The pack is back at Talladega Superspeedway.
After the Sprint Cup Series competed at Talladega last October, NASCAR made numerous modifications to the cars for upcoming restrictor-plate races. Alterations to the restrictor plates and the front grille openings on the cars were made. NASCAR anticipated the changes would bring back the traditional pack racing and significantly reduce the two-car breakaways at both Talladega and Daytona International Speedway.
The pack returned for Speedweeks at Daytona in February, and it won approval from both the competitors and the fans.
"I think the pack-racing that we had at Daytona was amazing," Joe Gibbs Racing driver Denny Hamlin said. "The two-car tandem didn't win the race. That's a good thing. They [NASCAR] got us to where we were running a fast enough speed that handling became somewhat of an issue."
Expect Sunday's 500-mile race at Talladega to be much like we saw earlier this year at Daytona. However, air temperatures reaching close to 90 degrees at Talladega this weekend will be a factor. Teams will have to deal with possible overheating issues with the cars.
"Temperatures are quite a bit higher than we had at Daytona, so it's going to be interesting to see if we have any temperature problems, and, if we do, what adjustments will be made to fix that and to help us along," Michael Waltrip Racing driver Clint Bowyer said.
"It's such a fine line. We all get what they're trying to accomplish to keep us from two-car tandems. But also we can't be overheating running in the pack as well. It's a very fine line right there. Probably whatever rule, they'll still have to manage that very situation of running in the pack and not overheating until the time's right and go for it."
Martin Truex Jr. shared the same sentiment as his teammate, Bowyer.
"I don't think the two-car tandem will be like it was last year with the cooling system regulations and all the things that they did at Daytona," Truex noted. "With the temperatures approaching 90 degrees down there this weekend, I don't think we'll see a lot of two-car racing until the end. Even then, I don't think guys can go more than three or four laps.
"I think it's going to be a mix of pack-racing, a little two-car tandem here and there, but there's no way we'll stay hooked up all day like we did last year."
Bowyer has won the last two fall races at Talladega. He finished a scant 0.002 seconds behind winner Jimmie Johnson in last year's spring event there. Bowyer drove for Richard Childress Racing in Sprint Cup full time from 2006-11 but moved over to MWR for the start of this season.
"I just want to get down there and hopefully have the same success we've had over the past couple of years," Bowyer added.
The last two spring races at Talladega have been thrillers. Both events featured a NASCAR-record 88 lead changes.
In April 2010, Kevin Harvick ended a 115-race winless streak in the series after edging Jamie McMurray at the finish line by just 0.011 seconds. Johnson's margin over Bowyer one year ago at Talladega tied the closest race finish in NASCAR's top-tier series since the sanctioning body began using electronic timing and scoring in 1993. Ricky Craven beat Kurt Busch by 0.002 seconds in the 2003 spring race at Darlington Raceway.
Johnson has had his share of ups and downs at Talladega lately. The five-time series champion has finished 26th or worse in three of the last six races there. Johnson's first win at this track came in May 2006.
"We've been hit or miss here, so I'm very hopeful that we're on," he said. Talladega is always fun, especially this time of the year. When we get there during the Chase, if you're in the Chase, it's just really a stressful event. But with the rules as they are, it should be exciting, and we should see a lot more pack-racing and put on a great show for everybody."
Both Johnson and Hendrick Motorsports have been winless in the last 15 races. Johnson gave team owner Rick Hendrick his 199th and most recent victory in Cup last October at Kansas Speedway.
Will this finally be the weekend that Hendrick gets his 200th win in the series?
Dale Earnhardt Jr. is a five-time race winner at Talladega, including a track- record four consecutive victories from October 2001 to April 2003. All of his wins there came when he drove for Dale Earnhardt Inc.
Earnhardt Jr.'s winless drought is now 138 races. His last victory in the series came in June 2008 at Michigan, which was his first season with Hendrick.
After finishing second to Kyle Busch last Saturday night at Richmond International Raceway, Earnhardt Jr. moved up to second in the point standings. He is currently five points behind leader Greg Biffle.
"The team is confident, and we're feeling good," Earnhardt Jr said. "We're getting better at running the top five and top 10s. We'll just try to keep doing that. There's too many variables going into races at Talladega whether you feel confident winning or not. There's just too much going on there."
Forty-four teams are on the preliminary entry list for the Aaron's 499.
Series: NASCAR Sprint Cup. Date: Sunday, May 6. Race: Aaron's 499. Site: Talladega Superspeedway. Track: 2.66-mile oval. Start time: 1:00 p.m.(ET). Laps: 188. Miles: 500. 2011 Winner: Jimmie Johnson. Television: FOX. Radio: Motor Racing Network (MRN)/SIRIUS NASCAR Satellite.