered up plenty of excitement and drama at NASCAR's other tracks, at Talladega, qualifying will be done with cars running in packs, creating a whole new layer of drama. 

    You can be sure that there will be a few backup cars being taken out of team haulers before Saturday's third round of KO qualifying has ended.

    Team Penske and Chip Ganassi Racing

    Both of these two-car teams have been making headlines all season.

    Team Penske drivers Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski each have a win this season and are favorites to win at every track they go to, including Talladega. While Logano has yet to win there, Keselowski has two wins to his credit. Expect this duo to be tandem drafting as the laps wind down.

    While his rookie teammate, Kyle Larson, has been grabbing all the attention at Chip Ganassi Racing this season, Jamie McMurray could easily steal it back this weekend. McMurray is a restrictor plate wizard. Four of his seven career Cup wins have been on restrictor plate tracks (two at Talladega). And in case you may have forgotten, one of the remaining three races is the Brickyard 400. Often overlooked as a potential Cup champion, McMurray could be the next winner to secure a spot in the Chase.

    Tire troubles?

    Tires have been an issue at every track the Sprint Cup Series has gone to his season. At some tracks, the tires have worked well, but not without some minor problems.

    At others, there have been serious issues and failures that, for some teams, have resulted in poor finishes and, in some cases, an early departure from the track.

    Goodyear engineers continue to test their tires in an effort to combat the issues that the new Gen 6 car creates. Goodyear's last tire test at Talladega was in 2010 after the track's most recent repave. Teams will be using the same combination of left- and right-side tires that Sprint Cup and Camping World Truck teams ran at this track last October and teams in all three of NASCAR's top series ran at Daytona in February.

Drivers to Watch

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    Drew Hallowell/Getty Images

    Clint Bowyer

    This newlywed has had a tough season. After ending his 2013 season under a cloud, Bowyer had hoped to set the world on fire in 2014, thus erasing everyone's memory.

    Instead, Bowyer's season has been a series of mediocre performances, missed opportunities and mechanical issues.

    Sitting 21st in points, Bowyer knows that a win is his only ticket into the Chase. Talladega comes at a good time. Bowyer has two career wins here and generally runs well on restrictor plate tracks. This weekend is a golden opportunity for Bowyer to turn his season around.

    Tony Stewart

    Stewart is having a quiet but productive season. That means he's probably not happy with it. He'd like to get a win and then get back to being quiet yet productive. He's got only one win at Talladega, but nine top-fives and 13 top-10s make this one of Stewart's more successful tracks. He's always a factor there and at Daytona. 

    "They're different tracks with their own characteristics, but it's plate racing and that really doesn't change," Stewart said. "Daytona has always been the track billed as being more of the handling track, but we're still drafting and will be in a pack where you've got cars on top of each other. It's all about being in the right place at the right time, and that's the same whether we're racing at Daytona or Talladega."

    Jimmie Johnson

    A favorite to win every week, Johnson has two wins at Talladega and six top-fives. He hasn't had a particularly memorable season so far. He sits eighth in points and, of course, is winless.

    Jeff Gordon

    With six wins at Talladega (including the one in 2007 when fans of Dale Jr. showered Gordon's car with empty beer cans and trash), this veteran driver will start Sunday's race as the driver with the most restrictor plate experience in the entire field. 

    However, it won't mean a thing unless he finds himself at or near the top of the field with 10 laps to go. Gordon's strategy? Go to the front early on and stay there. 

    Jamie McMurray

    In 23 previous starts at the 2.66-mile tri-oval, McMurray has amassed seven top-10 finishes, six top-five finishes and two victories, including his most recent series win on Oct. 20, 2013. Amongst active drivers who are on the entry list for Sunday's Aaron's 499, McMurray is tied with five others for the third-most victories (two) at Talladega. 

    His two wins there came during the series' fall race at Talladega in 2009 and 2013.

    Dale Earnhardt Jr.

