It’s big. It’s bad. It’s fast. It’s Talladega! This race needs little introduction. This one has been perhaps the most anticipated Talladega race in recent memory, and if practice and qualifying were any indication of what is to come today, then the hype will be justified. Plenty of stories are on the docket heading into today’s race, and there is much to cover, so let’s just dive right in, shall we?
1. Could Josh Wise and the Dogecoin car pull the upset of the century?
My apologies to all of the usual suspects of the NASCAR garage who dominate this column every week. None of your cars are crowdfunded by an internet-meme themed digital currency, and thus you’ll just have to take a back seat for this weekend’s edition of Four Burning.
Indeed, driver Josh Wise and the Phil Parsons Racing outfit will undoubtedly be the most interesting story to watch in today’s race, and for good reason. For those unaware of what I am talking about, the woefully underfunded PPR team are carrying a very special sponsor for today’s race: Dogecoin. Dogecoin is a digital currency that has a large presence on the internet discussion website Reddit.com. Through the concerted efforts of members of both the NASCAR and Dogecoin sub-forums on Reddit, $55,000 dollars were raised to sponsor the PPR #98 team with the intention of having Dogecoin colors adorning the car for today’s race.
It was a truly astounding example of both the power of crowdfunding and the popularity of NASCAR as a whole. The incredible story has brought massive exposure to today’s race, and should Wise pull off the incredible upset by winning, it could be an absolutely massive boon for the sport. The internet community has a finicky relationship with NASCAR, but the addition of another positive chapter to this story (in the form of a win or Top 5 finish) could go a long way in making various internet communities, who otherwise ignore the sport, begin to pay attention.
All told, one would be wise to keep a special eye on the “Dogecar” today.
2. Will today’s race eclipse the level of competiveness seen in Daytona?
This year’s Daytona 500 was easily the most competitive and arresting restrictor plate race in at least ten years. With the 2014 Cup Series restrictor plate aero package, NASCAR has finally hit upon a something that perfectly blends exciting passing, handling, and competitiveness, all while allowing the best cars and drivers to rise to the top.
Based on this weekend’s practices and qualifying sessions, there is every reason to believe that today’s race will eclipse the level of competitiveness and excitement that the sport saw in Daytona. Drivers were passing each other at will with plenty of three- and four-wide excitement to boot. In short, today’s race is going to be a wild one.
Of course, with lots of competitive big-pack racing expected, the Big One is likely an imminent reality. Watch for it to happen around the 400-450 mile mark as drivers try to maneuver their way to the front for the final stretch run of the race.
3. Have the drivers finally learned how and when to “make the move?”
Building on Question 2, the Gen-6 Sprint Cup cars have come an awful long way on the superspeedway tracks since the cars were introduced during Speedweeks 2013. At their inception, the cars were absolute duds on the plate tracks, and as such it was nigh impossible to line up correctly to make moves for the win late in the race. A combination of both learning on behalf of the drivers, and engineering on behalf of the teams, helped slowly turn the restrictor plate product from stinky to solid.
The end of the fall Talladega race was a rather perfect example of this issue. The race itself was very competitive, with plenty of two and three wide excitement. But since drivers were still going through the process of learning the Gen-6 cars, not a single one was able to figure out how and when to “make the move” late in the race with 10 laps to go. The lack of moves led to a 20+ car single-file draft train to end that particular event, illustrating the fact that the Gen-6 cars were still a work-in-progress.
But now, the drivers seem to have enough of a grasp on this package to make the correct moves late in the race. Speedweeks 2014 demonstrated this notion as multiple events were determined by last lap moves. Look for drivers to experiment with the timing of their moves throughout the race as they prepare for what they need to do with 10 to go.
Long story short, don’t expect another single file draft train to end the race.
4. Who is the favorite to win the Aarons 499?
In most week’s, picking a favorite to win is relatively straightforward. Not so at Talladega Superspeedway. The nature of the draft makes it such that nearly every driver in the field has a better chance to win than usual. Some people interpret this to mean that the race is a “crapshoot” of sorts. This is, of course, a laughably ignorant belief. Contrary to popular relief, there is a method to the restrictor plate madness, and certain drivers and teams simply have it figured out better than everyone else.
As for what driver has it figured out better than anyone, look no further than Dale Earnhardt Jr. When NASCAR brought back pack racing to the Cup Series in 2012, Dale Earnhardt Jr. experienced an immediate renaissance of success on the sport’s fastest tracks. Junior never quite adapted to the tandem and hybrid pack-tandem styles of racing that first arose in 2009 and grew and evolved through 2011. Now that the racing is slowly returning to the style of pack racing that Junior saw so much success with in the early 2000s, Junior is experiencing a resurgence of success, evidenced by his Daytona 500 win and sterling 8.44 average finish on plate tracks since ’12.
As for other standout drivers at Talladega, look at Matt Kenseth and David Ragan. Kenseth has led more laps than anyone at Talladega since 2012, and grabbed a win here in the Fall 2012 race. Ragan has been the best driver in terms of average finish over the past 4 Talladega races, with a win in the Spring ’13 race and 4 top 10s total. It would not in any way be an upset if Ragan won today, regardless of what anyone says. The man is simply more skilled at this style racing than most.
As for my pick however, I am taking Junior. His team seems to have the best grasp on this style of racing right now and Junior appears to be in attack mode. That is a lethal combination on a plate track.
Matt Stallknecht’s Pre-Race Predictions for the 2014 Aarons 499:
1. 88-Dale Earnhardt Jr.
2. 20-Matt Kenseth
3. 48-Jimmie Johnson
4. 2-Brad Keselowski
5. 11-Denny Hamlin
6. 34-David Ragan
7. 17-Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
8. 99-Carl Edwards
9. 22-Joey Logano
10. 24-Jeff Gordon