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Track Talk: Alabama 500 at Talladega

Ultimately, can Dale Earnhardt Jr win this weekend at Talladega?

Ultimately, can Dale Earnhardt Jr win this weekend at Talladega?

Each weekend, our panel on The Podium Finish provides their thoughts on the latest stories in NASCAR and attempt to pick the winner of the Alabama 500 at Talladega, the upcoming Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race!

This weekend, our panel consisting of Adam LucasAshley HobbsAshley Hull, Cody ShoppeKathleen CassidyKayla Sturm, and Stephen Conley contemplate about the multiple grooves prevalent at Charlotte, an earlier race start time, the legacy of Robert Yates, and Talladega hosting the middle race during the Round of 12!

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Question 1
Safe to say, Kyle Larson and Brad Keselowski weren't walking in country lanes. (Photo Credit: Zach Darrow)

Safe to say, Kyle Larson and Brad Keselowski weren’t walking in country lanes. (Photo Credit: Zach Darrow)

We saw drivers work their way through traffic during Sunday’s Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. How much of this was on the VHT substance on the high lane and/or the somewhat older asphalt surface?

Conley :  From the sounds of it, the VHT was all but gone by the halfway point. So I think it may have been a combination of things. The weather had an impact on the track all weekend.

Teams said they expected a little cooler day, the aging surface, and simply, a little desperation. None of the 12 want to roll in to Talladega fighting an uphill points battle.

Hobbs :  We did see drivers work through traffic, but it was more during the start of the race and then the action faded. It is hard to say the VHT was the reason why we saw more passing than usual, or other aspects that came into the equation.

Cassidy :  I think this substance works during the day. However, during the night race in May, we saw a different story. Hopefully, we see the use of this substance next year and improvements done during night racing.   

Hull :  It’s a little bit of both. The surface just works nicely during the daytime with the temperatures, so that made for the good racing. The high lane made for some good racing as well, allowing the drivers to pass freely. Overall, it was one of the better Charlotte races in a long time.

Magda :  It made a difference through the first half of the race. Once the VHT wore off, drivers had to adjust their line as the top wasn’t as prevalent early on. Kevin Harvick excelled with the VHT on track, being able to run multiple lanes around the 1.5-mile track.

Around lap 200, eventual race winner Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Larson were able to bypass the 2014 Cup champ so the sticky stuff only lasted so long before it wore out.

Sturm :  I think a lot of it was due to the VHT if I’m being honest. This was one of the best races that Charlotte has seen in a long time and I think a lot of it can be contributed to the traction compound. After all the practice crashes, they had to do something to better the cars’ grip and I think this did the trick.

Shoppe :  I don’t really think the track’s sticky substance played much of a positive factor at Charlotte last weekend. Earlier in the weekend it was blamed for some of the practice accidents but in the race it didn’t seem to be an issue.

Lucas :  A beautiful combination of both. Charlotte hit the jackpot for on track action this past weekend. By far, it will be remembered as one of the best 1.5 mile races this season. Bravo job, Marcus Smith and team!

Question 2
Earlier start times - yay or nay? (Photo Credit: Zach Darrow)

Earlier start times – yay or nay? (Photo Credit: Zach Darrow)

For the second time this season, NASCAR bumped up the start time of a Cup race, this time by an hour at Charlotte. All things considered, should this prompt NASCAR to consider its start times with tracks to ensure events can start and potentially finish in full despite potential inclement weather?

Conley :  Honestly, I believe it’s time to go back to a single set time. Start all races at noon in the time zone they are running, unless, of course, it’s a scheduled night race. As for what they did Sunday, good job on looking ahead. They started talking about possibly doing it on Friday. This gave the fans some notice that it was a real possibility.

Hobbs :  The one thing NASCAR cannot control is the weather; and the start time will have zero impact on this. Weather can change at any moment; it could be sunny and then you get rained on. So, the time the race starts and weather and completely mutually exclusive.

The start time should be dependent on the coast. I understand that a 1 pm EST start time seems good out here, but that is only 10 am PST. The flip side; a 3 pm EST start time might be late for the East Coast folks, but works great for the West Coast. There is no easy solution here.

