A race fan walks on pit road as he waits for qualifying for Sunday's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series auto race at Talladega Superspeedway in Talladega, Ala., Saturday. Qualifying was washed out by rain. (Jay Sailors / Associated Press)
Talladega, Ala. — They plan and tinker, double-check this and triple-check that.
Then, they cross their fingers, stick a rabbit’s foot in their race suits, and hope the luck goes their way.
That, in essence, is Talladega Superspeedway.
“My outlook is like everybody else’s,” said Jeff Burton, who will start Sunday’s Sprint Cup race on the outside of the front row. “I hope I miss the big wreck. If you make it through that part, you can be there at the end.”
By the end of the weekend, the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship could be a whole lot clearer — or just a big ol’ mess.
Talladega is the biggest wild card among the five playoff races left on the schedule, meaning it’s still a little too early to declare points leader Matt Kenseth or the guy in his rearview mirror, Jimmie Johnson, as the only drivers with a legitimate chance to win the Cup.
For those further back, including Kevin Harvick and Jeff Gordon, this might be the best chance to make a big move in the standings.
“We recognize where we are in the points and that this could be a turning point for us,” said Gordon, who trails Kenseth by a rather-daunting 36 points and teammate Johnson by 32. “We need to come out of here with a pretty solid finish and make up some of those points that we’re behind right now. This is a track that we can do it at.”
Talladega is the longest, fastest oval in the series, but horsepower-sapping restrictor plates lead to tightly bunched racing at 200 mph — putting a premium on working with others in the draft and avoiding the slightest bobble that can cause a crash that takes out a huge pack of cars.
There’s a sense that good fortune is as much a part of the Talladega strategy as making the proper adjustments on the cars or getting out of the pits faster than anyone else.
Just ask David Ragan, who stunningly claimed a victory for Front Row Motorsports in the spring race at Talladega. Getting a boost on the final lap from teammate David Gilliland, who was drafting on his rear bumper, Ragan passed three of the biggest names in the sport — Kenseth, Johnson and Carl Edwards. Gilliland made it a 1-2 finish for the tiny, underfunded team.
Ragan called it “a true David vs. Goliath moment.”
Nah, that’s just Talladega.
“The chances of that perfect storm happening in two consecutive races at Talladega is probably not realistic,” Ragan said. “We’re certainly not counting on any situations like that to come out of thin air late in the race.”
Kenseth and Johnson dominated the first half of the 10-race Chase.
The series leader won the first two playoff races, then posted three more solid finishes (seventh at Dover, 11th at Kansas and third at Charlotte). Johnson, a five-time Cup champion and burning to win another, won the Dover race and hasn’t finished lower than sixth in any of the other Chase events, a typical run of consistency for the No. 48 team when they get to this time of year.
“Certainly, I realize that we are the points leader,” Kenseth said. “But we’re pretty close to being tied with the 48. If we have a bad week any week, it’s going to hurt. The chances of having a bad race here are probably a little higher than other tracks, because you can get caught up in stuff.”
As Ragan showed in May, there are more drivers with the potential to win at Talladega. Adding to the potential mayhem, those 30 drivers who don’t have a shot at the season championship are likely to be more inclined to take chances that might get them a season-salvaging victory — or perhaps cause a crash that knocks out some of the title contenders.
“The folks in the Chase have to be a little more conservative,” Ragan said. “They’ve got to get through this week without a 30th-place finish or a DNF (did not finish). The guys who are not in the Chase can be a little more aggressive behind the wheel. The crew chief can take a few more chances.”
Kenseth will be keeping an eye on everyone, not just the guys closest to him in the standings.
“Your guard is up maybe a little bit more than normal,” he said. “Last week, you probably had fewer guys racing for the win. It’s a smaller group. But when you come here, it opens it up. Everyone feels like they have a shot.”
Richard Petty Motorsports hopes to pull off a Front Row-like upset Sunday.
Qualifying was rained out, which put Aric Almirola on the pole for only the second time in his career and teammate Marcos Ambrose right behind him in the second row. They earned their spots based on practice times, with Almirola putting up a blistering speed of 202 mph and Ambrose just a smidgen slower.
To get to victory lane, Almirola must overcome the loss of veteran crew chief Todd Parrott, who was suspended indefinitely by NASCAR for violating its substance-abuse policy.
“It’s definitely something that caught us all off-guard,” Almirola said. “We’re just trying to work through it and make the best of it.”
Sauter avoids late crash, wins Trucks
Johnny Sauter raced to his third NASCAR Truck Series victory of the season Saturday, surviving a huge crash on the final turn at Talladega Superspeedway that took out Kyle Busch and everyone else racing at the front of the pack .
Three sets of trucks paired up in the closing laps — Sauter with series leader Matt Crafton, Busch with Dakoda Armstrong, and Ross Chastain with Parker Kligerman.
Sauter was the only one to be spared from a 12-truck crash that occurred when pole-sitter Jeb Burton got tangled up with Busch, sending the Sprint Cup star slamming into both the inside and outside walls. Miguel Paludo’s No. 32 machine flipped and slid across the line upside down, before turning back over in the first turn, finally coming to a stop with flames flickering from the hood.
Sauter took the checkered flag in his No. 98 Toyota, while David Starr weaved through the carnage to claim second place. Chastain sustained heavy damage but slid across the line in third.
Most of the drivers were treated at the infield medical center and released, but Justin Lofton was transported to a hospital for further evaluation. NASCAR did not reveal the extent of his injuries.
“It’s like any restrictor-plate race: pretty crazy,” Sauter said. “I looked in my rearview mirror and saw smoke and trucks were spinning everywhere. I saw Matt was gone and I was like, ‘Uh oh, this isn’t good.’”
Sauter started the year with back-to-back victories at Daytona and Martinsville, but a midseason slump knocked him out of title contention.
“We’re back on track,” said Sauter, who has nine career Truck victories. “Hopefully, we can finish strong.”
Hinchcliffe back with Andretti
James Hinchcliffe will return to Andretti Autosport next year with sponsorship from United Fiber & Data.
The team, meanwhile, will switch from Chevrolet to Honda.