Talladega, AL – NASCAR's new Sprint Cup Series race car, the Gen-6, will be a big topic again this weekend at Talladega Superspeedway.
The Gen-6 wasn't exactly a hit in the first restrictor-plate race of the season, the Feb. 24 Daytona 500. The somewhat disappointing race at Daytona International Speedway featured just 28 lead changes due to a lack of passing. In fact, there were long periods of drivers running in single file before things got dicey in the closing laps.
Talladega and Daytona are both restrictor-plate tracks in NASCAR, but Talladega is slightly bigger and wider than Daytona.
So, will we see more passing and side-by-side racing at Talladega compared to Daytona?
"I would expect the racing to be similar to Daytona," said Matt Kenseth, who won the most recent race at Talladega last October. "Now, I dropped out of Daytona in the last 50 laps (due to engine failure), but I would expect the racing to be similar, because there were no rule changes. The tracks are a little bit different. There's more room at Talladega. I don't think handling will be a huge issue, although it actually kind of was for some cars. I expect it to be the same.
"But I will say that in Daytona, it's not that people don't want to take chances. It's not like you don't want to pass. If everybody could go up there, have a shot at leading, they will go do that. It's just circumstances and the way the car was and the way the draft worked. It just made the racing different. You had to be much more patient than you had to be last year. You had to be much more calculating with your move."
Kenseth, who made his first start in the No. 20 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing in the Daytona 500, led a race-high 86 laps before his engine expired, which resulted in a 37th-place finish.
Sprint Cup teams will find out how fast and how well the car handles at this 2.66-mile track during Friday's practice sessions. Qualifying for Sunday's race is scheduled for Saturday.
"I'm certainly very anxious to see, because it's a bigger, wider racetrack compared to Daytona," said Hendrick Motorsports driver and six-time Talladega race winner Jeff Gordon. "In Daytona, I felt like we learned a lot about being very patient and picking and choosing your moments to try to make passes. I certainly tried to make some that didn't work out and cost us a lot of positions. We saw single file through the middle section of the race, but yet still be extremely exciting in the closing laps. I think that you are going to see certainly that at the end.
"The unknown is with this bigger, wider track. Are we going to be able to complete those passes that we weren't able to do at Daytona? We did see handling be a bigger issue at Daytona, when you were around other cars on the longer runs. That doesn't normally seem to be the case at Talladega, so we won't know until we get there, get in practice, start drafting and run our race."
While there is a lot of curiosity about the car's first time at Talladega, drivers are more concerned about making it through the 500-mile race without being involved in "the big one." When NASCAR comes to this track, you can expect one or more major crashes to occur.
That was certainly the case here seven months ago when a 25-car accident occurred on the final turn of the last lap. Tony Stewart, who was leading at the time, triggered the wreck when he drove down the track and into the path of Michael Waltrip while trying to protect his lead. After Waltrip hit him from behind, Stewart's car spun around and then flipped over onto several other vehicles. Dale Earnhardt Jr. suffered a concussion during that wreck and had to miss the championship Chase races at Charlotte and Kansas.
"Someone described racing on the superspeedways of being a combination of a science project and the luck of a casino, and it's exactly that way," Stewart said. "You do everything in your power to take care of the science or technology side, do everything you can to build the fastest car you've got.
"But if you don't have the luck to go with it, even if you don't have any drama with getting the car touched - nothing happens to the car - if you're just in the wrong spot at the wrong time at the end, it can take you out of whatever opportunity you had. You can have the best race car in the field and not get the chance to get through to the front."
While Kenseth was quickly declared the race winner, it took nearly one hour for NASCAR to review the video of the final lap and determine the finishing order.
"I don't think I've ever seen a race at Talladega that wasn't a great, entertaining, edge of your seat race, so I don't see why that would be any different," Kenseth said.
Kenseth's JGR teammate, Kyle Busch, avoided the big wrecks at Talladega last year, finishing second in the spring race and third in the fall event.
"I would say Talladega is 80 percent mental and 20 percent physical, while most other non-restrictor-plate races are 80 percent physical and 20 percent mental," said Busch, who turned 28 years old on Thursday. "Both races there last year, we survived the big wreck but just came up short both times, so I'm hoping to be in position with our (car) on Sunday to give it another shot at the win."
Danica Patrick will compete in a Sprint Cup race at Talladega for the first time. Patrick, in her first full season in the series, won the pole position for the Daytona 500. She became the highest-finishing female ever in that event with an eighth-place run. She was running in third on the last lap but lost momentum, as she was shuffled back in the pack.
"I feel like I've learned some lessons from Daytona about the draft and how that unfolds at the end, if you are in the right place at the right time," Patrick said. "I think that, when we talk superspeedway racing, there's a lot of luck involved. Like I said, right place at the right time - there are a lot of people who have a good chance of winning Talladega, I think. Hopefully, we are one of them at the end of the race. But, we won't know that until end of the race."
Forty-four teams are on the preliminary entry list for the Aaron's 499.
Series: NASCAR Sprint Cup. Date: Sunday, May 5. Race: Aaron's 499. Site: Talladega Superspeedway. Track: 2.66-mile oval. Start time: 1 p.m. ET. Laps: 188. Miles: 500. 2012 Winner: Brad Keselowski. Television: FOX. Radio: Motor Racing Network (MRN)/SIRIUS NASCAR Radio.