[media-credit name=”Barry Albert” align=”alignright” width=”214″][/media-credit]The elite of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series moves on to the mammoth Talladega Super Speedway for Sunday’s running of the Aaron’s 499. Just like its super speedway cousin, at Daytona, this Alabama based super track is also a restrictor plate race. That means there’s the possibility of the dreaded “big one”, we can expect to see multiple lead changes based on two car drafting tandems and we could see a mid pack car charge to the front to steal the show during the final laps of the race. It’s Talladega-Alabama: the land where anything can happen when you least expect it.
THE STORY BREAKDOWN
One of the lead stories is the particular restrictor plate the teams will be using during their latest round of plate racing. In an effort to get the cars under 200 MPH in race trim, NASCAR, last month, announced that the teams will be issued a new restrictor plate, measuring seven-eighths of an inch in diameter, for Sunday’s race. This new plate is one-sixty fourth of an inch smaller than what was used during the Daytona 500 last February.
The result of the smaller plate a Daytona created a two car draft tandem and we can expect to see more of the same this Sunday at Talladega. When recently asked about the impact of the new Talladega plate, Kyle Busch said “I think what they’re looking for is just to keep the speeds down obviously with how we all figured out how to push draft. They were expecting the speeds. We didn’t push draft all that much last year at Talladega. They are going to be expecting us to do that. They’re going to be expecting the speeds to be higher. They’re just being a little proactive there. No problem in doing that. I think it’s actually a smart idea rather than changing it on us when we do get to the race track. They did a good job. I don’t think it will change much. The racing will stay the same. The push draft will still be there. Essentially the dynamic of the race like it was in Daytona will be the same in Talladega.”
Dale Earnhardt Jr said he felt like the new plate at Talladega could actually increase the number of cars in the push draft next Sunday and added “maybe we’ll be able to get three or four of us pushing each other around there at one time. They keep slowing it down and that’s what’s going to happen. I really don’t know what Talladega is going to be like because the asphalt is worn just a little bit and it’s now quite as grippy as the new asphalt at Daytona after a year or two. But I want to be in control of my own destiny and I don’t want to have to worry about wrecking another driver while I’m pushing him around the race track. So I hope that’s not the kind of racing we have. But whatever you’ve got to do to win, is what you’ve got to do.”
With the double car push draft comes the multiple channel radio communication between the drivers. Sprint Cup veteran Jeff Burton said he found it extremely interesting that drivers from competing teams were on the radio with each other, during the Daytona 500, to set up push draft partnerships. Burton said “it’s like cats and dogs eating together.”
However Burton did admit that he was somewhat torn regarding his feeling towards the radio concept and said “I’m a fan of it because I think, honestly, it’s safer doing it with one spotter and two cars. However I’m not a fan of it because it’s supposed to be us against them, you know. We’re not supposed to be working together.”
The one naysayer of the concept appears to be driver Kurt Busch who recently said “I think NASCAR should step in on drivers getting on other team’s radios. We shouldn’t be able to communicate with radios.”
THE VEGAS BREAKDOWN
The Las Vegas based World Sports Exchange, (WSE), has “The Closer” on top of their list this week. They have placed Kevin Harvick at 7 to 1 odds. It’s actually a very good choice. Harvick is the defending race winner and one half of the Richard Childress Racing 2010 Talladega sweep after Clint Bowyer won the fall race there. Harvick also has five top five finishes, nine top tens along with an average finish ratio of 14.8 at Talladega. He also has four super speedway wins.
At 10 to 1 odds you will find the duo of Tony Stewart and Kyle Busch. Both drivers are former Talladega winners. The WSE seems to think that Talladega is the perfect location for Stewart to unload his recent racing frustrations experienced over the course of the last couple of weeks. His Las Vegas ranking is also based nine top five finishes, 12 top tens and a healthy finish ratio of 15.5.
Needless to say Kyle Busch is always a perennial favorite to win literally any race he enters. His finish ratio at Talladega, 23.3, is not that strong but if he can stay out of trouble throughout the afternoon then it’s likely he will become a major player in the race outcome.
The WSE has the elder Busch brother ranked at 11 to 1 this week despite the fact that he’s still looking for his first career super speedway win. However his Talladega finish numbers are strong with six top fives, 13 top tens and a 13.7 finish ratio. This could turn out to be an interesting long shot wager.
