Track Talk: GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway

All signs point to summertime arriving in just over a month but on this day of NASCAR Sprint Cup racing, it’s all about who’ll be first on May 1st at Talladega Superspeedway.  With the fabricators back at the shop pondering about the condition of their cars following today’s GEICO 500, drivers and teams are preparing for the unknown challenges awaiting them at this Alabama stock car staple.

It’s been said that racing at a place like Talladega and Daytona is akin to a game of chess.  Sometimes, you’ll make a move that may seem illogical and it’s all in the name of positioning for the final assault.  Give up some of your pawns while marching towards the offensive side of the board to power up.  In this case, it’s about pulling out of the drafting pack to be courageous and bold with going for the victory.

There’s the chance for mistakes to occur on race day like most other races.  However, at these mammoth tracks, one driver’s mistake, especially in a large pack of cars, can result in a scene that would look more like a Michael Bay adaptation of Transformers or JJ Abrams’ penchant of lens flares in his Star Trek films.

Simply put, it’s what draws fans to those stands but also makes those drivers recite extra prayers that after three and a half hours of door to door racing.  After all is said and done, all they can hope for is to emerge from their vehicles and wipe the sweat from the intense concentration needed to race in the one of the most frantic conditions that drivers will face all year long.

A long race awaits the NASCAR world.  With that, let’s get this preview started with Trending Topics on Track Talk featuring our TPF team of Ashley Hobbs, Ashley Hull,Cody Shoppe, Kathleen Cassidy, Sean Fesko, and Stephen Conley!

Trending Topics

Question 1
Oh you lugnuts.

Oh you lug nuts.

NASCAR announced earlier this week that teams must ensure that all five lug nuts are secured on each wheel prior to and during the races.  Per NASCAR’s announcement, “if any missing lug nuts are found on a wheel before the race it must be corrected immediately and is listed as an unapproved adjustment, forcing the competitor to start at the rear. Any tire intended for race use without all five lug nuts glued to the wheel must be fixed immediately. 
If the issue is found after a Sprint Cup race, the crew chief will be suspended for one race, placed on probation and fined $20,000 on the first offense. Multiple events will result in escalated penalties.”  Was this the right move by NASCAR and which teams does this impact with pit stops initially on Sunday at Talladega?

Fesko :   Last week I stated that the rule this one replaced was fine – the issue was self-policing and teams could take care of it. However, I applaud NASCAR for its reasoning behind amending the rule. Now it has ensured the highest level of safety in regards to tire attachment. For Talladega, I would have said that teams would attach all five lugs already because of the speeds and long runs (don’t want a loose wheel and lose the draft), but if any teams are hindered by the rule it will be the Joe Gibbs Racing group – they’re blisteringly fast at pit stops.

Shoppe :  I think it was the right move for NASCAR to put a rule back in place on the lug nut issue before a disastrous accident happens. I am in favor of the pre-emptive approach as well as the penalties a team would receive for a loose wheel especially. The severity of the penalties will effectively prevent teams from pushing the envelope with lug nut safety in the future. The only issue that can come of this is the fact that accidents will happen. Hopefully, NASCAR and the race control personnel will look take into consideration failures and other unintentional issues can can lead to a loose wheel when penalizing teams as this new rule goes forward.

Conley :  It’s absolutely the correct call. The entire rule was a huge mistake to start. NASCAR overlooked at how much these teams would push the envelope. You give these guys an inch, they take a hundred miles. Tony and the rest of the drivers said it’s a safety issue and that needs to be put on the guys making those calls. Even if the stops are slowed back down a little, it’s better than the risk of injury to a driver or fan.

Hobbs :  Clearly, based on competitor comments, this is the right move. It opens a different can of worms regarding Tony Stewart’s comments and fine, however. But I think the penalty is a bit rash. Reading some comments from crew chiefs, it is not uncommon, from the past where five-on-five-off was the way of the land, to have a lug nut not there at the end of the race for whatever reason. I also feel like teams wanted the freedom to flex the rules a bit and they got it, then comments were made and NASCAR really jumped the gun (no pun intended) with really cracking the whip on what they want to see. NASCAR can do whatever they want, but they need to stop making so many changes so quickly.

Cassidy :   It is clear that NASCAR made the right move. Ensuring that five lug nuts are secure on the wheels promotes safety for fans, drivers and teams.  In addition, NASCAR had to do something about the rule in order to respond to Tony Stewart’s comment earlier last week.  I feel like this rule will most affect drivers such as Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch, whose crew chiefs often tend to gamble on pit road.

Hull :  Honestly, I don’t think it was NASCAR’s place to enforce this rule. There are already enough rules to the point that it’s getting ridiculous. While not using all five lugnuts can be a game of risk versus reward, it is a strategy that a lot of teams have used to gain ground on pit road. However, at the same time, I guess it can also be a safety issue as well, so something had to be done. But to make the rules extreme as they are is not the way to go.  

