The familiar pack racing was a common sight at last year's Aaron's 499, which saw a record number of lead changes. (Photo by John Harrelson/Getty Images)

Countdown To The Aaron’s 499: Talladega Superspeedway Race Preview

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Countdown To The Aaron's 499: Talladega Two-Car Drafts Prompt Strategy Changes For Dale Earnhardt Jr., Others

This is part of a series of posts sponsored by Talladega Superspeedway. Whether you are making a week-long vacation out of it or coming just for a day, make sure to plan your Talladega experience today. This is more than a race. This is Talladega.

If you ask the drivers, this week's Aaron's 499 at Talladega Superspeedway is going to be filled with the same type of dramatic racing as the Daytona 500.

The field will be split up into two-car drafts, and hooking up with a partner will be the key to success – as well as being in the right place at the right time, of course.

"We'll be doing the same thing we did at Daytona," Tony Stewart said. "I guarantee you right off the bat, that's exactly what everybody is going to do as soon as they hit the racetrack – go right back into that mode."

Well, perhaps with one notable exception: Since Talladega is wider than Daytona, Stewart and other drivers said the two-car tandems might be able to go four-wide instead of running into each other while trying to make it three-wide.

In essence, there will be more places for the lead car to steer around a slower pairing ahead.

"Talladega is a much wider race track – there's a lot more racing lines and grooves and room to race on," Jeff Gordon said. "We should be able to do the two-car drafts a lot easier than we did at Daytona. Hopefully we're not hooking and spinning one another like we were in Daytona."

Gordon said he had "no doubt" the race would be determined by two-car drafts, but teams have likely gotten smarter since Daytona. After all, it seemed to catch everyone by surprise there that drivers could push one another around until they overheated.

It's safe to imagine many teams worked on cooling issues in the two months since Daytona.

"It will come down to two-car drafts, but it's more of two cars that can stay hooked up together and not have to put air to the nose to the car in back," Gordon said. "The ones that can do the best job of that and the switch over – those are the ones that are going to go fast."

Dale Earnhardt Jr. said he was "disappointed" to hear NASCAR shrunk the size of restrictor plate, all but assuring the two-car drafts would be the best way to race. He said Talladega is a "lottery" and added "it will be anybody's game."

But even before NASCAR announced the plate change, Earnhardt Jr. had decided he would already change his strategy for Talladega.

"I haven't really finished well there in the last several trips," he said. "I'll probably try to take care of my car a little better during the race. It is a very long race. Try to make better decisions; better judgment calls to have my car there at the end when I need to be able to be around to get a good finish."

Talladega, of course, is the de facto capital of Junior Nation. Dale Earnhardt won 10 races there; Earnhardt Jr. has won five.

And NASCAR's most popular driver said because of the way Talladega fans get excited to see him run up front, he feels an "obligation...to try to do the best I can to put the car out front all the time at that place."

"You try to let the reality of the situation and the job you are doing override that, but sometimes, you just go all out and want to be in the lead all the time," he said, "which is not a bad way to go."

Earnhardt Jr. didn't blame his desire to be up front at Talladega as the culprit for his struggles there recently, though, saying "we just haven't made good choices toward the end of those races."

"Hopefully, I can go back with a better sense of what I need to do and make better judgment calls when it comes down to it."

Of course, that's easy for any driver to say before the green flag drops at Talladega. Once the 'Dega madness starts, sometimes good decision-making goes out the window.

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Countdown To The Aaron's 499: Is Restrictor-Plate Racing NASCAR's Best?

This is part of a series of posts sponsored by Talladega Superspeedway. Whether you are making a week-long vacation out of it or coming just for a day, make sure to plan your Talladega experience today. This is more than a race. This is Talladega.

There's a vocal minority of race fans who profess not to like restrictor-plate racing. I don't understand these people.

Their contention is that racing with carburetor restrictor plates – as NASCAR does at Talladega Superspeedway and Daytona – is somehow not "real" racing, because drivers don't always control their own destiny.

Restrictor-plate racing produces surprise winners, unusual strategies (like the new two-car drafts), big wrecks and typically more entertainment than at other tracks.

And you never know who's going to win until the very last second.

Oh, the horror! It's just terrible, isn't it? Who would want to sit there and actually be entertained for 500 miles?

To me, the fact there are four restrictor-plate races on the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series schedule are a very, very good thing. And next week's Aaron's 499 should only serve as a continuation of February's Daytona 500, which was one of the most memorable races – of any kind – in recent years.

