Stock Car Challenge preview: Talladega
Last week at Kansas, Greg Biffle pulled off a minor surprise when he became the first non-Chase for the Cup driver to win one of the final 10 races this season. He gave Ford two consecutive victories, the first time this season a manufacturer other than Chevrolet turned the trick. This week's site, Talladega, has often been host to dramatic victories.
Talladega saw three first-time winners in four years from 1987 to 1988, and Brian Vickers scored his first career win at the site last year. So Stock Car Challenge players cannot discount the possibility of a non-Chase driver making another strong run. Another Ford win, though, could be far-fetched, because Chevrolet has won 16 of the past 17 races at the site. The Car of Tomorrow will also make its debut at Talladega, the first time the COT will be raced on an oval longer than 1.33 miles and with a restrictor plate. Teams participated in a two-day test at Talladega in September in preparation for this race. Talladega is one of two tracks on the Nextel Cup circuit that requires a restrictor plate. It is the longest oval track on the schedule.
Teams will use a larger plate on the COT, going from a 28/32 plate (used in May at Talladega) to a 31/32 plate. The increase in size is expected to add 75-to-80 horsepower, which should improve throttle response and compensate for the additional drag the COT car creates. "With the COT cars, it's going to change the element of how Talladega races, and I think it will be twice as exciting," said Kurt Busch.
Practices will be a key in determining how cars will react in big packs this week. Dynamics of the draft may change, as well, because leaders may be more vulnerable to passing than in the past. Mistakes on pit road can lead to the loss of valuable track positions. It won't be easy to predict a winner in the first COT race at Talladega, but past results can still point the way to a solid lineup.
Dale Earnhardt Jr (20.6): If there is any track on which Junior will likely get an emotional final win under the DEI banner, it will be at Talladega. He has long been searching for his first win of the season, and there's a very good chance it will come at a plate track. "This would be the best time for us to get another victory," Earnhardt said in a NASCAR press release. "I so badly want to win one for my fans and sponsors and especially for my entire team." Adding more emotional fuel for Junior is the fact that it will be crew chief Tony Eury Jr.'s final race at DEI. He has five career victories at Talladega, which is tied for the all-time lead. He won four consecutive races at the site from 2001 to 2003, the longest streak ever. He finished seventh in the first race at the site this season.
Jeff Gordon (23.6): Another restrictor-plate king, he is tied with Junior for the all-time lead in victories at Talladega. Gordon has 12 top-5 finishes and 15 top-10 showings at the site. His 680 laps in the top 15 and average running position of 11.7 is fourth-best among active drivers over the past five Talladega races. He won the first race at the site this season after taking the pole and leading for 79 laps. He has led for 800 laps in 29 career starts at the site. Gordon has led for 161 laps in the past three Talladega races.
Kevin Harvick (20.5): He has finished in the top 10 a total of seven times in his past 10 races at Talladega. He also has three top-5 showings at the site and has taken the pole once. Harvick finished sixth last week at Kansas, his second top-10 showing in the past four races. Harvick has finished sixth in each of the past two races at Talladega. In 2003 and 2004, he finished in the top three a total of two times, with a pair of second-place finishes.
Kurt Busch (20.4): He has not yet recorded a win at Talladega but should contend for his first victory at the site. He has placed in the top 10 a total of 10 times and has six top-5 showings at Talladega. In the past five races at the site, he leads all drivers with 767 laps in the top 15 and has a series-high 1,672 quality passes, which are passes of cars in the top 15 while under green-flag conditions. His average running position of 10.3 is also second-best in the field during that span.
Jamie McMurray (16.4): His price has continued to drop, but he's a great bargain for this week's race. He has three top-5 finishes and four top-10s at Talladega. He has an average running position of 11.0 over the past five races at the site. His 724 laps in the top 15 is also second-best among active drivers during that span. His 1,273 quality passes are fifth-best. He has finished fifth in two of the past three races at Talladega.
Brian Vickers (15.9): He will have to qualify on speed. He did not race at Kansas but managed a 16th-place finish at Dover. After finishing sixth in the second Talladega race of 2005, and third in the first race of 2006, he earned his first career win at the site in the second event of last season. Vickers missed the first Talladega race this year, so he should be primed for a good run this week.
David Gilliland (13.2): He has quickly become a restrictor-plate "specialist" in the Nextel Cup series. Gilliland finished fourth in his first race at the site this season. In 2006, he took the pole and finished 15th. If there is a legitimate threat to be a first-time winner at Talladega this week, it could be Gilliland. Let's not forget he also has a pole and two finishes in the top 11 at Daytona.
Clint Bowyer (20.9) has not finished better than 35th at Talladega. & Tony Stewart (23.1) has never won at Talladega but has been a runner-up six times. & Matt Kenseth (21.1) has a series-best average running position of 9.4 in the past five Talladega races. & Jeff Burton (20.4) has a total of 10 top-10 finishes at Talladega.