Race Weekend Central

Four Burning Questions For Talladega: Passing, Plate Racing, Denny & Danica

It’s big. It’s bad. It’s fast. It’s Talladega. That’s where the traveling road show that is the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series is headed this week, and just like any other time the series heads to the behemoth, 2.66-mile facility there is plenty to talk about heading into the race. Richmond continued the dramatic, feud-filled theme that has run rampant throughout the 2013 season, and the race even brought us a few surprises along the way, namely the resurgence of Earnhardt Ganassi Racing and the ongoing downward spiral of Tony Stewart. In other news, Denny Hamlin is making a (partial) return this week, while his JGR team continues to rebound from the levy of penalties placed on them after Kansas. However, the main focus of this weekend of course (like any other time we visit a plate track) will be on how the cars will compete on Sunday. Will the racing be improved from the last plate race in Daytona? That is a seriously burning question that will undoubtedly be the center of discussion as we edge closer to Sunday’s Aaron’s 499.

1. Will Talladega turn out to be a dud like the Daytona 500?

Never in my years of following the sport of NASCAR have I ever seen the fan base be so apprehensive about the impending quality of racing heading into a weekend at Talladega. After what could only be described as a farcical Daytona 500, one in which passing was nearly impossible, there is great concern in NASCAR Nation that the racing at its sister track will be equally as dry and that passing will be equally as difficult. These concerns are well-founded, but there is, in fact reason to believe that the race at Talladega will play out much differently.

The important thing to remember here is that as much as some folks like to compare Daytona and Talladega, they are two vastly different racetracks. Daytona is roughly 1.5 to 2 grooves narrower than Talladega, and .16 miles shorter. Daytona is naturally more of a handling-oriented race track as a result, which in turn makes passing much more difficult. Getting back to Talladega, all of the extra room that it has in comparison to Daytona prevents many of the Daytona strategies from working there, most notably the single-groove racing.

The primary reason why the drivers were forced into a single-file line around the top of the track at Daytona (which was the most visibly apparent factor in the paltriness of the race) is that due to the strength of the side draft in the Gen-6 cars, the top lane was able to pinch off the bottom lane’s run. Given that Daytona is still a handling track, the bottom lane was also scrubbing off more speed on top of being pinched. This prevented the bottom from moving at all. At Talladega, the track is so wide that even in the event that a line does form around the top, the bottom lanes of the track will still be spaced out far enough to prevent the excessive pinching that led to one-groove freight trains. As a result, we should see two and perhaps even three working lanes in Talladega on Sunday.

To sum up, passing will still be difficult for drivers to accomplish by themselves (thus necessitating lots of drafting help) given the way the air moves around the Gen-6 cars. But given the fact that multiple grooves should be available to the drivers, it stands to reason that the Aaron’s 499 will see a great deal more passing and general excitement than what we saw in the Daytona 500. Whether or not it all translates to good racing is the fan’s call; however, Sunday’s race likely won’t be all that much different from the type that usually takes place at Talladega.

Restrictor plate racing seems to agree with Danica Patrick. But will she find the same success at Talladega she did in Daytona?

2. Is this Danica Patrick’s weekend to shine?

Danica Patrick, for all her struggles in NASCAR, seems to have an aptitude for restrictor plate racing. That isn’t particularly surprising given the fact that restrictor plates require a skill set very similar to the one needed to be competitive in IndyCar oval racing, a racing discipline Patrick generally excelled at. Stewart-Haas Racing also has one of the finest restrictor plate programs in the sport at the moment (even though they are struggling everywhere else). If there were ever a weekend for Danica to break through for a good top 5 or even a shocking win, common sense would dictate that this weekend would be it.

But before you all insert Ms. Patrick into your fantasy lineup, there are a few things to keep in mind about her. For one, the performance in the Daytona 500, admirable as it was, had more to do with a great qualifying effort and sound pit strategy that allowed her to maintain all-important track position throughout the race. Given how hard it was to pass in that event, Danica really didn’t have to do much besides keep her foot plastered to the floor to stay out front. As such, consider her 500 performance to be somewhat of an outlier.