    Second only to Gordon for the most wins by an active driver (five), Earnhardt Jr. hasn't won at this track since 2004 when he was driving for Dale Earnhardt, Inc. 

    A lot has changed in NASCAR in the past decade, especially the importance of winning. Talladega used to represent a slam dunk for Junior. With the kind of season he's having, he's got to feel it's a slam dunk again.

Quick Picks

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    Mike McCarn/Associated Press

    Matt Kenseth

    Last year's winningest driver has yet to visit Victory Lane this season in a Cup race, but every weekend, his Joe Gibbs Racing team inches closer. Small issues have plagued this team, which seems to have been hit hard by the various rules changes this season.

    The 42-year-old veteran driver has recorded five consecutive top-10 finishes this season, including a fifth-place result last Saturday at Richmond International Raceway. Kenseth has one win (Oct. 2012), nine top-10 finishes and has led 468 laps at Talladega Superspeedway.  

    Last May, the Wisconsin native led a race-high 142 laps (of 192) at Talladega Superspeedway but was shuffled back to an eighth-place result following a green-white-checkered flag finish. 

    Kyle Busch

    The Las Vegas native will celebrate his 29th birthday on Friday. He's fourth in driver points and has a win this season (Fontana). 

    Always good on restrictor plate races, Busch is known for making bold moves and being impatient at times when patience is a necessary virtue. He's an entertaining driver, to say the least.

    The Joe Gibbs Racing cars were good at Daytona (Hamlin was second, Kenseth was sixth, Busch was 19th). They'll be good again this weekend.

    Kevin Harvick

    The series' only two-time winner, Harvick's team is on a roll. He led 23 laps at Richmond and finished 11th. The Daytona 500 winner has one win at Talladega and is among a handful of drivers who knows exactly how to work the draft to his advantage.

    "For us, having a couple of wins in the bank, I think you race as hard as you can all day to try and keep yourself up front and have a complete day of hopefully keeping the car rolling when it's time to be around at the end," Harvick said in a pre-race media interview.

    Brad Keselowski

    Following five weekends of off-tempo performances by this team, last weekend’s top-five at Richmond was more in tune with what we'd come to expect from this Paul Wolfe-led squad.

    Keselowski has two wins at Talladega and three more top-fives. In the past half-dozen years, this Michigan native has become a very good restrictor plate racer. This season, Team Penske has given him a good car to go along with this experience. 

    Joey Logano

    Not yet as good of a plate racer as his teammate, Logano is getting better all the time. He's only got two top-fives in 10 tries at Talladega, however, this 23-year-old is on a hot streak and he might surprise everyone and be in the mix in the closing laps on Sunday.

    Danica Patrick

    Yes, Danica. Have we forgotten that she won the pole for the Daytona 500 (2013)? 

    Her best finish in a Cup car came that same year at Daytona, where she finished eighth.

    "I don't know if the confidence level shifts a tremendous amount as much as the comfort level does," Patrick said. "Just being comfortable on these big speedways and comfortable with this pack-style racing that I was so used to in IndyCar on the ovals. Just having a feel for it. It is something that I probably caught on to quicker than anything in stock car racing. I guess I show up there and it’s just a little bit more comfortable."

Dark Horse

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    Todd Warshaw/Getty Images

    Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

    Sometimes, you look at the statistics for a driver and wonder why he—or she—is not performing better. There are often many reasons why a driver's on-track performance doesn't mirror what's on paper.

    Such is the case with Stenhouse Jr.

    Both of his Roush Fenway Racing teammates, with identical equipment, are having comparatively better seasons. Carl Edwards is locked in the Chase with a win (Bristol), and Greg Biffle sits 11th in points and is always a threat to win.

    Yet Stenhouse Jr. sits 26th in points with one top-five and one top-10 after 10 races. This is usually about the time when teams start to point fingers. 

    This could also be the time that this team puts it all together with a win on the high banks of Talladega. Stenhouse Jr. has a good record on plate tracks, in part due to his ability to know where to be and when to be there.