Cassidy :  The most frustrating moment at a race is when the radar says rain but NASCAR does not change the start time. I think for fans sake NASCAR needs to reconsider their rules when it comes to weather. It is understandable that with television regulations, however, the fans at the track must be a priority.

Hull :  They need to return to the 1 o’clock start time for races, especially since it’s almost daylight savings time, and will become dark earlier soon. It will also give teams more room to finish the race at a reasonable hour, and more likely, the fans will enjoy it.

Magda :  This one’s a no-brainer, there should always be an option to move up the start time an hour or two to get the full distance in. With rain looming in the Charlotte area all weekend, kudos to NASCAR and the track for getting every lap of both races in.

Waiting out a rain delay’s never fun, but Mother Nature has the last word in whether to race or not. I think what helped greatly with moving the race up an hour was the TV window began at 1 p.m. on NBC, which also allowed the network to have a full-hour of post-race coverage on local affiliates across the country.  

Sturm :  Like I’ve said before, living in central standard time, I like the later start times because I have church on Sunday mornings and when the start times are at 1 EST, that’s 12 CST my time and I miss some of the race. I have no problem with tracks having earlier start times in cases of inclement weather.

If there’s impending bad storms coming then I totally understand bumping up start times to try and get at least some of the race in. However, I’m not a fan of going back to early start times across the board, but my voice is small in a sea of NASCAR fans that want the opposite.

Shoppe :  I was glad to see NASCAR move the start time ahead to try to avoid the weather. I hope NASCAR continues to make heads up decisions about weather like this from now on. It won’t always work out as well as last weekend but any effort helps.

Lucas :  It really depends on many factors. The deal in Charlotte ended up working perfectly. An hour and a half after the race it did begin to rain with several tornado warnings around the area. NASCAR and CMS dealt with the best they could, and it worked! Great job by all sides.

Also of note, The Weather Channel will now be the exclusive weather team of NASCAR. What a funny coincidence, as this was announced during the build up of the Bank of America 500.

Question 3
Thank you, Robert Yates! (Photo Credit: Zach Darrow)

Thank you, Robert Yates! (Photo Credit: Zach Darrow)

Robert Yates passed away this past week following a valiant battle with liver cancer. In your opinion, what’s the most significant contribution from Yates that’s still prevalent in NASCAR today?

Conley :  Obviously, his name is synonymous with horsepower. But I think the thing he did was make horsepower with durability. He really put a lot of focus on power but making sure his cars finished. That is something that stood out in Dale Jarrett’s 1999 championship.

Hobbs :  Yates was a pioneer in this sport, and that legacy will always be around. Teams will always associate Robert Yates to helping bring the sport to where it is today, and we can only hope the sport (and organization) can carry on his legacy.

Cassidy :  His ability to build engines changed the competitive levels in NASCAR. His legacy will live on and be remembered for as long as NASCAR lives.  

Hull :  We are all saddened by his passing, especially with how vibrant he appeared at an earlier event. My thoughts and prayers go out to his family. The biggest contribution he made was by being a crew chief in the 1990’s.

Yates helped some talented drivers, such as Davey Allison and Dale Jarrett achieve success. He also helped Jarrett win a championship in 1999. He was one of the greatest engine builders and team owners in history and he won’t be forgotten.

Magda :  His most significant accomplishment was keeping Fords up to speed with other manufacturers. Every season has its ebb-and-flows, and once he partnered with Jack Roush to develop the engine program, it resulted in a championship with Matt Kenseth in 2003 and five Roush cars making the Chase two years later.

Something I feel that goes under the radar is the success he had in the 1990s with Davey Allison and Larry McReynolds and then the success of adding a second team with Dale Jarrett, who won the Cup title in 1999 with a young Todd Parrott. It was a fitting tribute to Mr. Yates with Jarrett driving his 1999-title winning car before Sunday’s race at Charlotte.

Sturm :  Definitely his engine building skills. He was a mechanical genius that contributed greatly to NASCAR in terms of winning engines, building engines for big names such as Cale Yarborough and Darrell Waltrip.

