Friday, Jan 27

One million dollars is on the line Saturday evening. No, it is not your ordinary NASCAR race. This is not just a preparation for NASCAR’s longest spectacle. This is the Sprint All-Star Race.

Jimmie Johnson has won back-to-back All-Star events, and is going for his third straight win. However, Johnson will have to beat Brad Keselowski who is driving the “best car he has ever driven” for the All-Star Race. Johnson had the second fastest 10 lap average in the lone practice session on Friday afternoon, but Keselowski was more than 1.2 mph faster than Johnson.

This edition of NASCAR’s All-Star event is setting up to be different from each of the previous races. After holding the Sprint Showdown on Friday evening, the three drivers which were able to lock themselves into the All-Star Race, Clint Bowyer, A.J. Allmendinger and Josh Wise, will be enabled to qualify with the drivers already locked into the one-of-a-kind event. Bowyer and Allmendinger were the class of the 23-car field. Wise pulled off the fan vote upset thanks to the Reddit.Com community, stunning the NASCAR world by beating Danica Patrick in the popularity contest. This will be Wise’s first career All-Star Race start after finishing 18th in the Sprint Showdown.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. paced the practice session on Friday afternoon, but was several miles per hour off the pace set by Keselowski, ending the day sixth out of seven cars to run 10 consecutive laps. Earnhardt Jr. currently sits fourth in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series points standings, and is looking to get his first win at Charlotte for the All-Star Race since he won the event during his rookie season.

Coming off of his win at Kansas, Jeff Gordon has plenty of momentum heading into the All-Star Race. Gordon is the points leader after 11 races, and looks to win his first All-Star Race since 2001. However, he has not finished inside of the top-10 for one of NASCAR’s most coveted events since third place finish in 2006.

Kevin Harvick was the fastest car during the test at Charlotte over the winter. Throughout all of the simulation races NASCAR held during that test, Harvick was arguably the best car no matter what type of aero package NASCAR created. Harvick was fourth in practice, and his crew chief, Rodney Childers, and he are looking to win their first All-Star Race together. Harvick's teammate, Kurt Busch, will make it to the All-Star Race after qualifying his No. 26 Honda in the IndyCar Series for his first Indianapolis 500 start. Busch's No. 41 Chevrolet was practiced by Parker Kligerman, who is on standby in case Busch misses the All-Star Race or Coca-Cola 600. 

Qualifying for the Sprint All-Star Race will be held on Saturday evening preceding the main event at 7:10 p.m. ET. This qualifying session will be unlike any other throughout the season as drivers will run three laps with a four-tire pit stop without a pit road speed limit, and the total time elapsed will determine the starting grid. This is the first time qualifying will be held on the same evening as the All-Star Race.

After qualifying is completed, the All-Star Race will start at approximately 9:00 p.m. ET. 

After an incredible start to the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season, Talladega Superspeedway is set to hold a race that might determine a stunning member to the Chase for the Sprint Cup class. With NASCAR's new playoff format, David Ragan would have been in the Chase last season. 

Now, there are approximately 30-35 teams that can win the Aaron's 499 on Sunday afternoon. However, it is going to take the perfect combination of strategy and staying out of tomorrow, as seen in Saturday's Nationwide Series race, to win the second restrictor plate race of the year. 

Here is what you need to watch for during this year's running of the Aaron's 499:

