Winners: 2011 NASCAR Champions

NASCAR Camping World Truck Series: Austin Dillon
NASCAR Nationwide Series: Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series: Tony Stewart

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Aaron's 499 Preview

The Nationwide and Sprint Cup Series invade Alabama this weekend for the 2009 season's second round of restrictor-plate races. Talladega Superspeedway is the setting this weekend, the series' largest speedway at 2.66 miles long. Talladega always promises high speeds, thrilling three-wide action, and like its cousin on the Florida coast, the Big One.

Who wins the race at Talladega is often determined by who avoids the seemingly-inevitable multi-car wreck. The Big One can also have an impact on the championship -- as we saw last October, when Carl Edwards triggered the massive wreck that seemed to take out every Chase contender not named Jimmie Johnson.

Johnson went on to hoist his third straight Sprint Cup trophy, tying a NASCAR record.

Kyle Busch won the spring race at Talladega last season, despite only leading 12 of the 188 laps. It was his first career plate-track win, though of perhaps greater importance was the second-place finish of Juan Pablo Montoya. Montoya, now driving a Chevrolet for Earnhardt Ganassi Racing, is that team's standard-bearer this season, sitting 18th in points with two top-10 finishes on the season. Despite recent struggles -- Montoya finished 24th at Phoenix last Saturday -- Talladega seems to be the kind of place Montoya can go to get right.

The same could be said for Dale Earnhardt Jr., who has won five times on the Alabama oval, but not since 2004. Junior finished 10th in the spring race last season and might've won the fall event, but he was caught in the Big One and finished 28th.

Junior had a struggle at Phoenix last Saturday, one which has been indicative of his season. NASCAR placed him and Casey Mears on probation for the next six races earlier this week, punishment (if you can call it that) for their post-race dustup last week. His early-season struggles, combined with the fact that all three of his teammates have won in consecutive races -- Jimmie Johnson at Martinsville, Jeff Gordon at Texas and Mark Martin at Phoenix -- mean the pressure is really starting to mount.

Talladega and Richmond are Junior's two best tracks -- he has eight of his 18 career Sprint Cup wins at these tracks -- but nothing's a given for the No. 88 team, especially with how they've been struggling this season.

Gordon leads all active drivers with six Talladega victories, sweeping both races in 2007. Tony Stewart, who won the fall race last year after a controversial finish with Regan Smith, will also be strong. Stewart has finished third, fourth and second in his last three races -- so is there any reason to think he can't pick up his first win as a car owner soon? And why not this week?

Kurt Busch should also be a factor, even though he's never won a restrictor-plate race. His car owner, Roger Penske, only has one -- last season's Daytona 500, where Ryan Newman won.

Also, keep an eye out for Kevin Harvick and Casey Mears. Richard Childress Racing announced on Wednesday that after this weekend's race at Talladega, the crews for the No. 29 and No. 07 will be switching. That's crew chief, car chief, engineers, over-the-wall guys ... everyone. It's a pretty drastic move for Childress, who in the past has shown he knows how to handle his personnel.

The more pressing question could be, though ... what does this say for Mears? RCR is his third stop and aside from a fuel mileage win at Charlotte in 2007 and a couple poles back in his days with Ganassi, Mears has never really shown anything. Is this a last-ditch effort to get Mears on the right track? And what happens if it doesn't work?

But the talk, as always, will be about the Big One. When will it happen? Who will it take out? No one -- not even this semi-professional, hardly-expert blogger -- can predict that, which is one of Talladega's biggest charms.

The Nationwide Series will run the Aaron's 312 Saturday afternoon, with Stewart the reigning race winner. The Big One will have an even larger effect on the championship picture in the Nationwide Series, since no one has the Chase format to fall back on. Considering this is the series' only trip to Talladega this season, any driver who loses points in the Big One might never get those points back.

This race will be even more important for Carl Edwards. Motor problems lost him the points lead at Phoenix, and if Edwards isn't careful and Kyle Busch rattles off a string of top-3 finishes -- or even wins -- the championship could be decided before the season even reaches the halfway point.

Brad Keselowski is also a driver to watch out for. Behind three straight third-place finishes, Keselowski sits fifth in points heading into Talladega. Though Keselowski finished 23rd at Talladega last season, he did finish fifth in the July Daytona race last season, and his car owner just happens to be one of the best restrictor-plate racers on the planet.

ALSO: The Camping World Truck Series returns this weekend for the first time in almost a month, when the series races at Kansas Speedway on Saturday in just the fifth race of the season.

Kyle Busch leads the point standings by 38 points over Todd Bodine, but Busch won't be running this weekend, due to the races at Talladega. Kansas will be the first true opportunity -- even though Bodine won the season opener at Daytona -- for the Truck Series regulars to shine.

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