Question 2
The heat is on.

The heat is on.

Heat races have been implemented in the Dash 4 Cash races for select NASCAR XFINITY Series events this year.  The possibility is there for Sprint Cup races to have these should these work in the XFINITY Series.  Would this concept work in Cup races and perhaps make things exciting at various tracks on the circuit?

Fesko :  I see the arguments for either side here and agree with portions of both. On one hand, bunching up the field every once in a while will help create excitement, but it does so at the cost of long-runs and could take a win away from a deserving car if it can’t get up to speed. There are definitely some tracks that could use heat races, while others (like short tracks) already put on a great show and they probably aren’t needed. I suppose NASCAR could implement heats on certain tracks and not others, but would that throw a wrench in the point side of things? I’d like to keep seeing how it plays out in the XFINITY Series before I say either way whether heats belong in Cup. I’m a fan so far, however.

Shoppe :  I am all for moving heat races to the Sprint Cup Series for some tracks. I think it will help the show at some places perhaps tracks a mile or less in length. Some places like mile and a half venues may not provide the best action in short heats like the short tracks might. I do believe however there needs to be some changes to the heat format as we see it now in XFINITY.

There should be some sort of elimination in the heats meaning if you don’t finish in this certain position, you don’t make the feature. This elimination style heat format will put something on the line for drivers in their heats so they will be less likely to take complete care of the car for the feature. Say the top fifteen or so for example in each heat make the feature. This will add more excitement for the fans to see a driver have to put it all on the line on the last lap of the heat to make the big show! Who can forget Norm Benning at Eldora a few years ago!

Conley :  It’s another gimmick where it adds nothing to the weekend. Qualify them, line’em up and race.

Hobbs :  No. These heat races for the Dash 4 Cash races are signature to the XFINITY Series and it should remain that way. These series are all too similar and it is time that the XFINITY Series stood out, and this just continues to allow the series to do just that.

Cassidy :  I believe there is always extra elements NASCAR could add to entice fans further to come to the race track. Dash 4 Cash is exciting and could add to many tracks that suffering from low attendance. However, determining what tracks are allotted these events may be tricky.

Hull :  I think that heat races would be something different and exciting for these races. It is a lot like going to the local dirt track and seeing a race there. A lot of people would think that was great. Of course, as we have seen, not everyone would be pleased, so it’s a question of how successful it would be in the XFINITY Series.  

Question 3
Smoke on the race track...

Smoke on the race track…

Tony Stewart’s return to the Cup Series was welcoming news for NASCAR thus far in 2016.  With Stewart back in the 14 ride, what can we expect from him and with NASCAR granting him a waiver, does he have a legitimate shot at making the Chase field?

Fesko :  Stewart fans shouldn’t expect a Chase berth, but Smoke will run well. If his run at Richmond last week is any indication, he’ll be in the mix more often than he was last year, but trying to get up to speed with this new package combined with his drop in performance the past few years doesn’t make for a recipe strong enough for Stewart to run for a final championship. His best shots at getting that win, however, will come at the road courses.

Shoppe :  I was impressed with Smoke’s first race back. A solid top-20 finish was above average for Tony Stewart in his last year and a half and to see him solidly fighting for a top 15 after missing the whole season so far and having no seat time in the new 2016 Cup car, I am thoroughly encouraged by this start to Stewart’s attempt to come from behind and make the Chase in his last year. Before last weekend, if you asked me if there was a chance he could make the Chase, I would say no way at all. Now maybe, just maybe there is a chance if he and his No, 14 team can be consistent (and win).

Conley :  I think we’ll see more of the same. A struggling to get in the top-15 each week. Stewart said at a tire test at Indy that he’s behind on this new aero package. It’s going to take him to long to rebound. Even if he does get a win, he still has to get in the top-30 and that will be the bigger chore. I don’t believe Stewart is a serious threat for the Chase.

Hobbs :  We can expect him to perform at the level he has the past few years; a top-20 car not contending for victories. I am sorry to the Stewart fans out there, but this waiver will not do much for Stewart. He has not been competitive for several years. Sure, he may crack the top-30 in points, but a win is a glimmer of hope for the 14 team. Stewart can just have fun with the remainder of the season and enjoy his last months behind the wheel of a Cup car.

Cassidy :  It is not new news that Tony Stewart has struggled over the last couple seasons. With that being said, I would say Kyle Busch proved that coming back mid-season from an injury puts a spark in a driver. I hope that Stewart will be able to be competitive for his last full time Sprint Cup series as there are many race opportunities left to be won.

