NASCAR Weekend Preview — Talladega

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Talladega Superspeedway.  Doesn’t that just sound unique?  Well, it is.

Sports and movie fans alike probably have heard of Talladega before because of Ricky Bobby, a NASCAR driver played by Will Ferrell in the movie “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby”.  

As we all know, NASCAR isn’t like it was portrayed in that movie, but Talladega Superspeedway racing is actually somewhat similar.

Jeff Gordon will start on the pole, with Kasey Kahne starting second and Ryan Blaney, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jimmie Johnson rounding out the top five.  However, qualifying doesn’t mean too much at superspeedways like Talladega, as you can come from 20th to the lead in as little as one lap.  It’s happened before.

On the high banks in Alabama, anything can happen at any given moment.  The famous track has produced some cinderella winners.  For example, Brad Keselowski in 2009, David Ragan in 2013, and Brian Vickers back in 2006.  This is the true “wild card” track on the NASCAR circuit.

Remember when that nutty reporter named Davey Segal predicted that Landon Cassill would win a race at a restrictor plate track this season and get into the Chase?  What a stupid guy, right?  Well, it honestly could happen.  Anybody could win, but drivers who know how to race on these restrictor plate tracks (Talladega and Daytona) are always considered the favorites.

Dale Earnhardt won TEN races here before his career was cut short, and the genes for winning at Talladega run in the family, because Dale Earnhardt Jr. has won five races already.  Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin, Brad Keselowski, Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Matt Kenseth and Tony Stewart are among the big names that have already notched wins at Talladega in their careers.

Another little nugget, if you will, for this weekend’s race is that the track is haunted.  An old wives tale says that when Bill France built Talladega Superspeedway, he did so on an ancient Indian burial ground.  So when the cars are three-wide for laps at a time at 200 MPH, think about that.

If you remember how qualifying for the first race of the season in the Daytona 500 went, it wasn’t good, to say the least.  In short, NASCAR tried to spice things up a bit by having the cars in two separate groups and they could go out whenever they wanted.  The problem was that you need a draft to get a good lap time at restrictor plate tracks, so everyone waited until there was about two minutes left and all hell broke loose.  Cars were torn up, drivers were angry and something needed to be done.

So, NASCAR fixed (or so they hope) the qualifying format for this weekend at Talladega.  The cars will be released at intervals, so while there might be more than one car on the track at a time, they won’t be bunched together.  While it might not be as dramatic as group qualifying, hopefully this will allow for a smoother start to the weekend leading to less cars being wrecked and less drivers being angry and hot-headed.

You also probably remember what happened a couple of weeks ago at Bristol Motor Speedway, where Hamlin didn’t race for the last 479 laps due to a neck spasm, so 18-year old Erik Jones filled in for him.  It was announced this week that Jones will pilot the No. 18 M&M’s Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing beginning at Kansas Motor Speedway next weekend.  This announcement came on the heels of the announcement that Michael Waltrip Racing had signed David Ragan, who had been running the No. 18 car in place of injured Kyle Busch, to pilot the No. 55 car starting next weekend at Kansas for Brian Vickers, who is out indefinitely with blood clots.

Most drivers will employ two differing strategies this weekend: hang around in the back until it’s “go time” or try to stay up front all day, lead some laps and be there when it counts.

There is one thing, however, that everybody wants to avoid that is unavoidable: the big one.  The big one is that huge multi-car pileup that happens at restrictor plate tracks.  It’s those highlights you see with cars flipping, crashing, on fire, the whole nine yards.  At Talladega, you have to play the game of avoiding the big one and putting yourself in a position to win when it counts.

There could very well be a photo finish, as well.  Those are not uncommon here, as I was actually there in person to see a three-wide finish, tied for the closest in NASCAR history (0.002 seconds), as Johnson won it by a fender.

The Xfinity Series will also take to the high banks this weekend.  Elliott Sadler is the defending winner of that race, but what got real attention is Darrell Wallace Jr.’s paint scheme: SpongeBob SquarePants is on his car!  You’ll find out why next weekend. Austin Dillon will start on pole for the Winn Dixie 300.

Prediction time.  I’m picking Landon Cassill, right?  Nope, I’m not.  I’m going with a driver who hasn’t won a points paying race in a while but always seems to put himself in the position to win, and win the big races.  He has been running well from the end of last season and it has carried over into the beginning of this season, and that is Jamie McMurray.  He won at Talladega twice, most recently in 2013.  He is considered a dark-horse pick.  But is a dark-horse pick really a dark-horse pick at Talladega?  I don’t think so.

I hope everybody enjoys the race, because it’s gonna be a rowdy one.