The races I get most fired up to attend typically fall into one of these three categories: Superspeedway, short track or road course.

Each type of track has its own advantages. The road courses are cool because they mix things up a bit. The short tracks have lots of fender-rubbing and makes the drivers get mad at one another, which is fun to watch.

But the superspeedway races take it to another level. They present so many unknowns, there's a palpable tension that surrounds the track until the checkered flag.

Only then can everyone breathe.

How is that a bad thing? Sports, ultimately, are supposed to be fun to watch. What happens in a stadium, arena or racetrack is an escape from reality, a distraction from real life for a few hours.

If I'm going to spend time watching something, I'd prefer it to be as entertaining as possible. The purists who want the drivers to race without restrictor plates – and thus get the field strung out – also probably want to see golfers use wood clubs off the tee at this weekend's Masters.

I like when the field is bunched up. I like the lottery-ball nature of the racing.

Like many people, I preferred the pack racing over the two-car drafts, but the new hookups turned out to be much more intriguing than expected at Daytona. Now, I find myself anxious for "Dragonfly Racing: The Sequel" next week ("Dragonfly" because the two-car drafts kind of look like dragonflies flying around and...uh...you know).

But think about this: Whether it's pack racing or the two-car drafts, isn't restrictor-plate racing the best show NASCAR has to offer? If you're going to tell a friend who has never watched NASCAR before which race to tune into, I'm going to guess there's a better than 50 percent chance you'd recommend a restrictor-plate race.

If you're skeptical about that claim, let me know how you feel after watching 500 miles at Texas this weekend. The purists can keep their strung-out racing; I'll take the entertainment value of restrictor plates any day.

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Countdown To The Aaron's 499: Talladega's 'I Was There!' Finishes

This is part of a series of posts sponsored by Talladega Superspeedway. Whether you are making a week-long vacation out of it or coming just for a day, make sure to plan your Talladega experience today. This is more than a race. This is Talladega.

Last week, I wrote about my favorite race I've ever seen in person: The 2010 Aaron's 499. And while it was the best race I've witnessed with my own eyes, I've missed a few Talladega races that might have given it some stiff competition.

Thankfully, no one called me out for my pick. No one said, "Well what about when Dale Earnhardt Sr. came from 18th to first with only four laps left in 2000?"

I wasn't there. If I had been, last week's post might have been different.

No one said, "Dude, how about when Brad Keselowski won in '09 and Carl Edwards had his incredible crash racing to the finish, and then Edwards jogged to the finish line like something out of Talladega Nights?"

I'm embarrassed to admit I wasn't at that one, either.

And no one brought up the controversial Regan Smith/Tony Stewart finish in '08, which is still debated as if it happened recently and set the stage for so much of the yellow-line drama we've seen since then.

Guess what? I wasn't there for that one either.

So what gives? Why have I missed so many of the great Talladega finishes?

I kick myself all the time for it, but my excuse is that while at a former job, I didn't used to make my own schedule – and I wasn't always assigned to Talladega.

But looking back, I probably I should have gone anyway. One of my favorite hobbies is collecting those "I was there!" sports moments (and according to my bank account, I've spent way too much money trying to pursue that interest).

And yet when I could have hitched a ride with a co-worker down to Talladega and had a great shot at seeing one of the "I was there!" moments, I didn't go?

What was I thinking?

It especially bugs me that I wasn't at the Keselowski/Edwards race two years ago. That one was totally epic, and I remember standing in front of my TV at home with my hands on my head in disbelief over the finish.

As soon as the adrenaline from watching the race wore off, the jealousy began to creep in: All the other writers are there, and I'm not! (After all, what kind of NASCAR writer misses a Talladega race?)

So as a result, I keep showing up at Talladega hoping for moments that will top that one – as if it'll somehow make it better that I missed one of the incredible finishes. I think last year's Aaron's 499 was pretty awesome, but I'd love to see even more great races in person so I can feel OK about missing the other highlight-reel endings.

Eight of the 23 closest Sprint Cup Series points race finishes since the advent of electronic scoring have come at 'Dega. That's more than one-third of them.

Obviously, as long as I make my own schedule, Talladega is staying on the list.

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Countdown To The Aaron's 499: Last Year's Talladega Superspeedway Race One To Remember

This is part of a series of posts sponsored by Talladega Superspeedway. Whether you are making a week-long vacation out of it or coming just for a day, make sure to plan your Talladega experience today. This is more than a race. This is Talladega.