Hull :  It was nice to see Tony back to the track last week. However, his finish last week was anything but stellar. In the last few years, ever since he won the championship in 2011, he has had so much bad luck. I don’t know whether he is getting too old or not, but I hope that his bad luck will be reversed, and he could make it into the Chase. But he will have to overcome the bad luck he has had in last few years. So we shall see how this next race will go.

Question 4
Talladega days.

Talladega days.

Talladega Superspeedway tends to be a circuit where anybody in the field, so long as they can keep up with the draft, has a legitimate chance to win the race.  Aside from the usual favorites, which underdog driver and team stands the best shot at winning at this grand venue?

Fesko :  Front Row Motorsports has won at Dega before, and they’ll be a force to be reckoned with this weekend via its No. 38 cat and Landon Cassill. BK Motorsports, too, has an accomplished plate racer in the lineup with David Ragan. Look for both to make noise and possibly steal a Chase-clinching win.

Shoppe :  I love seeing underdogs pull through will a great result at plate tracks! Guys like Landon Cassill and Regan Smith are on the top of my list to surprise some people this Sunday. Matt DiBenedetto could back up his Bristol finish this weekend as well. Also keep an eye on David Ragan in the Dr. Pepper car and also, if Danica has a chance to get a much anticipated win, Dega is the place!

Conley :  After Matt Dibennedetto’s surprise run at Bristol, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the BK Racing cars running up front. Chris Buescher in the Front Row entry’s No. 34 ride would be another that I wouldn’t be surprised to be contending.

Hobbs :  WHICH underdog? All of them! David Ragan, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Front Row Motorsports, BK Racing, etc. ANYONE can win at Talladega. As much of a “just be there at the end” track this is, strategy is involved as well, and many drivers will do whatever they can to nab a victory as they know this is one of the very few shots they have to dethrone a top team.

Cassidy :  I believe that we will see more from Martin Truex Jr. and the 78 team at Talladega. Although this team shined last year, this season there has been less of a buzz about Furniture Row Racing. Truex is capable of handling different styles of race tracks, and staying out of trouble when needed. Hopefully, this team can pull through for a strong finish.

Hull :  Talladega is definitely a crapshoot race where every driver has the same odds of winning the race. Among the underdogs, I think that David Ragan may have a chance of winning the race. I can remember the 2013 Aarons 499, where both of the Davids (Ragan and Gilliland) produced an exciting finish to the end. I think that it could be either of the Davids who could get it done this weekend. We shall see who will come out on top this weekend. It should be fun!

Superspeedway effort there, y’all!  Before we get on to our race picks (which may surprise y’all), let’s look at how we all fared last weekend at Richmond and check out those points standings heading into today’s race at Talladega:
Kathleen Cassidy just keeps on winning...

Kathleen Cassidy just keeps on winning…

...might we need to bow down to our favourite Canadian?

…might we need to bow down to our favourite Canadian?

Alright, y’all!  Let’s drop the mic and get to our race picks for today’s GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway!
Interesting selection, wouldn't you say?

Interesting selection, wouldn’t you say?

Tiongson :  I’m pretty sure Dale Earnhardt Jr is the overwhelming favorite to be first on May 1st at Talladega.  And I’m pretty sure I’m not the first person to pick him for the race on Sunday.

Hull :  My pick for the race will probably be a TPF favorite this weekend, and I think everyone else will agree with me when I say that Dale Earnhardt, Jr., will have the best chance of winning this weekend!

Fesko :  Going with Landon Cassill today!

Shoppe :  My pick is Martin Truex Jr!

Conley :  My pick for the win is a rookie who’ll see the spotlight. Ryan Blaney takes the Wood Brothers to Victory Lane.

Hobbs :  Stats say Kevin Harvick; however, because anything can happen, I’ll go with Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

Cassidy :  Brad Keselowski for the win today.

That wraps it up, race fans! Thanks for joining us for another edition of Track Talk! How about you? What do you think are the biggest storylines heading into today’s race and who is your favorite to win?

Tweet us now @ThePodiumFinish and tell us now! Thanks as always to the TPF team. The opinions and thoughts expressed in Track Talk are solely of the authors and do not reflect on any organizations that we are affiliated with outside of TPF. This weekly feature is strictly for entertainment purposes and are not indicative of TPF, the organization, and its staff.

Rob Tiongson

30-something motorsports journalist who enjoys sports like baseball, basketball, football, soccer, track and field, and hockey. Born and raised in the Boston, MA area, racing was the first sport that caught my eye. From interviews to retrospective articles, if it's about anything with an engine and four wheels, you'll likely see an article on The Podium Finish by either myself or one of my talented columnists who absolutely have the motorsports passion.

Currently seeking a sports writing, public relations, or sports marketing career, particularly in motorsports. I enjoy editing and writing articles and features, as well as photography.

Graduated from Southern New Hampshire University with a Bachelor of Arts in Communication.

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