Drivers Face High Speeds, Close Quarters, and Unpredictability at Talladega

Three-to-four wide racing, close quarters, 200 MPH, drafting, wrecks, and partying. Ah, how can you NOT love Talladega Superspeedway?

Talladega has been, and always will be, a wild card on the NASCAR schedule. Restrictor plate tracks always even out the competition, more or less. We all remember Trevor Bayne’s triumphant 2011 Daytona 500 win. But we sometimes forget Brad Keselowski’s first career win at Talladega in 2009, David Ragan’s wins at Daytona and Talladega (the longest track in NASCAR at 2.66 miles), as well as different underdogs finding victory lane on the two restrictor plate tracks.

Although these nice stories have happened, the big dogs usually find their way first to the checkered flag. Hendrick Motorsports, Stewart-Haas Racing, Joe Gibbs Racing, and Team Penske will be contending for the win on Sunday as those drivers make up 14 of the 40 drivers in Sunday’s GEICO 500 (1:30 p.m.) field. However, one driver who has a leg up on the competition won this race on year ago, and is almost unbeatable at restrictor plate tracks: Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Earnhardt Jr. sits seventh in the Sprint Cup Series points standings at the moment, and has two second place finishes to his credit this season. But there’s another variable playing into the No. 88’s favor this weekend, and her name is Amelia.

Yes, that’s right. The beloved race car that has won multiple races at Daytona and Talladega with Earnhardt Jr. behind the wheel, named Amelia, will make its return this weekend. At Daytona, the car pounded the inside wall, and there was question on whether or not it would be able to race again. But low and behold,she is back, and better than ever.

We know how she ran last year. We’ve just got to run Talladega like we have to win it, just like we did the last time we were there,” said Earnhardt Jr. on Dirty Mo Radio this week. “We did a good job. If we run it like that, we’ll be up front at the end.”

The No. 88 is a favorite to win this weekend. But another driver to look out for is Joey Logano, who won the last Cup race at Talladega over Earnhardt Jr. to sweep a round of the Chase. Two more will be Carl Edwards, coming off two straight wins, and Kyle Busch, who may be looking to get revenge after what happened last weekend at Richmond International Raceway.

I doubt payback will be served this weekend, considering the violent nature of crashes as well as frequent nature of them due to the high speeds and close quarters. However, many races at Talladega have ended with a last lap pass. So expect one of those to occur, and if the No. 18 is behind the No. 19, you already know what’s going to go down.

Chase Elliott won the pole for the race, with Austin Dillon, Earnhardt Jr., Matt Kenseth, Jimmie Johnson, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin, Carl Edwards, and Paul Menard rounding out the top ten. The pole is Elliott’s second of the season – with the first coming in the other restrictor plate race in the Daytona 500.

Some other notable starters include Martin Truex Jr. in 12th, Kyle Busch in 17th, Kurt Busch in 18th, Logano in 22nd, Kevin Harvick in 29th, and Danica Patrick in 37th. However, starting position doesn’t really matter, as at Talladega, you can race to the front whenever you want with some help. But tight quarters, and zero margin for error, will make Sunday’s race a tough one for sure.

Tony Stewart, who returned to the race car last weekend at Richmond, will start the race Sunday. But he will then hand the baton, or in this case the race car, off to Ty Dillon, who will then race the car for the remainder of the event. Stewart-Haas Racing has decided to go this route because of the aforementioned high risk associated with wrecks at ‘Dega. Also,with Stewart’s back not being 100% healed, they want to take all the precautions they can get.

However, if Dillon were  to win the race, Stewart would get credit for the win, and qualify for the Chase (if he also gets into the top 30 in points). Some fans have mixed reactions about this rule, and I talked about it in this week’s Victory Lane Podcast.

Before I get to my predictions for the weekend, let’s touch on some news and notes from the week that was in the world of NASCAR.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s Crew Chief, Nick Sandler, has been suspended one race and fined $20,000 for a P3 penalty last weekend due to the No. 17’s tampering with the steering column. He has also been placed on probation until Dec. 31, 2016.

Former Daytona International Speedway track president Joie Chitwood III has moved on, and has now been named the new COO at International Speedway Corporation. ISC is also known as the organization that runs the tracks on the NASCAR schedule, and is basically as big as NASCAR itself.

Chip Wile, the former president of Darlington Raceway, will be the new president of DIS and a replacement will be determined for Darlington  as well. Chitwood did an amazing job with everything and anything to do with Daytona Rising, and Wile did a great job with the throwbacks at DR.

There was a tire test this week at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, with the participants including Stewart, Edwards, Aric Almirola and Elliott.

The race sponsor was unveiled for this season’s race at Chicagoland Speedway, and it will be called the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 400. Yes, really! Danica Patrick will have them on her car as sponsorship.

But the biggest and by far the most talked about news, are those pesky lug nuts.

Tony Stewart spoke out about the lug nuts before the rule was changed, saying that the procedure they have is unsafe, and was fined $35,000. Then, the NASCAR driver’s council, which is made up of nine drivers, offered to pay the fine, showing that the drivers agreed with Stewart. However, Stewart is paying it himself and taking the other $35,000 donated by the nine drivers and donating it to Autism research.

Here’s what basically has happened:

The memo NASCAR issued states that all tires, wheels and all five lug nuts must be installed in a safe and secure manner at all times during the event.

Failure to comply can result in penalties ranging from a written warning for pre-race violations to a minimum $20,000 fine, one-race suspension, and probation for the responsible crew chief if a post-race inspection turns up a car that does not have five lug nuts in place on each wheel.

If found during pre-race, the infraction is considered an unapproved adjustment and the violator will be required to correct the issue and drop to the rear of the field before the start of the event on race day. Multiple offenses for infractions will result in escalating penalties.

NASCAR used to have officials on pit road looking at the lug nuts and making sure that everything was tight and safe on the race cars. But ever since the Pit Road Officiating system came into place, officials on pit road are gone and cameras do all the work.

Basically, you have to start the race with 5 lug nuts, end the race with 5 lug nuts, and you have to have the lug nuts all safely installed. We’ll see how this pans out throughout the next couple weeks as the teams go into more intermediate races and tracks.

Alright, it’s prediction time. I think that it’d be a bonehead move to NOT pick Dale Earnhardt Jr., so I’ll go with him to win Sunday’s GEICO 500 (1:30 p.m. on FOX). Enjoy the race, everyone!