Treacherous Talladega awaits drivers, NASCAR Chase leaders

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Geoffrey Miller's Five Things to Watch at Talladega Superspeedway

Geoffrey Miller highlights the five storylines to watch as the NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit visits Talladega Superspeedway for the Camping World RV Sales 500.

1. Is riding at the back really Talladega’s key to success?  Jeff Gordon
Jeff Gordon won the fall 2007 race at Talladega Superspeedway in a way that has seemed to permanently skew impressions of restrictor plate racing. Leading just one lap, Gordon stormed from the back in the final laps — he averaged a running position of 28th throughout the day — to score the win.

The idea of riding at the back and charging at the end of a race at Daytona or Talladega wasn’t new then, but the fact that Gordon worked the system to such success lent even more credence that a successful strategy involves racing at half-throttle for 450 miles to stay out of the inherently dangerous lead pack.

Statistics don’t bear that assumption to fact at Talladega.

Since Gordon’s 2007 win — it was his most recent at the track — just one of the 11 race winners have averaged a running position lower than 20th. Only three of have led less than 10 laps.

In fact, the average winner in those 11 races has led 16 laps while averaging an on-track position of 13th. What’s that mean? Talladega seems to produce winners who race up front for periods and are otherwise struggling to get a footing right squarely in the middle of the pack. Expect more of the same Sunday.


2. David Ragan, other underdogs have last best shot of 2013
David Ragan was an outlier in the recent trend of Talladega race winners. He ran around 20th most of the day in the spring race and led just four laps before taking the surprising win.

It was the perfect outcome for his Front Row Racing team as teammate David Gilliland finished right behind him in one of the four races each year where just about anyone with a decent car can snatch a win. You can bet underdog drivers just like Ragan and Gilliland have circled Sunday’s race as their chance to shine.

Using 2013 as a barometer, Marcos Ambrose may just be in contention for an unexpected win. In July at Daytona, Ambrose was racing side-by-side for the lead with Jimmie Johnson before contact on the backstretch sent the No. 9 spinning with three laps left.

Others include Michael Waltrip, rounding out his four-race restrictor plate schedule this year, who has two top-5 finishes at Daytona and Talladega this season and was battling for the lead when he was blocked by Tony Stewart on the last lap a year ago. Jamie McMurray hasn’t won since 2010 but has three career restrictor plate wins to his credit. Even Casey Mears, boosted by a top 10 at Daytona in July, may have a chance.


3. Chase shake-up not such a given  Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson
Sunday’s race has been penciled as the last great hope for fans with drivers desperately trying to catch Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson in the Chase for the Sprint Cup. They’ve been simply too consistent on NASCAR’s “normal” tracks to think the Homestead-Miami Speedway finale will be anything but a Matt and Jimmie winner-take-all cagematch.

But what’s the reality of those two either suffering trouble or getting soundly beat at Talladega? Not much, judging by their performance on restrictor plate tracks this season.

Together, Kenseth and Johnson have combined to lead more than 65 percent of the 553 laps turned at Daytona and Talladega this year. Johnson has led more laps and has two wins (both at Daytona), but Kenseth led 142 laps in the spring Talladega race and would have been a player at the finish of the Daytona 500 until he blew an engine after leading 86 of the first 149 laps.

Of course, it only takes one bad move or one unavoidable crash to toss the Chase into chaos. But without that turn of events, Kenseth and Johnson should be factors at the finish.


4. Todd Parrott substance abuse suspension leaves questions about Kvapil discipline
NASCAR suspended Todd Parrott, the longtime NASCAR crew chief now working with Aric Almirola’s No. 43 Ford, for an indefinite period Thursday after he failed a recent drug test. The cause of his suspension wasn’t detailed and it’s safe to assume he’ll be back to the Richard Petty Motorsports operation after a long period that will include an abuse and counseling program.

But just a week after the sport let a Sprint Cup driver stay in the seat after an arrest for domestic violence, the penalty structure seems awkward.

NASCAR has rightfully enacted a zero tolerance policy on substance abuse. Just last year, it snared AJ Allmendinger and cost him a job at Penske Racing thanks to what he claims was a one-time use of an unprescribed prescription drug. Other more grievous offenses — like former driver Jeremy Mayfield testing positive for methamphetamine — have also been revealed by the program.

Yet Kvapil, still facing charges and still yet to issue a denial in a case that alleges he struck his wife, will be in the cockpit again Sunday for BK Racing at Talladega.

The cases aren’t perfectly symmetrical and Kvapil hasn’t been officially convicted of his accused crimes. Still, it feels like NASCAR has a questionable gulf of distance between what offenses are immediately punishable and what isn’t immediately punishable.



5. Single-file racing may dominate parts of Sunday’s raceThe fall event at Talladega comes at a time when the sport’s frontrunners mostly wish it wouldn’t: the central point of the championship race. It’s a chess match of “hoping to avoid trouble” and “be there at the end in the name of scoring points” that are only available when the checkered flag falls.

The result, as the fall race at Talladega has shown a few times in recent seasons, is that drivers can get very content with racing in a single-file manner through the race’s middle portions and until the final pit stop. The result can be frustrating for fans to watch and frustrating for drivers who want to move up.

The physics of Talladega and a high-level of grip in the inside lane can make outside passing tough to pull off.

“When you get single-file at the bottom, sometimes it’s hard to get a lane on the outside with enough good cars to get something going,” said Kyle Busch. “It can be frustrating, at times, because of that.”

For drivers keeping that calm, however, it makes the race a little less hectic.

“If you can be a contender and stay in line on the bottom, you can make it a pretty easy and safe race, “ Busch said. “Normally, guys are not content doing that, so that’s when it starts to get crazy.”

Of course, a late restart — like the one in the spring race — can toss those ideas of easy and safe out the window, too.


Follow Geoffrey Miller on Twitter: @GeoffreyMiller
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.
 

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