    He finished seventh at Daytona this year but was actually closer to the front until the final laps. He finished third in last fall's Talladega race.

    Picking a dark horse was a toss-up between Stenhouse Jr. and his girlfriend. I went back and forth.

    This is your dark-horse pick.

A Historical Perspective on Talladega Superspeedway

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    • Ground was broken for a track similar to, but greater in length than, the Daytona International Speedway in May 1968 on the site of the Anniston Air Force Base between Talladega and Anniston, Alabama.
    • The track opened in September 1969. Its first race was embroiled in controversy. Because the track was so fast, the tires being used by NASCAR were deemed unsafe by a large group of the drivers who regularly raced the NASCAR circuit. NASCAR founder Bill France Sr. felt otherwise, and when the drivers staged a boycott of the event, France brought in drivers from all over the country. It was the one and only time there was a driver/management issue in the history of NASCAR.
    • The track has been resurfaced four times since it was built, the latest having been done in 2006.
    • Talladega Superspeedway is where restrictor plates were born. They came into being after driver Bobby Allison cut a right rear tire during the spring race in 1987 that launched his car into the catch fence along the tri-oval portion of the front stretch. His car nearly broke completely through the fence, and pieces of it landed on several fans, some of whom were seriously injured.
    • In an attempt to slow down the cars, NASCAR mandated the use of plates with small holes drilled in them between the carburetor and intake manifold that restricted the amount of air/fuel mixture that could make it into the engine. This cut the engine’s power by nearly half. The plates were mandated for use at all tracks longer than 2.5 miles in length (Talladega and Daytona).
    • March 24, 1970: Buddy Baker, driving the Chrysler Engineering No. 88 Dodge Charger Daytona, officially became the first driver in NASCAR history to break the 200 mph barrier by turning a lap of 200.447 mph (322.588 km/h). This was also a world record at the time for any vehicle on a closed course. It was achieved using official NASCAR scoring and timing equipment.
    • April 30, 1987: Bill Elliott set the all-time NASCAR qualifying record, winning the pole for the Winston 500 at a speed of 212.809 mph (342.483 km/h, 44.998 seconds). The record still stands due strictly to the use of the carburetor restrictor plate, mandated after the 1987 season.

Qualifying Report

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    Brian Scott and Family
    Brian Scott and FamilyPatrick Smith/Getty Images

    Brian Scott wins pole.

    A trio of new faces will start at the front for Sunday’s Aaron’s 499 at Talladega Superspeedway.

    Brian Scott, the NASCAR Nationwide Series regular who is driving the No. 33 Chevrolet SS for Circle Sport Racing on a part-time basis, will start on the pole after turning a lap of 48.293 seconds, 198.290 mph.

    It is his first Sprint Cup pole and his first top-10 start of 2014.

    Paul Menard, driving for Richard Childress Racing will start alongside Scott in the front row. Menard’s lap speed was 197.888 mph. A J Allmendinger driving for JTG Daugherty Racing starts third.

    In the first of three frenetic rounds of qualifying, both Kyle Busch (200.574 mph) and Joey Logano (200.171 mph) posted lap speeds over 200 mph. Their laps were the first qualifying laps faster than 200 mph at Talladega since the restrictor plate was introduced in 1988.

    Austin Dillon (fifth) was the fastest rookie.

And the Winner Is:

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    Mike McCarn/Associated Press

    Dale Earnhardt Jr.

    It's easy to say that this is Junior's year. It is his year to win it all. 

    He's got a crew chief who's ending his career at the end of this season. 

    And the team's Chase dance ticket is already bought and paid for. There's a new, laid-back attitude here that means nothing but continued success for the No. 88 team.

    Jeff Gordon is the only driver who knows more about restrictor plate racing than Dale Earnhardt Jr.

    If Earnhardt Jr. wins on Sunday (and he will), much will be written and far too many words will be said on television about how he was destined to win the title in 2014.

    I'm not sure "destined" would be the right word. 

    It will be more like "earned" when he does win it.