It's time once again for Talladega, with qualifying Saturday for Sunday's Aaron's 499 ever-important as drivers try to get themselves up front for one of the wildest races of the year.
Past Talladegas have been defined by two characteristics of monstrous superspeedways: tightly packed fields, thanks to mandated restrictor-plate racing, and Big Ones, the huge pileups caused by those tightly packed raceways. In the blink of an eye, racers can go from the middle of the pack to the front if those Big Ones spill the right way, or can see their hopes of finishing high dashed.
Late lead changes are the order of the day at the Aaron's 499: 2010 saw Kevin Harvick squeeze ahead after a race featuring a record-setting 29 leaders and 88 lead changes, with Harvick winning by just .011 seconds. That would be bested in 2011, when Jimmie Johnson won by just .002 seconds, the tightest finish since NASCAR began using electronic timing.
But there are tempered expectations after those thrillers. 2012 was considered a more conservative race, with Brad Keselowski taking the checkered flag, and the Daytona 500 -- NASCAR's other superspeedway race -- was called a single-file race by Jeff Gluck of USA Today, and worried that racers could strategize the same way with no notable rules changes since that race.
So that leads us to qualifiers: If this race does see a relatively conservative run, Saturday's qualification will be crucial, as there might not be much jostling in the pack. But if Sunday's race is more reminiscent of Talladegas past, anything can happen -- the only benefit of being top of the field is that it helps you avoid crashes.
Saturday's qualification will begin at 12:10 p.m. ET and be broadcast on the Speed Channel. The race itself is Sunday at 1 p.m. ET on FOX.