Many fans misinterpreted the whole "No cheering in the press box" debate that took place recently. Just because sports writers aren't allowed to cheer doesn't mean they can't let themselves get excited or thrilled by the events that unfold before their eyes.

For me, one such instance was last year's Aaron's 499 at Talladega Superspeedway. While some days on the NASCAR beat can be a grind, I drove out of 'Dega one year ago thinking, "I can't believe someone pays me to do this job."

The race was that awesome. And to be perfectly honest, it might just be my favorite race that I've ever covered.

Back at one of my old jobs, working at the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin in Southern California, my boss and co-workers used to make fun of me on occasion because of my penchant for hyperbole.

I would come back from an exciting high school football game I'd just covered for the newspaper and proclaim, "That was the best game I've ever seen!" Then I'd say it again about a different game a month later, and again the next month – and they'd laugh each time.

So while I admit my judgment can be skewed by the adrenaline rush of witnessing a great sporting event, I still think the 2010 Aaron's 499 was the best race I've seen in person.

Why? Because in my mind, it was the perfect race.

Let's talk about what makes a great race:

   • Lots of passing

   • Lots of close racing

   • Lots of different leaders

   • A spectacular wreck or two (in which everyone emerges uninjured, of course)

   • Controversy or tension between drivers

   • An awesome finish (preferably won by a guy who doesn't win very often)

In that case, last year's 'Dega spring race had it all. If you need a refresher, the Aaron's 499 was the race that set the all-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series record for both leaders (29 different drivers led at least one lap) and lead changes (the lead changed hands a whopping 88 times).

Then there was the tension between Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson (you probably remember Gordon's comment about Johnson "testing my patience." Gordon added then: "It takes a lot to make me mad, and I am pissed right now"). That was awesome.

The Gordon/Johnson incident sparked one of two notable wrecks that day, the other being a 10-car wreck about halfway through the race. Those kinds of things will always get fans' attention.

And then there was the finish. Kevin Harvick – who hadn't won a race since the 2007 Daytona 500 – perfectly timed his move on Jamie McMurray coming to the checkered flag, and beat McMurray to the line in a side-by-side finish.

The margin of victory? Just 0.11 second.

Truly, the race had every element a great race should have. Afterward, I was so thrilled by the day that I wrote an "Open Letter to NASCAR" about how memorable the race was.

I called it "the most enjoyable, entertaining, breathtaking race in a long time."

"It was a brilliant show, the kind of spectacle that made people remember why they ever came to like your sport in the first place," I added.

If my former co-workers at the newspaper would have read my open letter at the time, they probably would have poked fun at me for some more hyperbole.

But here's the thing: A year later, even with the adrenaline from the race long gone, I still feel that way. That's why I think I'm safe in saying the 2010 Aaron's 499 was my favorite race yet.

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Countdown To The Aaron's 499: Talladega Superspeedway's Race-Day Atmosphere

This is part of a series of posts sponsored by Talladega Superspeedway. Whether you are making a week-long vacation out of it or coming just for a day, make sure to plan your Talladega experience today. This is more than a race. This is Talladega.

OK, I admit it: Before I went to Talladega Superspeedway for the first time, I was a bit intimidated.

Now that I've been there several times, it seems silly I ever felt that way. But to me, Talladega always represented the capital of the NASCAR South. And I wasn't from the South.

Daytona and Darlington obviously are strongly linked to the roots of NASCAR's old school as well, but there was something about the very name Talladega that evoked thoughts of a Southern culture that was somewhat foreign to me.

Since I'm not from the South originally – nor was I a lifelong NASCAR follower – I wondered if the 'Dega fans would somehow pick up on the fact I was an outsider and treat me differently.

Knowing what I know now, nothing could be further from the truth.

Race day at Talladega is a time when people seem to come together, regardless of background. It's a festive, welcoming atmosphere – not one to be intimidated by.

I just hadn't figured that out before I went there for a race.

If you're not staying at the track, race day starts by driving past rows and rows of quiet tents and RVs in the campgrounds along Speedway Boulevard – the occupants apparently still resting from the previous evening's entertainment.

Smoke hangs in the air like a forest fire nearby had recently been extinguished, but it's just the remnants of the campfires that served as the community gathering places after sunset.

