Sunday, Sep 19

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 much anticipation, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series hit the high-banked Talladega Superspeedway for knockout qualifying. Although it was rather messy, especially in round one, things worked out rather well. 

Brian Scott, 26, has won the pole for the Aaron's 499 at Talladega. Scott, a full-time NASCAR Nationwide Series driver for Richard Childress Racing, is schedule to race in NASCAR's top-tier division in no more than 10 events this year. Making just his fifth career start in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, Scott now has one-third of the amount of poles which he has earned in 150 Nationwide Series starts (three poles). Prior to his impressive pole award at Talladega, his best qualifying position was 12th for the Daytona 500 this year, and 19th in his first career start at Charlotte last October.

Scott was also fastest in the second round of qualifying with a speed of 196. 911 mph. He was able to take advantage of going out in a pack with the entire RCR team as well as those with an alliance with RCR. Scott was at the tail end of the pack in the final round of qualifying, but then he was in the perfect position with five cars in front of him and two cars behind him, propelling him to have the fastest speed out of the 12 drivers to make it to the third session. Paul Menard, Scott's RCR teammate, will start in the second position, creating a front row sweep for RCR.

"It is always a team effort to get these superspeedway poles. It is awesome for everyone at Richard Childress Racing. We were able to get the right draft at the last second," Scott said in a post-race interview with Fox. 

Unfortunately, history is not on Scott's side. The last time a pole-sitter won at Talladega was Jeff Gordon back in 2007, and before that - Bobby Labonte way back in 1998. In 89 Sprint Cup Series races at NASCAR's largest track, only 12 drivers have led the field to the green flag and won the race. 

Entering the qualifying session, drivers were extremely anxious as they did not know what to expect. On Friday afternoon, there was a wreck during Nationwide Series qualifying - forcing Sprint Cup Series drivers to question what their strategies will be as they prepared to go out for the first knockout qualifying at a restrictor plate track.

Seven Ford drivers were included in the first group which hit the race track to start the first session. While trying to figure out their strategies, there were some cars in packs flying by slower cars which were attempting to settle the order which they wanted to be in when they got on the race track. However, only one Ford driver, Carl Edwards, was able to advance to the final round of qualifying. And nine of the top-10 drivers, with the exception of Edwards, were driving for Chevrolet teams - primarily RCR or teams with an alliance with RCR.

Kyle Busch set the pace in round one with a top speed of 200.574 mph, but scraped the wall in his No. 18 Toyota. Busch's speed was the fastest overall in each of the three rounds. 

Dave Blaney, Joe Nemechek, Eric McClure and J.J. Yeley missed the race. Each of those four drivers were 42nd and worse during the first session in qualifying.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., the two-time Daytona 500 champion, missed the cut for the second round. His No. 88 Chevrolet will start 31st on Sunday afternoon. However, he was not phased by starting towards the back of the pack. Besides Earnhardt Jr., Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Michael Waltrip, Jamie McMurray, Greg Biffle, Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. were amongst those not making it past round one. Saturday's wild qualifying session also marked the first time that Team Penske driver, Joey Logano, missed the final session this season. 

In round two, there was a caution for debris with less than three minutes remaining in the session. However, NASCAR did not stop the clock as the yellow flag came out, not the red flag. Per NASCAR rules - if the red flag is out, the clock stops. But when there is a yellow flag out - the clock continues. The green flag came out with less than a minute left, and several drivers were not able to complete a lap to enter the top-12. 

Update: Martin Truex Jr. and Kasey Kahne failed post qualifying inspection. Kahne's No. 5 Chevrolet was too light while Truex Jr.'s No. 78 Chevrolet did not meet the necessary height requirements. 

The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series is gearing up to make its first of multiple trips to one of the most action filled race tracks in the sport. Talladega Superspeedway – the longest track on the NASCAR circuit is known for madness thanks in part to a rare layout which includes 33 degrees of banking in the corners.

