Complete Preview for NASCAR Sprint Cup Series at Talladega

Paul CarreauAnalyst IOctober 16, 2013

Complete Preview for NASCAR Sprint Cup Series at Talladega

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    The Sprint Cup Series returns to Talladega Superspeedway Sunday afternoon.
    The Sprint Cup Series returns to Talladega Superspeedway Sunday afternoon.Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

    The Sprint Cup Series makes its second trip of the season to the Talladega Superspeedway on Sunday afternoon for the sixth race of the 2013 Chase for the Championship.

    Of the 10 playoff events, this one is clearly the biggest wild card. Not only is the threat of "the big one" always looming, but this is a track where literally all 43 drivers that take the green flag have an equal chance of ending the day in Victory Lane.

    The first time that the series visited Talladega back in early May, it was David Ragan, driving for the underfunded Front Row Motorsports team, that scored the win. It was the first win in team history and only the second career victory for Ragan.

    Matt Kenseth enters the race with a four-point advantage over Jimmie Johnson while Kevin Harvick, Jeff Gordon and Kyle Busch are all still within 37 points of the top spot.

    From big wrecks to surprise winners to a potential big shake-up in the standings, anything and everything is sure to happen at Talladega.

    So who are the primary drivers to keep an eye on, and what are the biggest stories heading into the sport's biggest wild card? Join us as we break everything down and get you set for the sixth and most unpredictable race of the NASCAR playoffs.

Talladega Race Information

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    Three- and four-wide racing are quite common at Talladega.
    Three- and four-wide racing are quite common at Talladega.Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

    The sixth race of the 2013 Sprint Cup Chase for the Championship takes place at Talladega Superspeedway. Here are all of the important details for the event.

    Race: Camping World RV Sales 500

    Track: Talladega Superspeedway (2.66-mile quad oval)

    Distance: 188 laps to make up 500 miles

    Green Flag: Sunday afternoon, Oct. 20, 2:00 p.m. ET

    TV: ESPN

    Defending Race Winner: Matt Kenseth

    First Race: September 14, 1969 (won by Richard Brickhouse)

Breaking Down Talladega Superspeedway

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    John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

    Talladega Superspeedway is the longest track on the Sprint Cup Series schedule. At 2.66 miles in length, it is fractionally bigger than both Daytona and Indianapolis.

    Three- and four-wide racing is fairly common at Talladega due to the width of the track.

    Talladega has been on the Sprint Cup Series schedule since 1969. Beginning with the 1970 season, it has hosted two events annually, with one race in the spring and the second taking place in the fall.

    Talladega has been the host of a Chase race each year since 2004 and is the only track of its size that is used during the playoffs.

    Jeff Gordon leads all active drivers with six wins at the facility. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is the only other current driver with more than two wins in Alabama. He owns five Talladega trophies.

    If ever there was a track where starting position was a moot point, Talladega is that track. Six of the last 12 winners have won from a starting spot outside the top 10. Four of those times the eventual winner came from 19th or worse on the starting grid.

Top Storylines at Talladega

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    Martin Truex Jr. is now looking for a ride for the 2014 season.
    Martin Truex Jr. is now looking for a ride for the 2014 season.Will Schneekloth/Getty Images

    NASCAR Unveils 2014 Schedule

    On Tuesday, NASCAR released its much anticipated 2014 schedule. Not surprisingly, it looks fairly similar to the schedule used during the 2013 season. All 10 Chase race venues remain the same and stay in the same order as this year. For the fourth consecutive year, Chicago will host the first event of the postseason.

    Only four races are switching dates. Texas Motor Speedway, Darlington Raceway, Martinsville Speedway and Kansas Speedway all see their spring dates changed, but none by more than a week or two. For the first time in track history, Kansas Speedway will host a Sprint Cup Series race during the 2014 season.

     

    Michael Waltrip Racing to Scale Back in 2014

    Fallout from the Richmond scandal continues for Michael Waltrip Racing. After learning that Martin Truex Jr.'s primary sponsor NAPA will leave the team following 2013, MWR began a frantic search for financial help to ensure Truex's 2014 season was safe.

    With no sponsor's stepping up to replace NAPA, team owners Michael Waltrip and Rob Kauffman have decided to scale back from three full-time teams to two for the upcoming season. The team will run a third entry in select events.

    The decision officially leaves Truex without a ride for 2014, though he has been notified by the team that he is free to begin negotiating with other teams should the opportunity arise.

     

    Kenseth and Johnson Continue to Battle Atop the Point Standings

    For most of the night at Charlotte last weekend, it appeared that Jimmie Johnson would leave NASCAR's home track as the new point leader. His car was at or near the top of the leaderboard all night long while his primary championship rival, Matt Kenseth, had all he could do to get himself into the top 10.

    Kenseth and his team remained patient and continuously worked on the car, and Kenseth ultimately worked his way into contention.

    A controversial caution with under 30 laps remaining is what potentially cost Johnson the race win as he was the leader at the time. Johnson restarted third but got loose as the green flag waved. He slipped back to seventh but rallied for a fourth-place finish. Kenseth, meanwhile, finished one spot better than Johnson.

    The finish allowed Kenseth to add one point to his championship lead. Entering Talladega, the 2003 series champion leads Johnson by four markers.

     

     

Meeting the Drivers Atop the Point Standings

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    Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson continue to be the top two drivers in the standings.
    Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson continue to be the top two drivers in the standings.Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

    With the Chase now half over, Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson continue to run neck-and-neck at the top of the standings. Only four points separate the two while three other drivers are still very much alive, all within 37 points of the lead. Here is a detailed look at each of the top five competitors.