  • Terry Labonte is making his 60th start at Talladega. Labonte announced this is his final year in NASCAR's top-tier division, and he will likely hang out at the rear of the field until the end of the race, making a charge late in the going.
  • Michael Waltrip is returning in the No. 66 Toyota. Waltrip, a two-time Daytona 500 champion, nearly won at Talladega in this race last year, and should be a contender on Sunday.
  • Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson are still looking for their first wins of the year. The two Hendrick Motorsports teammates usually have contradicting strategies during the plate races. Gordon likes to run up front, but sometimes hangs at the back, but Johnson usually runs towards the back.
  • Brian Scott won his first career pole on Saturday afternoon. Scott is making just his fifth career start in the Sprint Cup Series. He led multiple laps in Saturday's Nationwide Series spectacle, but was wrecked by Trevor Bayne - ending his day.
  • There were nine Chevrolet's inside the top-10 in qualifying. They have been extremely strong all weekend, but can they keep it up during the race?
  • Besides Scott winning the pole, there are several underdogs that are starting inside of the top-20 including - A.J. Allmendinger and Casey Mears in row two, Michael McDowell in 14th and Michael Annett in 17th. 
  • David Ragan won this race last year for Front Row Motorsports. He will be starting 39th for the Aaron's 499 with his teammate, David Gilliland with him in 40th. Though the two are back in the pack, they are both proven restrictor plate racers, and they will be a factor during the first Talladega race of the season.
  • Kasey Kahne and Martin Truex Jr. were penalized after qualifying and will have to start at the back of the pack. 
  • Will the higher grove be stronger than it was during the Nationwide Series race? The lower line was the strongest throughout the Aaron's 312.
  • How will tire strategy come into play? Tires will not wear too much, so most times will opt to take two tires instead of four on most pit stops.
  • Will we see a veteran go to victory lane or a young driver?
  • Denny Hamlin was extremely strong throughout Speedweeks in Daytona. Could Hamlin win on Sunday? 

After seven races, the young NASCAR Sprint Cup Series is now well underway. The level of competition has proven to have been dramatically improved from a 2013 season in which NASCAR received much criticism for a lack of passing.

This year, there has been only one race which has had fewer passes for the top position compared to last year, and that race was Las Vegas with one less pass for the lead this year. Clearly, NASCAR's new aero package is working well. However, NASCAR wants parity, and they have that. But something is missing, and that is the reward for consistency - something that helped a driver win championships until this season.

Last season, there were seven winners throughout the first 10 races. However, it was not so much easier for a driver to dominate a race, but a car simply had a lot more speed at the front of the pack over racing for position which was a part of why there was a lack of passing.

Jeff Gordon, the four-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion, currently leads the points standings. It is the first time that Gordon has been atop the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series points standings since the 2009 Coca-Cola 600 - 174 races ago.

NASCAR plans on awarding victories once the Chase for the Sprint Cup starts in September. However, just for the sake of an argument - what the heck happens if Gordon has a giant points lead with limited finishes outside of the top-10, but he has no wins? He would make the Chase, yes, but he would be put back a drop because he wouldn't have any bonus points from wins.

Fortunately, NASCAR's new championship format will actually benefit Gordon, or any other driver that is high in points, if they were not to have any wins at the time of the Chase cutoff at Richmond.

What NASCAR has done is actually great for the sport. A playoff based system that is being compared to the NCAA Men's Basketball tournament, or several other major sport's playoff formats for that matter, has entered NASCAR. If a driver finishes very well (without winning) during the multiple elimination rounds - a driver can win the championship.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., Gordon's teammate at Hendrick Motorsports, would have edged out their partner in crime, Jimmie Johnson, last season if this new system were in place. NASCAR has aimed for awarding drivers for wins, and that they are doing, but consistency still plays a factor. However, as long as a driver such as Gordon continues to run up front, they will get a win.

Through the first seven races this season, Gordon has five top-10 finishes, and no finish worse than 13th at Auto Club Speedway. He is showing everyone that even though NASCAR wants drivers to have wins to get into the Chase, there will likely be a handful of slots open to drivers that do not have wins. Having the points lead, or being within the top-10 at Richmond without a win should lock a driver into the Chase.

By then, most of the top-10 in points should have wins. However, there will be a few exceptions to that such as in 2013 where Clint Bowyer, Earnhardt Jr., Kurt Busch and Gordon did not have any wins come Richmond, but were high enough in points to continue on - competing for the championship in NASCAR's version of the playoffs. 

