One quarter of the NASCAR Sprint Cup season is over. Last Sunday at Richmond International Raceway, Carl Edwards bumped his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch out of the way on the final corner of the final lap to secure the win. But that wasn’t the most exciting thing to happen in the series first nine races of the season.
The first quarter of the NASCAR Sprint Cup series featured two finishes, Daytona and Phoenix, that are tied for the seventh of all time (.010 seconds). In fact seven of the first nine races ended in a margin of victory that was under one second, with one race (Atlanta) ending under caution. That’s the most since 2010 and is tied for the most through nine races since the inception of electronic scoring in 1993.
And there’s a full three quarters of a season to go.
The next stop on the circuit is at NASCAR’s largest track the mammoth 2.66 mile Talladega Superspeedway. Saturday the NASCAR Xfinity Series will race 113 laps (300.58 miles) for the Sparks Energy 300 (3:00 p.m. ET on Fox) while Sunday the Sprint Cup series will take to the track for the GEICO 500, 188 laps (500.08 miles) (1:00 p.m. ET Fox, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
Sunday, NASCAR’s most popular driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. is bringing an old friend, and that should make the rest of the field sit up and take notice. The Hendrick Motorsports Chevy Earnhardt will be wheeling Sunday has been affectionately named “Amelia,” after famous pilot Amelia Earhart. Officially known as Chassis No. 88-872, Earnhardt raced the car to victory in last year’s GEICO 500 and followed that up with a win in the July race at NASCAR’s only other restrictor plate track Daytona International Speedway. In the fall he raced Amelia to a second place finish when the series returned to Talladega.
He crashed his beloved Amelia in season opening Daytona 500 where he finished 36th. But she has undergone extensive repairs and is ready for this weekend’s action at Talladega.
“Greg (Ives, crew chief) says she is going to be the primary,” Earnhardt said this week. “He’s fired up his Twitter account recently … and he let all the fans know on Monday that Amelia is coming back. I’m excited about that – we know how she ran last year. We just have to run Talladega like we have to win it, just like we did the last time we were there. We did a good job. If we run it like that, we’ll be up front at the end.”
The rest of the field should be chasing Earnhardt Sunday. Earnhardt is the current king of restrictor plate racing and leads all active drivers with six Talladega wins (tied with the recently retired Jeff Gordon for second all-time). His father, seven-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Dale Earnhardt, holds the track record with 10 wins.
Tony Stewart will be back in action this week. The three time champion missed the first eight races due to an injury sustained in a preseason ATV accident that left him with a broken back. The injury out a halt to his final season before retirement, but Stewart is racing again. He finished 19th in his return at Richmond last Sunday. He won’t be racing the entire weekend at Talladega however. Ty Dillon, who subbed for Stewart in several of his missed races, will qualify the Stewart-Haas Chevy on Saturday. Stewart will then start the race Sunday, but cede the driving duties to Dillon.
“We’ll start the Talladega race to get the points but, understanding the style of racing and the higher potential of getting involved in an incident, we thought it best to minimize the amount of time I’m in the car,” Stewart said. “I’ll return full-time at Kansas and enjoy every moment I can my final year of Sprint Cup.”
NASCAR has granted Stewart a waiver, much like they did last year with brothers Kurt and Kyle Busch. The waiver will allow Stewart to qualify for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, as long as he wins a race, and finishes the regular season in the top 30 in points. If Dillon takes the checkered flag at Talladega, it counts as a win for Stewart. Kyle Busch returned in the 12th race of the season made it to the top 30 in points and went on to win the NASCAR Sprint Cup title.
The racing Sunday will be wide open, 200 mile an hour, edge of the seat competition. With the unpredictability of restrictor place racing featuring four wide packs, a surprise winner could be celebrating in Victory Lane Sunday.
When restrictor-plate racing, anything can happen. David Ragan visited Victory Lane with Front Row Motorsports (spring 2013) and Brad Keselowski took the checkered flag with Phoenix Racing (spring 2009).
“That’s fun for us going to a place like that knowing we have a shot at winning and to say that is legitimate,” said Matt DiBenedetto, driver of the No. 83 BK Racing Toyota who scored an emotional career best sixth place finish at Bristol. “If things fall right you can win. So that’s neat. When we come to all the regular superspeedways, wins for us are if you finish in the top half of the field because we’re a smaller team, and if we finish in the top 20, that’s beating a lot of really good high quality cars. But when you go to the superspeedways, it throws a lot of that out the window.”
Sadler looking for XFINTY points lead as Talladega looms
The fight for the XFINITY Series point lead is heating up as the series prepares for Saturday’s Sparks Energy 300 (3:00 p.m. ET Fox). Daniel Suárez leads series standings and increased his lead to nine points from six after posting his fourth top five finish of the season last week at Richmond. For the season overall Suárez has posted four top fives, seven top 10s and has an average finish of 6.3 – best among title contenders.
However, the restrictor plate races have been a struggle for Suarez, although he has shown some improvement. In his first two restrictor plate starts he finished outside the top 30 (Daytona, 39th and Talladega, 31st). Since then though, he had made up some ground. He finished 15th at Daytona last July and eighth there this past February.
“In my race last year (at Talladega), we had a fast Toyota Camry, I just got caught up in an accident towards the middle portion of the race and that set us back,” Suárez said. “We learned a lot in Daytona about our restrictor-plate package that I think we can carry over to this weekend. Anything can happen at Talladega, but I’m looking forward to the race on Saturday and hopefully coming home with our first win.”
Veteran driver Elliott Sadler heads to Talladega with a great deal of confidence. The Virginia native scored his best finish of the season last week in front of his hometown crowd, a third, and moved into second in the XFINITY series standings. His finish came two cars behind race winner Dale Earnhardt Jr. in a JR Motorsports Chevy. That team will be behind Sadler’s efforts on Saturday. In seven starts at Talladega, Sadler has posted the one win (2014), four top fives and seven top 10 finishes.
“Talladega is a 200-mph chess match, and as fast as we were in Daytona, I know we will have a shot at winning this weekend,” Sadler said. “I’ve always enjoyed plate racing and go into it with a win-or-bring -the-steering-wheel-back mentality.”
NASCAR This Weekend:
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series
Next Race: GEICO 500
The Place: Talladega Superspeedway
The Date: Sunday, May 1
The Time: 1 p.m. ET
TV: FOX, 12:30 p.m. ET
Radio: MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
Distance: 500.08 miles (188 laps)
NASCAR XFINITY Series
Next Race: Sparks Energy 300
The Place: Talladega Superspeedway
The Date: Saturday, April 30
The Time: 3 p.m. ET
TV: FOX, 2:30 p.m. ET
Radio: MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
Distance: 300.58 miles (113 laps)