After an incredible Daytona 500, NASCAR’s Generation Six has shown that it is capable of running great races, but under the right circumstances. The Daytona 500 started out with pack racing, but then the cars were single-file until the rain came. However, once the cars got back going in the evening hours, there was never a dull moment as the racing was extremely intense.

Talladega hopes to replicate the second portion of the Great American Race, creating enthusiasm after having the pair of races at the speedway that were below standards for the standards which have been set by fans.

This weekend, 47 cars will be competing for 43 spots at a track where making the race might be extremely difficult. With the new qualifying format in place for the first time at a restrictor plate in the Sprint Cup Series, drivers might race in packs. However, the Nationwide Series set a standard for group qualifying when the season opened at Daytona. Those drivers went onto the track in a single-file line with their teammates and/or members of the same manufacturer. Although it was chaotic at first, it went rather smoothly and created much interest in group qualifying. This is a key reason as to why FOX has moved Cup Series qualifying from Fox Sports 1 to FOX.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. enters the Aaron’s 499 as a favorite to win the race after winning his first restrictor plate race since Talladega back in 2004 – the same season which he won his first career Daytona 500. If history repeats itself this weekend, it would be Earnhardt Jr.’s ninth career victory on a superspeedway in NASCAR’s top-tier division. However, since he is seemingly locked into the Chase for the Sprint Cup, it is likely that he will use the strategy of hanging out towards the back of the pack until late in the event.

Last year’s winner of the Aaron’s 499, David Ragan, enters this race weekend with hopes of repeating his monumental victory. Ragan and his Front Row Motorsports team showed that just about anyone can win at Talladega if they are near the front at the conclusion of the race. With the level of competition nearing a climax, teams like Front Row Motorsports might just pull into victory lane once again on Sunday afternoon.

“Our team is focus on a ‘Double Down’ of our own – repeating last year’s win at Talladega – this time with KFC on board,” Ragan said. “We’re excited about again contending for a Talladega win.”

After an extremely strong start to the race season, Jeff Gordon is bound to compete for a win at Talladega. Even though Gordon is historically one of the sport’s best drivers at the restrictor plate tracks, he has had some unfortunate luck at NASCAR’s largest oval. Since 2008, Gordon has just three top-10 finishes in 12 races at Talladega along with only 42 laps led. However, there is something different about Gordon this year that might help him enter victory lane for the first time this year at a track which he has scored seven victories at.

Along with Gordon, there are several notable drivers which have yet to win this year including – Jimmie Johnson, Ryan Newman, Clint Bowyer, Kasey Kahne, Greg Biffle, Tony Stewart, Denny Hamlin and other top competitors. This might be their chance to give themselves a greater chance at earning a spot in NASCAR’s version of the playoffs.

Here are some notables:

-          Terry Labonte is making his second start of the year in the No. 32 car for Go Fas Racing.

-          Eric McClure will be making his second attempt of the season in the No. 35 car for Front Row Motorsports. McClure finished 23rd in the second Budweiser Duel at Daytona – missing the Daytona 500.

-          Joe Nemechek moves over to the No. 87 Toyota as Michael Waltrip will be racing his No. 66 car this weekend.

-          J.J. Yeley moves back to the No. 44 Chevrolet now that his Xxxtreme Motorsport team has obtained the points from the No. 30 car which was formerly Swan Racing.

-          Josh Wise will be sponsored by Doge Coin this weekend via fans donating money to sponsor him through Reddit.

-          Brian Scott is entered in a fourth Richard Childress Racing car this weekend in the No. 33. When not a RCR entry, the No. 33 car is run by Joe Falk.

-          Trevor Bayne is back in the No. 21 Ford this weekend, attempting to make his fourth start of the year.

Dylan Kwasniewski is different. He is vibrant. He is courageous. He has gone through things that no teenager has gone through. However, he is still young, and the best has yet to come.

At 18-years-old, Kwasniewski is struggling in NASCAR’s second-tier division. Not too many young drivers admit when they make mistakes, yet something is different about Kwasniewski that sets him aside from his peers.

