Talladega is the most competitive track in racing - as shown here
The superspeedway swing of NASCAR resumes this weekend as the Winston 500 weekend beckons, this coming off Richmond's most competitive race since 2007 and an eye-opening finish. A look at some issues -
The issue of lugnut rule enforcement (or lack thereof) by NASCAR was finally acknowledged when NASCAR sent a post-Richmond memo to teams in essence requiring them to tighten all five lugnuts per tire. The brouhaha led to a pair of interesting points made amid prerace chatter at Stafford. One is that part of NASCAR's motive for allowing teams not to tighten all five lugnuts may have been a desire to lessen the workload - and thus lessen the need - for its at-track officials. Forgotten amid the controversy over aero-matching etc. in the recent past is that this indeed was a factor in NASCAR decision-making - get the rules to where it can lessen the workload for the officials. There is nonetheless reason for some skepticism with regard to lugnuts, since the lugnut change was so self-evidently wrongheaded.
The other point made is that NASCAR may have expected teams to police themselves about it. If that was considered it's intriguing on the one had - Boys Have At It becoming more of an ingrained philosophy by NASCAR. But the drawback is that it reflects poorly on teams that they seem not to have been policing it for drivers to be so publicly complaining about it.
Mind-blowing stat of the day - Joe Gibbs Racing won just two Cup races in 2014. Entering this Winston 500 JGR has now won nineteen of the last forty Cup races. Talk about paradigm sifts - it used to be all Hendrick all the time, now it's touchdowns galore for the old Redskins coach. Five of those wins came from Matt Kenseth yet curiously he has fallen off the map, with only two top-ten finishes.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. did something surprisingly unnoticed yet encouraging - after he won the Busch/Xfintiy 250 at Richmond he didn't do a burnout. He cited Mark Martin's dislike of the celebratory antic plus he reasoned he needs the engine to last more.
Junior has it right - burnouts have worn out their welcome; drivers need to act like they've been there before - because almost all of them have.
Talladega comes after the photo-finish Daytona 500, a race that was disappointingly lethargic until that electrifying last lap. Kevin Harvick famously gave Denny Hamlin a hard shot that pushed him into the win, and Harvick said afterward he thought the drivers would start push-drafting more and earlier than occurred.
That they didn't was stupid on the drivers' part - the push-draft is by far the strongest power to pass ever seen, and they need to start using it from Lap One onward.
Talladega is usually a tossup as far as prerace picks - looking back at the Daytona 500 the obvious picks are the JGR Toyotas, the Hendrick Chevrolets, and the Penske Fords. Dale Junior won this Talladega race with frankly absurd ease last season but hasn't been as strong this year (he has five top-tens including two seconds but hasn't led a lap since Phoenix and was oddly off the pace at Richmond despite the Xfinity win). Hendrick Teammate Jimmie Johnson has been a little more consistent, and so has Chase Elliott, though he's led only five laps so far.
Joey Logano won the Diehard 500 and also this year has been oddly quiet even with six top-tens so far this year. Penske teammate Brad Keselowski in contrast has not only been quiet, he's been disturbingly mediocre since the surprise Vegas win (just two top-tens since then; Richmond was also the first race he'd led since Vegas).
It's a longshot for anyone else to upset the Big Three. Stewart-Haas Racing has Kevin Harvick and his Phoenix win and overall solid outings, it also has good efforts from Kurt Busch, but that's pretty much it as far as contribution goes. That Tony Stewart is driving at Talladega this weekend is a little surprising given he hasn't done much to speak of there since getting upside down there.
Tony Stewart's 2012 Talladega melee
Talladega once had the reputation for darkhorse winners -
The sport can use that again this year. There certainly are plenty of candidates starting with Martin Truex, who has fallen off the map since the Daytona loss; Richmond was only his second top-ten since Atlanta. To belabor the number of worthwhile darkhorse candidates would be pointless - they're there.
So it goes entering Talladega.