    1. Matt Kenseth: After posting the worst qualifying time of all championship contenders in Charlotte, Matt Kenseth and his team remained patient and worked on the car all night. The result was a third-place finish, bested by only one other Chase contender. He enters Talladega with a four-point lead in the standings and as the defending winner of this race.

    2. Jimmie Johnson: Jimmie Johnson appeared to be in a position to win the race in Charlotte and also leave with the championship lead. A late-race caution changed all of that as Johnson ultimately finished fourth, one spot behind current point leader Kenseth. Johnson is a two-time Talladega winner having done so most recently in the spring of 2011.

    3. Kevin Harvick: Kevin Harvick enters Talladega third in the championship standings just 29 points out of the lead. Harvick is a former winner at the 2.66-mile superspeedway but has not posted a top-10 finish in his last four trips to the Alabama-based track. When the series made its first visit to Talladega in the spring, Harvick was among the drivers caught up in the day's first big accident. He finished the day in 40th place.

    4. Jeff Gordon: Continuing his strong playoff run, Jeff Gordon sits fourth in the standings, 36 points out of the top spot. Gordon has posted top-10 finishes in seven of the last eight Sprint Cup events and enters Talladega with the most wins among active drivers. Gordon has still yet to win on the season, making him the only driver in the top six in points without one. Gordon finished 11th at Talladega earlier in the year.

    5. Kyle Busch: Kyle Busch posted a quiet fifth-place finish Saturday night in Charlotte to keep his championship hopes alive. Like the four drivers ahead of him in the standings, Busch is a former winner at Talladega, but overall, the track has been unkind to him. In 17 starts, Busch has just four top-10 finishes but has finished worse than 30th eight times. A poor finish on Sunday will spell the end to Busch's title hopes.

Favorites at Talladega

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    David Ragan is statistically one of the best drivers at Talladega.
    David Ragan is statistically one of the best drivers at Talladega.Sean Gardner/Getty Images

    Talladega is a track where all 43 cars that take the green flag can be considered favorites. This race is so wide open that the winner could be one of the sport's top stars that are familiar faces in Victory Lane, or it could be one of the unheralded drivers that use this event as a platform to make a name for themselves.

    While picking favorites at Talladega is no easy task, here are the five drivers that have had more success at the speedway than most of their peers.

     

    Dale Earnhardt Jr.

    Dale Earnhardt Jr. is second among active drivers with five Talladega wins. In the early 2000s, it was almost a forgone conclusion that he would end up in Victory Lane. Between 2001 and 2003, Earnhardt won four consecutive races at the restrictor-plate track. He has not won at this venue since the fall of 2004 but still enters as one of the favorites based solely on his past successes.

     

    Jeff Gordon

    The active wins leader at Talladega is Jeff Gordon. He is a six-time victor at the 2.66-mile oval. His last win at the speedway came in 2007 when he was victorious both times the series stopped there that year. In total, Gordon has 19 top-10 finishes in 41 starts at Talladega and is a three-time pole winner. Four of his last six appearances at the track have resulted in finishes of 11th or better. Gordon is still seeking his first win of the season.

     

    Brad Keselowski

    The most recent winner in Sprint Cup competition, Brad Keselowski has had plenty of success at Talladega in just nine starts. He is a two-time winner, including the first time he ever raced there, and he has posted six top-10 finishes. Keselowski has led at least one lap in all but one of his Talladega starts. His 12.6 average finish is best among active drivers with at least three starts at the speedway.

     

    Clint Bowyer

    Clint Bowyer is another multi-time Talladega champion. He has two wins to his credit and has posted seven top-10 finishes in his 15 career starts. After finishing 35th or worse the first three times he visited the facility, Bowyer has seen his luck turn around. Only twice in the last 12 Talladega events has Bowyer posted a finish outside the top 20. Both of his Talladega wins came in this event, having won them in 2010 and 2011.

     

    David Ragan

    The most recent winner at Talladega, David Ragan is also statistically one of the better drivers here. In 13 career starts, Ragan has notched six top-10 finishes with four of those ending inside the top five. Ragan has posted three consecutive top-10s at this facility, joining Matt Kenseth as the only other driver with that distinction. His 14.8 average finish is second behind only Keselowski among active drivers with at least three starts.

Talladega Predictions

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    It seems logical that Kyle Busch would win a Chase race sooner or later.
    It seems logical that Kyle Busch would win a Chase race sooner or later.John Harrelson/Getty Images

    The easiest way to make a prediction for the Talladega race would be to put all of the car numbers into a hat and randomly pull one out. There is as much chance of successfully predicting the winner using that method as any other.

    This race has the potential to completely change the championship picture. If "the big one" involves any of the top contenders, their title hopes would surely come to an end. Following this race, there are just four events remaining and it is a tough task to try and make up a lot of points in that short of a time.

    Talladega already gave us one feel-good moment this year when David Ragan pulled off a huge upset by winning Front Row Motorsport's first race in team history. Could we see another underdog go to Victory Lane? It is certainly possible.

    While stories like Ragan's are great, they are nothing that anyone predicts. When it gets to this point in the season, we all expect that a Chase driver will end up as the race winner.

    Seven of the 13 championship contenders are former Talladega winners, and five of the last seven races held here have been won by a current Chase driver.

    The only thing that anyone knows with 100 percent certainty when it comes to this race is that we have no idea what to expect.

    It should come as no surprise if by Sunday night after the checkered flag has waved that the point standings look drastically different than they do right now. That is just the nature of the Talladega beast.

    Now close your eyes, reach into that hat and pull out a random number.

    Talladega Winner: Kyle Busch