Besides taking the risk of a lifetime by advancing to the NASCAR Nationwide Series instead of racing in the K&N Pro Series East for another season, Kwasniewski made the daring move from Las Vegas to Charlotte, N.C. It is not too rare for an 18-year-old to move out of his house, but Kwasniewski is doing things a little bit different than most kids that opt to go to college or the military.

“It has been tough, and I am still not completely used to it by any means. It is what you have to do. You have to get used to it. This is where the center of racing is. This is where my team is at. This is where everyone in NASCAR is at. It has been tough, and it is definitely different. But I have to get used to it, and I do like it. It is a long process to get acclimated to everything,” Kwasniewski said in an over-the-phone interview.

When he made the move, Kwasniewski became friends with some of his peers such as Darrell Wallace Jr., Ryan Blaney and his teammate, Kyle Larson. Living in the same apartment complex has certainly helped the three drivers. Not only have they helped each other adjust to life off of the track, but they give one another advice about their on track life.

It is a long, grueling journey to race to the top in NASCAR. Kwasniewski is set out to do it. He is just fortunate to be in the situation he is in right now. If it were not for his sponsor, Rockstar Energy, Kwasniewski would likely still be in the lower divisions in the sport. Last summer, during his feature “Flat Out” on AOL, Kwasniewski was seen having numerous meetings with the energy drink company while finishing up his senior year in high school  – hoping they would sign on for a Camping World Truck Series or Nationwide Series slate in 2014. Ultimately, they chose the Nationwide Series after extensive negotiations with the team.

“It showed not only the NASCAR world, but the rest of the world what it is like to move up through the ranks as a young driver. It was more public spotlight and exposure. It was just great overall.”

In that show, Kwasniewski’s immature side was shown. However, since then, he has grown up plenty. However, this show helped him get noticed. It was the setting stone for him to have more meetings with Rockstar, Turner Scott Motorsports and he.

After his first eight races, Kwasniewski has recorded just one top-10 finish (Daytona). He has shown he has a habit of trying too hard. At his home track in Las Vegas, he not only wrecked in qualifying – forcing his team to go to a backup car, but he also wrecked in the race. However, amidst the struggles comes hope for Kwasniewski.

“Well, I think the biggest thing is off track stuff. Once we do get to the race track, and we do get adapted to the tracks, we do alright. I have put myself in some pretty bad spots. I haven’t been as patient as I need to be. I haven’t had the mentality that I had over the last two years with my success in the K&N Series. I just get a little too far over my head. I feel like I need to be outperforming what is expected of me,” Kwasniewski admitted as he elaborated on his struggles.

“When I go out there and don’t get the finishes that I like to, and I really do get frustrated with the car or how our day is going – I put myself in a bad spot and I don’t have the collectiveness to calm myself and make sure I just slow down a little bit. As I see that and see that I need to calm down on the track as well as off the track too, I just need to keep preparing myself for these tracks that I have never been to. I have to do everything I can to try to put myself in a good spot, so when I actually do get onto it (not overdriving), I will be able to learn the nuances of the track.”

As a contender for the Sunoco Rookie of the Year award, Kwasniewski is set out to have a tenacious battle with point’s leader, Chase Elliott, along with fellow rookies, Ty Dillon and Chris Buescher as it stands after eight contests. If he wants to contend for this prestigious award, he will have to start improving, and fast.

Working with veteran crew chief, Pat Tryson, appears to be helping Kwasniewski. But even that might not be enough to solve a young driver’s overeager driving style. Moreover, Kwasniewski has begun to himself for the team’s struggles – something that he understands won’t help the situation.

“Obviously, for any crew chief, it is going to be tough to try to understand everything we need to try to get that communication better and start making good changes so that we can be in that good place that we need for the car.  Like I said, we have been struggling a little bit in every aspect of it, but I think me and Pat have been working well. The crew guys have been making an awesome effort like they need to be. There is not a lack of dedication or a lack of hard work. Our team is working really hard to make sure that these cars are good. I just need to do my part to prove to them that we are working hard for a reason. We can go out there and win races,” said Kwasniewski about working with his new crew chief.