Talladega, in comparison is going to be something of a unique challenge for Patrick, given the multiple lanes that are expected to be available in the race. Unlike the Daytona 500, she will have to do more than simply protect her track position. She will have to race hard, wisely work the draft and go toe-to-toe with other drivers for position (something she still hasn’t done much of). Patrick has proven she can keep up, to some degree of success in the Nationwide Series, but plate racing in the Cup Series is a different animal. She will have a fast car, coupled with the know-how to deliver a good finish (much more than at other tracks). But until she has a bit more experience on plate facilities, it would be unwise to list her as anything more than a threat for a top 10.

3. Is it wise for Denny Hamlin to stage his return at Talladega?

In what seems like one of the most poorly thought out decisions of all-time, Denny Hamlin and Joe Gibbs Racing (provided they get final clearance from NASCAR) will be starting the race at Talladega on Sunday with the intention of having Hamlin hand the car over to Brian Vickers on the first caution. Hamlin was cleared by doctors earlier this week to participate in this kind of scenario, and the prevailing thought is that he should, in theory be ready to run the full race next weekend provided that nothing happens in Talladega. Sadly, this whole decision is wrought with danger, for both Hamlin and his team.

Put bluntly, Hamlin should not be in the car this weekend. The fact that he has to relinquish the ride at all to a relief driver is evidence that he is not fully healed yet, and given the kind of vicious accidents that are natural to Talladega, Hamlin is at a higher risk of injury than other drivers in the field who could take more of a beating. Granted, Hamlin should, in theory be getting out of the car early in the race, but what happens if there is a long green-flag run to start the event? It’s not like his team is just going to pull the driver switch under green flag conditions; they could lose as many as 3-4 laps doing that. And they certainly won’t want Hamlin to stay out of the draft; the team risks losing many laps doing that which would defeat the purpose of Hamlin being in the car in the first place. Hamlin and JGR’s only hope for this scenario to work out is if an early caution comes out that doesn’t involve the No. 11, and there are no guarantees that things will play out in that manner.

At the end of the day, it just seems unwise and imprudent of JGR to allow this scenario to happen. When a driver’s health is at risk, points standing position takes a back seat. We can only pray that nothing happens to Hamlin on Sunday, because if he wrecks early and does re-injure his back (or worse) there is no telling the kind of backlash that could ensue.

4. Will Saturday be the last Nationwide plate race we see under the current aero package?

I don’t usually address Nationwide Series topics in this column, but I felt this issue was a rather large one that needed to be touched upon. The results of the investigation of Kyle Larson’s crash into the catchfence on the final lap of the season-opening Nationwide event at Daytona are being released early next week, reminding us all of the horrific accident that took place that day. You can sit here and debate it all you want, but the tandem racing that is still dominant in the Nationwide Series is what caused that wreck, and I was one of a select few people who seemed to believe that something needed to be done to eliminate tandem competition in the Nationwide Series to prevent those kinds of horrific accidents from happening again.

Yet, here we are in Talladega, and while the Cup Series has an acceptably non-tandem oriented package, the Nationwide Series is still stuck with the same aero design that has caused untold carnage in the series since it was first instituted, 90% of which can be attributed to the utterly ridiculous and lottery-like tandem style of racing. Unlike pack racing, drivers cannot see where they are going when they go tandem, and the closing rates are unbelievably fast. Couple this problem with the cooling rules that make switching necessary every couple of laps (leading to massive traffic clogs) and you have a recipe for disaster that is far worse than anything seen in traditional packs.

So what can you expect on Saturday? Lots of excitement and passing, for sure, but that excitement will come at the cost of a myriad of wrecked race cars that will inevitably end up junked towards the end of the event. Alas, if there are as many massive wrecks on Saturday as there were back in Daytona in Februrary, you can expect to see big time changes to the Nationwide package once the series heads to Daytona again in July.

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