Here’s another potentially good long shot bet, that I thought would have been rated a little higher on the list. The pride of the Junior Nation is also rated at 11 to 1 this week. The Junior Nation is practically already salivating at the thought of Sunday’s Talladega race because they know it there’s a race track where their driver can find victory lane again this is it. Earnhardt learned his restrictor plate racing lessons well from his famous father. He has five Talladega wins, including four in a row that ran from 2001 to 2003. Also factor in the rejuvenated spirit of this team led by crew chief Steve Letarte. Junior at 11 to 1 could turn out to be extremely lucrative.
The WSE has a large racing pack ranked at 15 to 1 this week led by Carl Edwards who, despite a career loaded with success at smaller racing venues, is still looking for that elusive first super speedway win. Also in this group is former Talladega winner Jaime McMurray who is one of the pre season Chase favorites who needs some more forward progress. With his team’s prowess at restrictor plate racing, Sunday could possibly be his day.
Also at 15 to 1 is last October’s Talladega winner Clint Bowyer and that somewhat is a surprise considering he’s had some strong runs lately. Even Bowyer’s worst finishes are not indicative of how strong this team really is. Also remember that Richard Childress Racing leads the team stats at Talladega with 11 trips to victory lane.
Jimmie Johnson at 15 to 1 is also a rather interesting consideration for those of you who like to gamble on the long shots. Many think that restrictor racing is not this driver’s forte, but the truth of the matter is: he’s a former Talladega winner with 14 top five finishes there. He’s also very anxious to silence naysayers who keep pointing out that he hasn’t won a race so far in 2011.
I’ve always respected the work of the WSE because these guys are so good at crunching the numbers that backs their rankings. But once in a blue moon, they make an announcement that has be saying “WHAT??” Jeff Gordon at 15 to 1 is one of those moments. Granted, his last two outings were mired down in mediocrity, but this is the guy who leads all modern day Sprint Cup drivers with six wins at Talladega along with a series high 13 top five finishes. Let’s also not overlook the fact that this is a driver who understands restrictor plate racing better than most of his colleagues. (HMMM, where did I lay that cell phone?).
Denny Hamlin, who’s going through a stretch of well documented racing frustration at the moment, is also in this 15 to 1 group. Hamlin has an 18.3 finish ratio at Talladega and an overall finish ration of 20 at super speedways in general. This may not be the weekend for him to launch that expected return to Chase prominence.
All alone, in the 20 to 1 group, is Jeff “Snake Bite” Burton. I actually added the nickname out of a sense of respect rather that silly humor. The truth of the matter is this is probably one of the best drivers and teams in NASCAR Sprint Cup racing. Unfortunately, they also lead the league in horrible racing luck hence the nickname.
In the WSE mid pack area you find the tandem of Juan Pablo Montoya and last week’s winner Matt Kenseth at 25 to 1. The 30 to 1 group is led by former race winner Brian Vickers followed by Ryan Newman, David Ragan, Kasey Kahne, Greg Biffle and the equally snake bit Joey Logano.
All by himself, at 35 to 1, is Mark Martin. Now here’s another excellent wager for those of you willing to gamble on the long shot. Yes, it true that Martin does not like restrictor plate racing and probably wishes it would fade away. But the fact of the matter is: Martin is a two time winner at Talladega along with 11 top five finishes, a series high 23 top tens and an average finish ratio of 16.0.
Closing this week’s WSE list, at 40 to 1, are drivers Trevor Bayne, Martin Truex Jr, another snake bite victim, along with former race winner Brad Keselowski, David Reutimann and Paul Menard. All others not listed, including former race winner Bobby Labonte, are rated at 15 to 1 by the WSE.
Now for the weekly disclaimer: NASCAR wants us to remind you that these posted numbers should be considered for both information and entertainment purposes. They neither encourage, nor condone, the placing of wagers on their races.
The truth of the matter is: it’s almost impossible to predict who’s going to win a NASCAR Sprint Cup restrictor plate race. Trevor Bayne’s win at the Daytona 500 certainly proves that point. Having said that, I must admit that the odds placed on Dale Earnhardt Jr and Jeff Gordon are mighty tempting.