The hardest part about adjusting to the hectic Nationwide Series schedule for Kwasniewski has been going to new tracks. He is used to racing at short tracks. He grew up racing on short tracks – racing go-carts in Connecticut as well as Phoenix, and then Bandolero’s in the midst of Sin City. When he started dominating the K&N Pro Series West and East, Kwasniewski was only able to race on a handful of tracks which NASCAR’s top ranks compete within.

Not going to the tracks has put him behind. Sure, he has Tryson’s experience, but that is all. Kwasniewski has been smart, however, as he goes to his Turner Scott Motorsports teammate, arson, for advice. Larson, 21, is competing for the Sprint Cup Series Rookie of the Year award, and just won that accolade last season in the Nationwide Series. However, even though he is doing well, there is not much in Larson’s arsenal to help Kwasniewski advance his setups since it is his sophomore year in NASCAR’s second-tier division.

“I think that the biggest thing is watching the in-car camera footage and footage of the races, but as well as just talking to every driver that I can from my teammate, Kyle (Larson), and really any driver that is willing to open up and bring me into their bag of tricks. I thing that is really big, watching the in-car camera because you get the lifting points, the braking points and just trying to get into the mode of how you are going to be on the race track. Tracks like Daytona are kind of straight forward because of how they are. But at these other tracks, it is good to get that in your head so you at least have an idea when you get on the race track,” Kwasniewski said as he described his struggles in attempting to learn tracks.

Even with some struggles, Kwasniewski is learning.

His struggles have led for Kwasniewski to become more mature. Entering the season, there was speculation that Kwasniewski was not mature enough for the Nationwide Series because of his different personality. Some even judged him, and still do, because he wears a different type of hat with his sponsor’s logo slammed all over it. But this adversity has made him an even stronger racer.

Recently, Kwasniewski signed a driver-development with one of NASCAR’s larger teams – Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates. Ganassi already has Larson driving the No. 42 Chevrolet in the Sprint Cup Series, but the team is a two-car organization with veteran racer, Jamie McMurray, in the team’s second car. Therefore, there is no need to rush Kwasniewski up to the Cup Series, and that is the least of his concerns – at least for now.

“It is a long process like anything. To do a contract like that takes a lot, but they saw potential in me just like they saw with Kyle Larson, and they are willing to take a risk on young guys. It is great. It is great for the sport. It has proven to other team owners that you can develop a driver, and stick to the roots with the young guys. I need to show the guys over there that it was worth it, and that the potential that they saw will pay off in the long run,” Kwasniewski said.

“It is hard to pinpoint what time you would want to move up to Cup. But it all depends on when I believe I am ready for it, or when Chip Ganassi believe I am ready for it. There is not really a number that you can put on it, but I have to be confident in my own ability that I am ready to move up. It will be at least two to three years, which is for sure. I want to establish myself in this series first before I move up. I definitely don’t want to move up too quick by any means.”

Not only has Kwasniewski been trying to prove he is capable of racing in these larger, more powerful automobiles, but he has been spending time at the shop as well. In this era, it is important for a young driver to show his credibility to an organization, and Kwasniewski is doing just that with CGR and TSM.

“I just get in there and show the guys that I am here for support.  I go to the Turner shop and hang out there. I go to (Chip) Ganassi (Racing with Felix Sabates) and talk as much as I can over there. I just need to learn to utilize what I have and what is around me a little more, so we can be more prepared and start doing a little bit better,” Kwasniewski said.

Kwasniewski’s development contract will surely lead him to the Cup Series sooner rather than later. However, he needs to start proving he is mature enough to compete for wins. Wrecking cars and learning is one thing, but doing so while running mid-pack is another thing. When Larson was having a rough start to his Nationwide Series campaign, he was running towards the higher part of the field. However, Kwasniewski has not finished higher than 11th since Daytona, and the struggles don’t seem to be going away after another crash at Richmond.

