NASCAR Talladega 2013: Aaron's 499 viewer's guide

John David Mercer-US PRESSWIRE

A preview of the Aaron’s 499 at Talladega spotlighting the storylines and drivers you need to watch for.

Few NASCAR tracks are as unpredictable and bring the excitement like Talladega Superspeedway, where three-wide racing is universal and multi-car accidents are the norm and not the exception.

Here are the storylines and drivers you need to watch for during what will certainly be an eventful Aaron's 499:

Storylines

Can Danica do it again?

The last time Danica Patrick competed in a restrictor-plate race she started on the pole, ran in the top 10 all day and was running third on the final lap before sliding back to finish eighth.

Can that plate magic be replicated Sunday at Talladega? There is no reason to think not, as Patrick has proven adapt at maneuvering in the draft and will have the same car underneath her that she wheeled at Daytona.

Like any driver in a plate race, the biggest hurdle Patrick faces will be avoiding the "Big One," which will inevitably transpire and consume a good chunk of the field. If she can do that and make it to the checkered flag, leaving with a finish somewhere in the top 10 -- possibly top five? -- is more than a reasonable goal.

The key to winning at Talladega is... track position?

It's not something normally associated with racing at Daytona or Talladega, but track position may be everything Sunday.

Mainly in part because the Generation-6 car made it difficult to pass and because many drivers chose to play it conservative, passing and side-by-side racing were at a premium in the Daytona 500. Although Talladega is faster, wider and longer, there is reason to think that passing could be a challenge Sunday just as it was in February. And if passing does prove to be a chore, look for plenty of two- and no-tire stops as crew chiefs attempt to jump the field on pit road rather on the track.

Furthermore, while conventional wisdom says it doesn't matter where you start at Talladega that in fact is untrue. Lining up in the top half of the lineup is a proven advantage on the circuit's largest track, with 22 of the previous 25 races having been won by driver starting 20th or better.

Will Mother Nature wreak havoc?

By nature, races at Talladega are chaotic and unpredictable and when you factor in the threat of rain, it adds another element to a mix that is already combustible. The forecast is calling for scattered showers and it is expected that the Aaron's 499 will be halted at various points due to inclement weather.

Whether the entire distance gets completed is ultimately up to Mother Nature, but according to meteorologist Brian Neudorff, there is less than a 50 percent chance all 188 laps are ran.

This means crew chiefs will have one eye on the track and the other on the radar. And as the race gets closer to its halfway point and becomes official, expect drivers to treat the second half of the race like they would the final laps, knowing that rain could end the proceedings at anytime.

A familiar face returns

Denny Hamlin returns to the seat of the No. 11 car after a four-race absence due to a compression fracture in his back sustained March 24 at Auto Club Speedway. But his comeback will be an abbreviated one Sunday, as he doesn't want to risk getting caught up in potential accident that could re-aggravate his injury.

Accordingly, the plan is for Hamlin to give way to relief driver Brian Vickers under the first caution period. And until that time Hamlin says he will fall to the rear of the pack to better give himself chance of avoiding any potential incidents that may occur.

While that's a sound plan in theory, trouble has a way of finding drivers at Talladega no matter where they may run on the track. As such, until he is out of the car and atop the pit box, all eyes will be on Hamlin in the early going.

Worth Noting

With Talladega having a reputation for producing first time winners, don't be shocked if you see someone celebrating their first career victory this afternoon. Altogether 10 drivers have made their maiden trip to Victory Lane at the 2.6-mile oval including such names as Brad Keselowski, Davey Allison, Brian Vickers and Ken Schrader.

A victory by Matt Kenseth and he will be the first driver since Jeff Gordon in 2007 to win consecutive races at Talladega.

Today will mark the 700th career Cup start for 2000 series champion Bobby Labonte.

Favorites

1. Matt Kenseth

An engine failure befell Kenseth at Daytona after he led a race-high 86 laps, but assuming his motor stays intact the driver who won here last year should be viewed as the one most likely to win Sunday.

2. Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Yeah, Earnhardt Jr. hasn't won a plate race in over eight years. But if you don't believe the five-time Talladega winner isn't still formidable know that he has led laps in 24 of 26 races here and finished runner-up in the Daytona 500.

3. Kevin Harvick

Last week's winner at Richmond is one of a select few who accepts plate racing for what it is rather than what it is not. And that mindset has proven beneficial to Harvick, who has a win here in 2009 to go along with two victories at Daytona.

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