THE RACE BREAKDOWN
Sunday’s Aaron’s 499 is 188 laps/500.08 miles around the Talladega Super Speedway’s massive 2.66 mile quad oval.
The race has 46 entries vying for the 43 starting berths and the lion’s share of the $5.9 million plus purse. 11 of those teams are on the go or go home list. These teams are not guaranteed a start in the race because they are currently outside of NASCAR’s top 35 in owner’s points. These teams will have to rely on qualifying speeds to earn a starting berth in the race. The lone exception is Bill Elliott who can rely on a past champion’s provisional if needed.
Chevrolets from Richard Childress Racing swept the Talladega racing action last year with Kevin Harvick winning in April and Clint Bowyer taking the October event. Childress has a healthy winning track record at Talladega having visited victory lane there 11 times. Chevrolet leads the manufacturer’s win list at the track with 37.
The first ever NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Talladega was held in September of 1969 and was won by a then unknown driver named Richard Brickhouse under some rather bizarre circumstances. At the time the Sprint Cup drivers had recently formed a driver’s union. The union elected not to participate in the race amid concerns over tire safety and whether or not the tires could stand up to the speedway’s extremely high banking. The day before that race NASCAR’s Grand Touring division was on the schedule and Big Bill France invited them to run in the big money show on Sunday and that’s how Brickhouse became the speedway’s first Cup winner. France, always the consummate promoter, made it up to the fans and offered them future tickets to a Talladega or Daytona race. Ironically speaking, the driver’s union dissipated shortly after that. Since that legendary event, NASCAR has staged 83 Cup races that have sent 41 different winners to victory lane. That effort has been led by the legendary Dale Earnhardt Sr. who won there ten times.
Track position is always a factor in a NASCAR Sprint Cup race especially during those waning laps. NASCAR icon Bill Elliott owns both track qualifying positions at Talladega and has won the Coors Light pole a series high eight times. Elliot’s first track record, without a restrictor plate on the engine, was 212.809 MPH and was set back in April 1987. The second qualifying record, with the plate, was 199.388 MPH set in May of 1990. The track numbers supports the importance of starting position at Talladega. 13 of the 83 races has been won from the pole position while 32 of them has been won from the top two positions.
But the development of drafting, especially the relatively new push draft we will see this Sunday, also makes it possible to win at Talladega from the rear of the field if you have the right “dance” partner. Jeff Gordon scored one of his series high six wins, in April of 2000, after starting from the 36th position.
That same element also produces some very exciting track maneuvers at time. The track record for lead changes is 88 set in April of last year. In every race since 1993, the margin of victory at Talladega has been under one half of a second.
Talladega is of course the home of “the big one”, the moment of time when the slight flinch of a race car can create a large amount of race car carnage within a fraction of a second. Despite the always looming presence of “the big one”, the track record for yellow caution flags is only 11 and dates back to 2004. However, it’s possible to run a 500 mile race at Talladega caution free. It’s happened three times in the past but the last occurrence dates back to the fall of 2002.
The Talladega Super Speedway is massive with its 48 foot width. The sweeping turns are banked at an intimidating 33 degrees with 18 degrees of banking in the speedway’s tri oval. The front stretch is 4,300 feet long and is banked 16.5 degrees but the 4,000 foot back stretch only has two degrees of banking. The speedway’s pit road is also massive measuring 3,000 feet long by 48 feet wide. The pit road speed is 55 MPH.
The Talladega Super Speedway has grandstand seating to accommodate 143,000. That means it takes a lot of concession stand food to feed those hungry fans. Over the course of two racing weekends there the fans will go through one ton of pizza, 1.5 miles of nacho chips when laid end to end, 13,600 pounds of hamburger, 18,698 hot dogs and they’ll wash it down with 9,000 gallons of soda.
The weather could present a problem for the practice sessions scheduled for Friday. The Talladega forecast calls for a 50 percent chance of showers and thunderstorms on Friday afternoon increasing to a 70 percent chance of precipitation Friday night. The Saturday forecast is an improvement calling for sunny skies, breezy conditions and a day time high of 69 degrees. On Sunday race day look for beautiful sunny skies and 72 degrees.
The Aaron’s 499 will be broadcast live by Fox Sports with the pre race show beginning at 12 pm eastern time. The re air will be on Wednesday, April 20th, on SPEED beginning at 12 pm eastern.