Moving forward, Kwasniewski has a lot to prove. Not only does he have to keep his emotions together on the track, but he also needs to show he is able to live alone just like his peers in an apartment complex right near the Turner Scott Motorsports shop. Now that he has a development deal with a Cup Series stable, Kwasniewski can focus on his learning curve. He will make mistakes. He is not immortal. However, he is a teenager. He can have fun, but he needs to prove he is going to be a vital force for Chip Ganassi’s team in the years to come.

“I need to prove more of the mentality that I had the last two years. I was in the right state of mind the last two years where I had the right mentality to win two championships. Even though it was in a different series, a less competitive series with a lesser spotlight, but I was very patient. I went through a lot of stuff. A lot of adversity, and I need to take that mentality into this year. I need to be more patient, more forgiving, understand a little bit more about it and stop trying to go out there and trying to get something out of the car that I can’t. I need to be content with where I finish and be happy with it going from a race finish to the next race. I need to improve myself. I need to show them that I can compete with the best of the best with these Sprint Cup Series drivers in the Nationwide Series.”

 

 

Short tracks always get tempers flaring. Matt Kenseth knows that a little too well by now. A few years ago, Jeff Gordon yanked him by the collar at the Bristol Motor Speedway. Now, Kenseth has gotten into trouble with NASCAR's most outspoken driver, Brad Keselowski. 

On a night where tires were blowing, flames were soaring out of cars and tempers were flaring like Bugs Bunny against Elmer Fudd - but not in such a humorous fashion, Kenseth and Keselowski started the first of possibly many wars to come.

Kenseth and Keselowski were battling for the lead with a handful of laps remaining during Saturday evening's running of the Toyota Owner's 400 at the Richmond International Raceway. Keselowski went to pass Kenseth, but was seemingly blocked by the driver of the No. 20 Toyota. After racing side-by-side for slightly over a lap, Keselowski went for the lead off of Turn Four, but his car became extremely loose. This lead to Keselowski's teammate, Joey Logano, going under the duo battling for the front spot, and was able to hold onto the lead to win his second race of the year.

"I had a shot at winning the race, and I felt like he ran me up the track," Keselowski said after the race. "You make a move like that when you are going to win the race, not when you are just keeping someone else from winning a race. 

Proceeding the "block," Keselowski tapped Kenseth's Joe Gibbs Racing car multiple times in the closing laps, but nothing too serious. However, once the checkered flag waved, chaos erupted between the two. Even though no fists were thrown like Marcos Ambrose's epic punch which connected with Casey Mears' face, the two have been fighting words - something that might come into play as the season continues.

When the drivers were heading to pit road as the race concluded, Keselowski took his frustration out on Kenseth's car, starting a brand new rivalry. Keselowski got into Kenseth on the cool-down lap, causing a domino effect with Dale Earnhardt Jr. and A.J. Allmendinger each hitting Kenseth's rear bumper. Kenseth sits second in the points standings while Keselowski is seventh, but also has a win which should lock him into NASCAR's version of the playoffs.

Now, NASCAR has their newest rivalry. The two have completely different personalities, and it does not appear they want to make amends anytime soon. In the days since the hectic race, the two drivers have hit to social media to do some venting. 

Someone should have told Kenseth fans that the race was during the evening.

Keselowski then Tweeted out this message: "Huge thank you to gargoyles for giving me glasses so great I don't want to give them away," with a picture of his rather nice pair of sunglasses.

Prior to this, Joe Gibbs Racing Tweeted out a picture of Kenseth's damaged car:

Moving forward, it will be interesting to see if the two drivers act on their budding rivalry. In the midst of a season where ratings have decreased compared to 2013, a rivalry between two championship contenders can certainly bring back some interest into NASCAR.

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