Last week Denny Hamlin wasn’t exactly loving Virginia enough to get his second straight NASCAR Sprint Cup (NSC) victory in the Capital City 400 Presented by Virginia is for Lovers at the Richmond International Raceway (RIR), bringing in a fourth-place finish. But Kyle Busch was lovin’ Virginia for his fourth straight spring race at RIR, taking home the Checkered Flag in a win his team desperately needed. Dale Earnhardt Jr, also badly in need of a win, kept Jr Nation’s hopes alive with a runner-up performance, while Stewart led a number of laps finishing third, and Kasey Kahne rounding out the Top 5.
This week NASCAR moves from one of the shorter tracks in the schedule, to the largest SuperSpeedway in the NASCAR Sprint Cup (NSC) schedule: Talladega (TSS), and the Aaron’s 499. There’s nothing like viewing a race from the towers at Talladega, a 2.66-mile quad-oval between Birmingham AL and Atlanta GA. They’ll run 188 laps for a total distance of 500.08 miles (not counting any “overtime” laps of a Green-White-Checker). Pre-Race television coverage begins at 10:00am EDT with NASCAR Raceday on SPEED, NASCAR Pre-race at 12:00pm EDT on FOX, with the race broadcast at 1:00pm EDT. Leading the field to Green at approximately 1:19pm is Coors Light Pole Award winner Jeff Gordon, following the invocation, National Anthem, and the pre-race flyover by four U.S. Air Force T-38s from Randolph AFB, Texas. Currently, there are no cars that will have to start from the rear, so we’ll be clean for Green on Sunday.
Everyone watching NASCAR this season knows the Pack is Back. With the modifications to the restrictor plates and cooling systems that NASCAR officials instituted just before the Daytona 500, plus what we saw yesterday in the Aaron’s 312, pack racing is back on the Superspeedways. Of course, that also means lots of talk of the “Big One”. There were still some little two-car tandems, but those normally didn’t last too long, as many cars can and will overheat. And with the temperatures expected in the mid-to upper 80s, overheating will be an even bigger issue. But expect the old-style, big pack drafts, and along with that, the old-style big pack wrecks. Better than a dozen cars were involved in wrecks Saturday, and I’m betting there will be even more on Sunday as we go Green.
As of Sunday morning, it was raining at Talladega, and the Doppler radar was showing showers rolling through the area almost up until race time. But never fear; even though there’s a good chance the race will be delayed, TSS has a whopping eleven (yes, I said ELEVEN) jet dryers to get the track surface back in racing form. Only bad thing, is that just gives Juan Pablo Montoya that many more Targets (sorry, couldn’t resist the pun) to aim for during Caution laps. And no, TSS does not have lights, so if Mother Nature decides to stay awhile, we could be bound for a Monday running. But I doubt that will happen.
Before I start with my picks for this week, I do have to take a moment and give a shout-out to Eric McClure and the entire emergency crew at Talladega Superspeedway, who suffered a horrific wreck in yesterday’s Aaron’s 312 Nationwide Series race yesterday. During the final laps, McClure and his #14 Hefty/Reynolds Wrap Toyota were bumped, sending the car careening toward the inner wall. Thankfully, there was a SAFER barrier in place, as he hit the wall at nearly full speed. It took peeling the roof off in order to remove McClure from the damaged vehicle, but he was taken off by helicopter to a hospital in Birmingham, AL, where he’s said to be awake and able to speak with doctors. All our hopes and prayers for a speedy recovery, and job well done to the crash crews.
Best Bets: Two multiple TSS winners in my BB picks this week, including one whom I hope to not jinx.
Jeff Gordon (#24 DuPont 20 Years Chevy)- Jeff captured the Coors Light Pole Award for the Aaron’s 499, and in doing so extended his stretch of consecutive years with at least one Pole Award to 20, matching David Pearson for the longest streak. Gordon finished a disappointing 23rd last week at Richmond, but came out with his guns blazing this week. He’s got six wins, fourteen top-fives, and eighteen top-tens here at TSS, and was in the top eight in two of the last three races here. Sixteen of his eighty-five wins have been on Superspeedways, so we’ll see what Gordon and crew chief Alan Gustafson have up their sleeves. He’ll lead the field to Green Sunday, and was eleventh-fastest in final practice.
Dale Earnhardt Jr (#88 National Guard/Diet Mt Dew Chevy)- I hope I’m not jinxing him, but Jr’s time has come and many are hopeful for this week due to Dale’s runner-up finish last week that could have easily been a win (minus a bad pit-stop and lack of a late race caution). Jr ran the #5 Hellman’s Chevy in yesterday’s Aaron’s 312, posting a fifth-place finish; a race where he learned a few things about the pack racing and need for the tandem two-step as well. Earnhardt has posted ”on the board” with a top twenty-five finish in all of the last four restrictor plate races, including a P2 at Daytona this year, and a fourth at Talladega last spring (when, if your remember, he pushed Jimmie Johnson to the Victory). He’s second in active drivers with five wins at TSS, has nine top-fives and twelve top-tens. Jr’s second-place standing in the NSC points is buttressed by his four top-five and seven top-ten finishes over the nine races so far this season. Put all those together, and it could be a good day for Jr Nation. He only starts eighteenth and was twenty-second fastest in final practice, but on a Plate track, that doesn’t matter that much. This is his house, and Northern Alabama will explode should he end up in Victory Lane today. When Dale Jr shaved his beard this week, it nearly caused Twitter to collapse. If he wins today, expect far worse.Probables: With the extreme pack movements and draft throes, these two could be a factor.
