Talladega gives great hope to NASCAR’s small teams

USA TODAY Sports

A Talladega victory has more importance than ever, as it offers small teams a great chance to earn an unlikely playoff bid.

TALLADEGA, Ala. -- With the playing field leveled thanks to NASCAR's great equalizer, the draft, races at Talladega Superspeedway have always been wide-open affairs where conceivably any one of 43 starters could win.

The stakes, however, have been raised like never before for Sunday's Aaron's 499. As a proverbial lottery ticket is within grasp for smaller teams that under the previous format had little chance of competing for the championship.

"A win would change your whole year and your outlook on what you need to do. If a win were to happen to us, it would be a whole game-changer for our organization."-Team owner Tommy Baldwin

For those myriad smaller outfits in NASCAR's garage, Talladega represents a chance to gain entry into an exclusive club, the Chase for the Sprint Cup, and compete against the sport's high-dollar juggernaut organizations, which hold a virtual monopoly on playoff berths.

Once a dream with little chance of becoming reality, hope now permeates among the sport's underfunded teams because a win Sunday all but assures a playoff berth.

"A win would change your whole year and your outlook on what you need to do for us," said team owner Tommy Baldwin, who fields cars for Reed Sorenson and Michael Annett, in an interview with SB Nation. "The bigger teams it's a different story because they expect to win and are already planning on the Chase.

"But if a win were to happen to us, it would be a whole game-changer for our organization."

Because restrictor-plates are mandated at Talladega and its sister track, Daytona International Speedway, the substantial competitive advantage between the haves and have-nots is decreased substantially and is why races at the twin plate ovals often feature an unfamiliar face celebrating in Victory lane.

One such surprise occurred a year ago at Talladega when David Ragan and David Gilliland orchestrated a 1-2 finish for Front Row Motorsports, previously winless in NASCAR. It was a shocking result as Ragan and Gilliland teamed up to topple Carl Edwards, who drives for the superior Roush Fenway Racing.

Although Ragan was mostly uncompetitive for the balance of the 2013 season, finishing 28th in points, if a similar situation were to unfold Sunday it would likely earn him a coveted Chase spot.

"We are not consistent enough to win several races, click off five or six top-10s in a row and we realize that," Ragan said. "But what NASCAR has done has given us a chance to be in the Chase for the championship and that would really change the course of Front Row Motorsports and what we're trying to achieve as a team and personally as a driver."

Before Ragan there was Trevor Bayne somehow winning the 2011 Daytona 500 in just his second Cup start. He followed a still unproven Brad Keselowski, who took the single-car Phoenix Racing team to Talladega winner's circle in 2009.

Knowhow and money are virtual nonfactors at Talladega where young wheelmen have repeatedly proven themselves. Altogether, 10 different drivers have won their first race at NASCAR's biggest and fastest.

The expression "roulette wheel" is used by Ragan to describe the unpredictability which accompanies races at Talladega. Other drivers have referred to it as a casino. Yet no matter the prism through which it's viewed, Sunday's race presents an opportunity for a Cinderella story to emerge.

"You always feel good about Daytona and Talladega because it equalizers the field a little bit and everyone has a chance," Baldwin said. "We're excited. It's not out of the question (to win), as we've been in position these last three, four years to have a chance."

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