NASCAR At Talladega 2012: Viewer’s Guide For The Aaron's 499

Here are some storylines to watch for in today's NASCAR race at Talladega Superspeedway:

Storylines

The Pack is Back

Gone is two-car tandem drafting, and in its place is a return to cars running around side-by-side in a large group. But the return to pack racing comes with inherent risks, as restrictor-plate racing is more about surviving and not getting swept up in the "Big One" whenever it inevitably occurs.

The old adage, "To finish first, one must first finish" is the mantra of the weekend. Look for many a driver to try to play it safe until there's about 20 or so laps to go. After that, expect a free-for-all with at least one if not more attempts at a green-white-checkered finish. Think of this as NASCAR's version of a reality show, where the field will slowly be whittled down until one contestant is left standing.

Keeping Those Motors Cool ... and Running

Playing into the above storyline, engine durability is going to be something to keep an eye on today. Within a couple of laps of running behind another car, drivers quickly see a spike in their engine temps, and it's going to be a chore for them to keep their engines cooled and running to their full productivity for 500 miles – even more so with the weather temperature expected to be high.

Another First-Time Winner?

From Richard Brickhouse winning the very first race here in 1969, to Brad Keselowski's out-of-nowhere win in this race three years ago, Talladega has had an uncanny way of producing first-time winners. In total, 10 drivers have scored their inaugural Sprint Cup victory on the 2.6-mile oval.

If we are to see another first-time winner this afternoon, look for it to be AJ Allmendinger – who lines up second – or maybe the guy who replaced Allmendinger at Richard Petty Motorsports, Aric Almirola, who in his first race working with new crew chief Mike Ford topped both sessions of practice.

Worth Noting

• Not since Dave Marcis won here in 1976 has a Dodge car been to Victory Lane at Talladega – a span of 70 races. On that same note, Chevy has won 20 of the last 24 races here.

• On Saturday, Jeff Gordon sped to his first pole of 2012, marking the 20th consecutive season the four-time Cup champion has qualified P1 and moved him into a tie with David Pearson for the longest streak in series history.

• The last four races at Talladega have featured 72, 88, 87 and 88 lead changes.

Favorites

1. Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Coming off a great run at Richmond, where he finished runner-up to Kyle Busch and moved up to second in the standings just five points behind leader Greg Biffle, Dale Earnhardt Jr. appears ever closer to finally snapping his 138-race winless streak.

What better place for it to happen than Talladega, where he's been victorious five times and has three runner-up finishes. And if Earnhardt Jr. were to win today, he would likely move to the top of the standings for the first time since September 2004.

2. Clint Bowyer

You may be surprised to be see Clint Bowyer's name on this list, but you shouldn't be. In his last three starts at Talladega, Bowyer has two wins and finished second in the other. However, it's worth noting that his prior success all came while he was driving for Richard Childress Racing – a powerhouse on the plate tracks – and not his current Michael Waltrip Racing team.

3. Matt Kenseth

As evidenced by his win in the Daytona 500, Matt Kenseth has this pack-drafting thing down pretty well. And to win today, it's going to take patience and know-how to avoid the many pratfalls that racing at Talladega presents, both of which Kenseth more than possesses.

Sleeper

In a race that just about anyone can win, let's roll the dice on Joey Logano, who won yesterday's Nationwide Series race, has a better average finish at Talladega than anyone else in today's field and has posted top-10 finishes here in four of six starts.

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