1. Chase wild card available at Talladega, but still unlikely
No one logically would have put David Ragan and his Front Row Motorsports team as a lock to qualify for last season’s Chase for the Sprint Cup. But under NASCAR’s new points structure, that’s exactly where Ragan would have been thanks to his shocking win a year ago at Talladega Superspeedway.
His win has created attitude in the sport that Talladega nominally serves as the race for any team not typically in contention for a race win to get one. It’s an appealing storyline — underdogs always are — but having a team like Ragan’s actually win at Talladega isn’t exactly likely.
Consider that in the last 10 years of spring races at Talladega, Ragan is the only driver who would have made the Chase under the current points structure because of his Talladega win alone. Brad Keselowski’s win in 2009 was similar to Ragan’s in that it was so surprising, but Keselowski wasn’t racing a full season and wouldn’t have been eligible.
Otherwise, spring race winners in the last 10 years reads like NASCAR’s hit parade: Jimmie Johnson (twice), Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Jeff Gordon (three times).
NASCAR may get a surprise winner Sunday. Just don’t expect it to happen.
2. NASCAR’s wildest qualifying show on deck
NASCAR’s new group qualifying format has been a nice addition to the sport. It’s substantially more interesting and accomplishes the nice task of having the sport’s stars on stage for a longer period.
But if we’re being totally honest, Saturday’s qualifying session at Talladega has been circled on the calendar since the change in procedure was announced. It’s the one everyone has been waiting for largely because it’ll tap into the emotion of watching drivers ride the fine edge of control while hoping against ruin.
For the first time, drafting at NASCAR’s superspeedways will be the way to earn the top spot on the Sprint Cup grid. Instead of single car runs, drivers will have to execute skills different even from race conditions. Getting the fastest lap during Saturday’s session will likely take some sort of slingshot maneuver that’s timed perfectly.
Such a move will require different on-track spacing than standard freight train drafting. Driver awareness will be critical because cars pulling in and out line or getting strong runs will make for close quarters and dramatic closing rates.
All told, it’s a perfect recipe to tear up some perfectly good race cars without a win or point on the line. Let’s see how it turns out.
3. Tweaks to aerodynamic package paid off at Daytona
Whether it was the chance for February’s Daytona 500 to end unexpectedly thanks to another rain shower or just pent up aggression from a restless offseason pouring out, NASCAR’s season-opener delivered a white-knuckle, action-packed thriller largely made possible by tweaks NASCAR made to its restrictor plate aerodynamic rules.
The changes, induced by a ho-hum 2013 Daytona 500, made leading an often tricky proposition and the ability for drivers to pack up, dive out of line and make a run at a pass a lot easier than the prior year. Such problems weren’t nearly as pronounced at Talladega last season, but it’s a safe bet that the additional in-pack performance should ratchet up portions of Sunday’s show.
What will be interesting is a growing trend among drivers — especially at Talladega — to play the race’s first 400 miles in an extra cautious manner. That style of driving is no doubt the common sense approach as it lessens a chance of the familiar big crashes. But it also leads to fan complaints even as drivers tour the 2.66-mile oval door-to-door on a 200 mph cruise control setting.
Talladega is the land of NASCAR’s unexpected, however. We’ll have to wait until Sunday’s green flag to know if driver intelligence or aggression will rule the day. It’s rarely ever both.
4. Jamie McMurray, restrictor plate ace
For Chip Ganassi Racing, 2014 has been all about rookie hotshoe Kyle Larson. The young driver has been more competitive than many expected — leaving veteran teammate Jamie McMurray to play second fiddle to Larson’s rising profile.
The driver of the No. 1 may not be so discreet this weekend.
McMurray is the latest defending Talladega winner after notching his seventh career win there last fall and has carved out a niche as one of the sport’s best restrictor plate racers. McMurray now has two wins a piece at Talladega and Daytona with three of those coming in the series’ last nine outings at those tracks.
5. Kyle Busch chasing laps led milestone
Leading a large number of laps at Talladega Superspeedway has often been a tall task in the restrictor plate era. But if Kyle Busch can lead just over 15 percent of Sunday’s scheduled distance of 188 laps, he’ll join a select group in NASCAR lore.
Busch, currently at 9,970 career laps led after last leading 10 laps in Texas last month, needs just 30 in front of the field to cross the 10,000 career laps led mark. That’s a bar that only 14 other drivers in the sport’s history have crossed. Busch would join just three other active drivers on that list including Jeff Gordon (23,829 career laps led), Jimmie Johnson (16,342) and Tony Stewart (12,708). Busch, currently without a Sprint Cup title to his name, would be just the third driver — Junior Johnson and Mark Martin the others — over 10,000 laps led without a championship.
Richard Petty (51,381) and Cale Yarborough (31,574) pace NASCAR’s all-time laps led list.
In 18 Talladega starts, Busch has led more than 30 laps just once (42 in 2009). He won the spring race in 2008.