As the morning goes on, though, the sleepy campers begin to stir and make a steady march toward the track – a pilgrimage to NASCAR's largest center of speed.

Like at most tracks, the midway with souvenir haulers outside Talladega's high banks is clogged with race fans from all over the place and wearing the colors of all different drivers. But at 'Dega, even more fans than usual are seen sporting merchandise with a big "88" on them.

What really separates Talladega from some other tracks, though, is the anticipation. I've sometimes complained to colleagues that certain venues in NASCAR seem too laid-back on the morning of the race – as though there's only a small sense of buildup before drivers risk their lives at 200 mph.

When I go to sporting events – even as a reporter – I want to feel the atmosphere. I want to know I'm about to see something exciting, and I want to feel that other people sense the same thing.

'Dega fulfills that need. As the green flag gets closer, that anticipation hangs in the air like the campfire smoke did during the early-morning hours. No one knows what's going to happen or how the race is going to unfold, but everyone is ready to see it.

And because there's a common interest in experiencing that text-your-friends moment (you know, like, "HEY, I'M AT 'DEGA. DID U SEE WHAT JUST HAPPENED?!?"), people seem to be particularly cheerful and friendly toward one another.

That's why I'm a bit sheepish to admit I was ever intimidated to go to Talladega. As it turns out, it doesn't matter where you came from; it just matters that you're there.

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Countdown To The Aaron’s 499: Recalling The First Time I Saw Talladega Superspeedway

This is part of a series of posts sponsored by Talladega Superspeedway. Whether you are making a week-long vacation out of it or coming just for a day, make sure to plan your Talladega experience today. This is more than a race. This is Talladega.

With Talladega only five weeks away, we're introducing a 'Dega-themed countdown beginning today to get you ready for the Aaron's 499 – the first restrictor-plate race since the Daytona 500.

And what better way to kick off the series than by talking about Talladega Superspeedway itself? Any fan who has visited Talladega before can certainly recall their first impressions of the track; today, I'm sharing mine.

If you can believe it, my first time at Talladega was only four years ago – in April 2007. I was assigned to cover the race for the magazine I worked for at the time.

By then, I'd already been to most of the tracks on the circuit – but not ‘Dega. And as a first-time reporter there, I was probably just as excited to see NASCAR's biggest track as most of the fans were.

I drove down from Charlotte and arrived in Alabama on a sunny, spring afternoon – just in time for a Nationwide Series practice day. There were campers rolling in for the weekend, but the track was still relatively quiet by Talladega standards.

I pulled off the interstate, turned into the track's main entrance and drove down the avenue toward the tunnel, the anticipation building. Quite honestly, I'd been looking forward to seeing the place since I'd started following NASCAR – and that had only grown since Talladega Nights was released the previous year.

After a wave from the guard, I steered into the narrow tunnel underneath the track and emerged into daylight on the other side.

It was even more awesome than I'd hoped.

"No way," I said to my passenger (which happened to be my laptop computer bag). "No. Way!"

It was that big, that impressive. I remember having a similar reaction upon seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time: Whoa.

I just wasn't quite prepared for what it would be like – and I think that's because no one can quite describe Talladega to someone who's never seen it before.

This is what I tell people who have never been: Take the biggest track your brain can imagine, then add steep banking and a massive infield that could fit a small town inside.

Got it? Good. Talladega is even bigger than that.

Anyway, I rolled into the track, dropped my stuff off in the media center and immediately walked out to pit road. Practice was just about to get underway, and I was anxious to see if the cars would start drafting.

Fortunately, I didn't have to wait long to find out. I found a set of bleachers on the inside of the track toward the end of pit road, and plopped down. I just wanted to experience the pack roaring by, which was the ultimate 'Dega experience in my mind.

About a dozen cars made their way out of the garage, hustled down pit road toward Turn 1 and disappeared into the distance.

I couldn't see them after that for a bit. I could just hear them, engines winding louder and getting up to speed. Were they doing single-car runs? Or would they practice drafting together?

Suddenly, I got my answer. The cars burst into sight in one colorful pack, screaming through the trioval and streaking down to the start/finish line – like fighter jets in formation, separated by just inches.

As they zoomed past, it practically startled me. And this is just practice, I thought. Awesome.

Watching racing at Talladega can literally take your breath away – after all, the tension and excitement makes you hold it in. While I've gotten used to the type of racing at some other tracks in the years since, I'm not sure the thrill of Talladega will ever wear off.

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