Gordon has been extremely close to winning a race this year. He finished runner-up to Joey Logano at Texas due to a risky move by his crew chief, Alan Gustafson, and has led 67 laps to begin the year. Although there is room for improvement (as there always is in any sport), Gordon is extremely close to scoring his 89th career NASCAR Sprint Cup Series win.

Before the Chase took on the ruthless Kansas Speedway, many experts and fans were saying it was a three-man chase for the Championship. Well, they were wrong.

Going in to the race weekend, there was a clear separation between the top three drivers, Matt Kenseth, Jimmie Johnson, and Kyle Busch, and the rest of the field. All three drivers were running consistently strong races and looked to be pulling away in points. After Kansas, that isn’t the case anymore.

All three of the top Chase contenders ran into problems during the race, some more than others. Busch and Kansas collided once again with Busch wrecking his primary early on Friday in practice. During the race, things went down hill quickly as he spun through the grass trying to avoid a wrecking Danica Patrick. There was little damage to his car and he rallied back to the front of the field. It didn’t last long. With just 68 laps to go, Busch slammed hard into Turn 1. He would go on to finish 34th.

Kenseth had his own issues throughout the race making several extra trips down pit road. He said it was a “struggle all day” and that he hadn’t had to race in a car that bad in a long time. Giving props to his team, he came across the start/finish line 11th. Johnson had one of the strongest cars all day. Passing cars left and right, Johnson seemed to struggle on restarts. With two to go, his car gave out and he limped around to finish 6th.

When the checkered flag flew, Kyle Busch and Ryan Newman, who was collected early in a wreck, lost the most in the Championship standings. Busch dropped two to fifth, and Newman dropped five to 12th.

At the end of the day, the top seven drivers in the standings are separated by one race worth of points. It is still anybody’s game, but Johnson and Kenseth will be the ones they will have to beat.

 

Current Standings:

Matt Kenseth

-3 Jimmie Johnson

-25 Kevin Harvick

-32 Jeff Gordon

-35 Kyle Busch

-44 Greg Biffle

-47 Kurt Busch

-54 Dale Earnhardt Jr

-55 Clint Bowyer

-59 Joey Logano

-60 Carl Edwards

-73 Ryan Newman

-83 Kasey Kahne

Kansas Speedway qualifying turned in to a pretty special day for Kevin Harvick. For the first time since 2006, Harvick will sit on the pole for the Hollywood Casino 400 on Sunday afternoon. Knocking Ricky Stenhouse Jr. off of the pole, Harvick will have the honor of first pit stall in the 4th Race for the Chase. Harvick ran a lap speed of 187.526, just slightly faster than Rookie Stenhouse Jr at 187.480.

Harvick topped practice earlier in the day and had nothing but praise for his team. "Everybody on our Budweiser team has done a good job," he said in his press conference following the Pole win. "We made a couple really good runs in practice...but we knew the conditions would be cooler so we put the car back how we started practice and hoped that the race track came our way."

Stenhouse ran a great qualifying lap but unfortunately it just wasn't quite good enough. "We were close but our average start here at Kansas is going to be pretty solid now," he said following his qualifying run.

Jimmie Johnson, who currently sits second in points, will start third on Sunday with a qualifying speed of 187.162.

With some incidents during practice that included a spin and a leaking oil cooler and radiator, Johnson still managed to put his Lowe's No.48 Chevrolet in the second row for Sunday.

Here is how your Chase Contenders qualified:

P1: Kevin Harvick

P3: Jimmie Johnson

P5: Joey Logano

P6: Dale Earnhardt Jr.

P7: Matt Kenseth

P9: Carl Edwards

P14: Jeff Gordon

P15: Kasey Kahne

P17: Ryan Newman

P18: Kyle Busch

P19: Kurt Busch

P22: Clint Bowyer

P26: Greg Biffle

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