Thursday, Mar 30

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.

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