Kevin Harvick (#29 Rheem Chevrolet)- ”Happy” Harvick won the spring TSS race two years ago, and has been working to improve his seventh-place rank in the NSC standings. He’s placed in the top-five in three of the last four races at Dega, and top-seven in three of the last four Restrictor Plate races. One win, six top-fives, and ten top-tens are all he has to his name here, but with two top-five and five top-ten finishes this season so far, Kevin is sure to be looking to put a trophy on the mantle before he and his wife Delana give birth to their first child in a couple months. Harvick will start twentieth, and while he didn’t run final practice, he was fifth-fastest in the first practice session.
Denny Hamlin (#11 FedEx Express Toyota)- Hamlin’s fourth-place finish after the previous race’s win says Denny has hit his stride with two wins, four top-fives, and five top-ten finishes this season. While he’s still winless at TSS, Hamlin has posted three top-five and five top-ten finishes. He’s been in the top-23 in the last four TSS outings, including a fourth-place finish, and placed fourth at Daytona this year. I’m not sure if Denny can be up front when the Checkered Flag waves, but despite his twenty-second position for the start of the race, Hamlin was fourth-fastest in final practice.
Dark Horses- Two Talladega practice runners give me my DHs this week.
Aric Almirola (#43 Verfone Sail Ford)- Richard Petty Motorsports (RPM) has a hot one this week with Aric. While RPM has struggled in recent years, today could be a way for them to get some of their mojo back. Almirola has posted only one top ten finish this season, but the cars seem to be getting better as the season progresses (as does Almirola’s driving). He’s starting fourth, and was fastest in BOTH practice sessions. Almirola is either going to have a good day, or he’ll end up in the garage after blowing his motor.
Matt Kenseth (#17 Best Buy Ford)- Matt hasn’t placed better than sixteenth in the last four TSS races, but has a win (Daytona 500 this year) and a second-place finish within the last four restrictor plate races. He’s still winless here, but has three top-fives and six top-tens. Kenseth’s aforementioned win, five top-fives, and five top-ten finishes has him knocking on the door of the top of the NSC points standings. He’s got a good chance at his best Talladega run today. Matt rolls off tenth, and was second-fastest in final practice.
Although with the ebb and flow of the pack racing this could be anyone’s race to win (or lose), some others drivers to keep an eye out for include Marcos Ambrose’s #09 Stanley Ford, Carl Edwards’ #99 Fastenal machine, NSC points leader Greg Biffle’s #16 3M/O’Reilly Auto Parts Ford, and Kyle Busch’s #18 M&Ms Toyota. Each have been making sufficient-enough runs here to spoil the action for my picks above. One WAY outside chance is Michael Waltrip and the #55 Aaron’s Color Your Way to Talladega Toyota and teammate Clint Bowyer’s #15 Aaron’s/Alabama National Champions Toyota. If you think a win by Dale Jr would bring the stands down, so would the Crimson Tide taking the Checkered Flag with Bowyer behind the wheel.
Rumor Mill: One highlight for today’s race in this week’s rumor mill.
“I wanna go fast!!”- Be on the lookout for Phoenix Racing’s #51 car on the track. Kurt Busch will be driving a car this weekend whose paint scheme resembles that of Ricky Bobby from “Talladega Nights”. Apparently, Busch’s girlfriend, Patricia Driscoll, is the head of the Armed Forces Foundation, and she wanted to get a little more exposure for Kurt and for the charity. Many thought this a brilliant idea (although some didn’t), but in the end all parties involved agreed (Sony Pictures, actor Will Ferrell, “Karen” the cougar’s handler and photographer who took the picture, et al). Busch was quoted as saying, “I don’t want to have to get out and run to the finish line, and have to kiss a guy to do it,” referring to Ricky Bobby’s lip lock with nemesis Jean Girard. “I hope we’re able to do it on track.” It would be interesting if Busch made it to Victory Lane. But please, Kurt…no running around in your underwear. (SBNation.com)
Final Thoughts: The rains have come, so the track will likely be a lot greener. Expect more slipping and sliding on the track until the rubber can be worked in. That also means more wrecks sooner. So tune in to FOX, your local Motor Racing Network affiliate, or on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio (Ch 90) for the racing action. Although I couldn’t make it to Dega this time around, I’ll be keeping up with my normal race updates, analysis, and occasional rants on Twitter (@speedglutton). So keep your eyes on the skies, your favorite snacks and beverages handy, and get ready for some racin’ Talladega-style!
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