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Posted: Friday, May 2nd 2014 at 2:22pm

NASCAR Preview: New title format heightens Talladega unpredictability

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Austin Dillon took this wild ride after contact from Casey Mears on the final lap of last October's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Talladega Superspeedway. / Photo: NASCAR via Getty Images
TALLADEGA, AL - Talladega Superspeedway and unpredictability have been joined at the high-banked hip not long after the place opened the gates for its very first NASCAR Sprint Cup race in September 1969.

You know. The race that almost never happened. The one derailed by drivers’ concerns about tire wear while approaching 200 mph on a 2.66-mile tri-oval that had risen from the Alabama countryside, looking like Daytona on steroids.

Drivers boycotted. NASCAR President Bill France, Sr. got things back on track – literally – by assembling a field of second-tier drivers and making sure the show would go on. Richard Brickhouse was Talladega’s first winner. Richard Childress finished 23rd.

Now who could’ve predicted all of that?

That was only the beginning. In terms of the race, while there never again have been makeshift fields at Talladega there have been a number of surprise visitors to victory lane – both before and after the advent of horsepower-reducing restrictor plates that have made close-quarters racing the norm.

From Richard Brickhouse … we went to Dick Brooks in 1973 … to Lennie Pond in 1978… to Ron Bouchard in 1981 … to Bobby Hillin Jr. in 1986 … to Phil Parsons in 1988.

One-win wonders, all, in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.

Now toss in the four drivers who got their first – but not their only – series win at Talladega: Davey Allison in 1987, Ken Schrader in 1988, Brian Vickers in 2006 and Brad Keselowski in 2009.

For those with shorter memories, let’s go back to the spring of 2013. David Ragan and David Gilliland finished 1-2.

Repeating … Ragan and Gilliland … 1-2.

All of this history is why Talladega has come to be known as NASCAR’s ultimate wild-card race. That reputation is back into play this week, with Sunday’s Aaron’s 499 and will be in full force come Oct. 19 when the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup is in midstream.

Factor in the new Chase format being instituted this year and the card gets even wilder. A race victory virtually assures a driver of making the Chase field, now expanded to 16 drivers. Which means Sunday’s surprise could become autumn’s championship contender. Just like that.

And now comes another wrinkle: Knockout qualifying, a first-year initiative pumping new life into competition for the Coors Light Pole Award. Given the unique qualifying format for the Daytona 500 in February – time trials locking in the front row followed by two 150-mile races that determine the rest of the field – this weekend will be the first restrictor-plate KO setting (Saturday, 1 p.m. ET on FOX). This is a good thing. Talladega excitement notwithstanding, single-car runs on the world’s largest oval track were at times less than compelling. Knockout qualifying will fix that up Saturday.

The favorite for the Coors Light Pole? Hard to say, impossible to predict. After all, it’s Talladega.

WDUN will have full coverage from MRN Radio of Sunday’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Aaron’s 499 from Talladega Superspeedway from Talladega, AL at noon on 102.9 FM and 1 o’clock on 550 AM.

NASCAR Nationwide Series: Will Drafting At Talladega Be A Speed Bump For Elliott?

Although Chase Elliott has rattled off a streak of seven consecutive top-10 finishes, the NASCAR Nationwide Series points leader and Sunoco Rookie of the Year frontrunner sees his first series trip to Talladega Superspeedway for this weekend’s Aaron’s 312 as bit of a roadblock … at least based on his performance at Daytona International Speedway.

“I thought my performance at Daytona was pretty pitiful, honestly,” Elliott said about his respectable 15th-place finish in the season opener. “I didn’t feel like I did a very good job learning the draft as quickly as I needed to. So hopefully I can step up for the guys (at Talladega). The biggest thing there is just trying to stay out of trouble. It’s much easier said than done.”

His performance over the past three weeks has more than made up for his Daytona finish; however, some would be envious of the thought that a 15th-place finish was their worst result of the season. At Texas, Elliott, the son of 1988 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Bill Elliott, shocked the NASCAR world with his first series win, only to do it again the following week at Darlington. He followed up his consecutive victories with a runner-up finish last weekend at Richmond where he gave Kevin Harvick a run for his money over the final laps.

During that time span, the younger Elliott has increased his points lead over JR Motorsports teammate Regan Smith from three points (after Texas) to 19. In addition, he holds a 34-point advantage over Ty Dillon in the rookie race.

Regardless of how Elliott fares this weekend at Talladega where drafting prowess always provides a decided edge over competitors, there is still enough season left in which he can bounce back if he were to stumble. And unlike NASCAR’s other two national series that return to the 2.66-mile track in October, this is the NASCAR Nationwide Series’ only visit to Alabama. The series, however, does have its annual July trip to Daytona coming up, but another top-15 finish there would leave Elliott in a good position.

WDUN will have full coverage from MRN Radio of Saturday’s NASCAR Nationwide Series Aaron’s 312 from Talladega Superspeedway at Talladega, AL beginning at 2:30 pm on 102.9 FM.

Camping World Trucks: Burton Looks To Turn Season Around At Kansas

After a successful test at the 1.5-mile Charlotte Motor Speedway last week, Jeb Burton heads to Kansas Speedway, another 1.5-mile track, in two weeks hoping to turn his season around.

Burton switched rides during the offseason and has not had the finishes he has hoped for so far, but that could change at Kansas.

The South Boston, Virginia native scored his lone truck series win on another 1.5-mile track (Texas) last season, and Kansas will be the first race of 2014 on a track that size.

In 2013, Burton averaged an 11th-place finish in races at 1.5-mile tracks, with a top-five (third) at Homestead to close out the season and four top-10s overall.

Burton moved to ThorSport Racing during the offseason and finished seventh at Daytona and 21stat Martinsville. Last season Burton started third and finished 15.

If his new team’s history at the track is any indication, Burton should feel confident going into Kansas. Teammate and defending truck series champion Matt Crafton won at the track last year and Johnny Sauter also has one win and four top-10 finishes in five truck series starts at the track.
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