That’s not to undermine any of his other accomplishments such as being a great car owner, but I definitely think his mechanical skills will go down as his biggest impact in the sport of NASCAR throughout the years.

Shoppe :  The Roush Yates engine program is to me one of the biggest contributions Yates has made to the sport that we see today. Both Robert and his son Doug have been a big part of the strength of Ford over the last few decades.

The 1999 championship domination will stand out in my mind as a top accomplishment of Yates and his team. He will be missed and will be a deserving addition to the Hall of Fame.

Lucas :  This is a tough one. I think he advanced the engineering part of the sport light years ahead of itself. He took the stereotypical “good ole boys” modifying a big block into a speed demon, to advancing science and technology within the industry.

In a way, he made NASCAR smarter, i.e. he brought unsuspecting methods to an otherwise at the time “primitive” sport. I met Mr. Yates in 2006 at his shop in Mooresville, and by far, he was one of the nice guys in the sport. He gave my family a private tour of the shop, and gave me an old piston rod from an old Elliott Sadler superspeedway engine, so that was pretty cool. Godspeed, Robert!

Question 4
NASCAR racing at Alabama looks more like I-93 in Boston.

NASCAR racing at Alabama looks more like I-93 in Boston.

With Talladega as the middle race in the Round of 12 unlike past years, does the strategy change for playoff teams with being aggressive/conservative to secure a spot in the Round of 8 and potentially for Homestead-Miami?

Conley :  This is typically the more “lackluster” race of the two stops at Talladega. With that said, now it’s game on.

Drivers deep in the points need to be aggressive and I’d fully expect it. Johnson is down a ways in points and can easily win next week at Kansans, so taking risks this week can pay off. Same for Kenseth and Kyle Busch.
On the other hand, McMurray and Stenhouse need a win to move on, so aggressiveness should be the name of the game for them.

Hobbs :  I think Talladega moving to race 2 or 3 (in the segment) certainly changes strategy. Only Martin Truex Jr. is assured a spot in the next round, so he can do whatever he wants; which, I believe, will be to try and get more points. for the remaining 11 Playoff drivers, if they go aggressive, it can pay off great with a victory; or result in udder disaster. If they choose to go conservative, they will have to push that much harder at Kansas, but their day could also end in udder disaster.

No matter what strategy teams choose, they must avoid disaster. With as tight as the points are, drivers might be aggressive enough to maintain their points distance to other drivers; or they might go for the win (as they should). Not to mention, the rest of the field not in the playoffs has absolutely nothing to lose, and will try to spoil someone’s day. It should be an exciting race!

Cassidy :  I personally like Talladega at the end of the round because it keeps everyone on their toes. I am interested to see how this will change the drivers emotions this season.

Hull :  We will see it both ways on Sunday. You will have teams who want to remain safe and advance go ahead and play it conservatively by hanging out in the back. That is what the Gibbs cars did last year.

And then, you will see the ones who need to do better race for it  by being aggressive. We will see all kinds of strategies play out on Sunday and it will be interesting to see who comes out unscathed.

Magda :  The team sweating the least going into this weekend is the 78 bunch. They can breathe easy until the opening race of the round of 8 at Martinsville. I think the strategy slightly changes this week compared to previous years of it being an elimination race.

There will be those who lag back most of the race and others running up towards the front every single lap. For a driver like Ricky Stenhouse Jr., this might be his only chance to capitalize on moving onto the next round and winning the last two restrictor-plate races doesn’t hurt either.

Sturm :  I don’t think drivers will be as aggressive this weekend at Talladega. Being that it’s already a risky race and that “The Big One” is bound to occur, I think drivers will be a little more conservative and cautious knowing they still have another race to lock themselves into the Round of 8.

I think drivers that are in the red and in risk of not advancing will be a little more competitive. As far as drivers up top in points, I think we’ll see them back off a little if implications, such as wrecks, start to occur.

Shoppe :  With the biggest wild card race in the playoffs, Talladega, being in the middle of the round instead of the end, this gives teams the chance to make up for a misstep in the treacherous plate race next week in Kansas.

I expect some teams to be very aggressive in the draft to earn stage points and a good finish rather then waiting around in the back for the big one to happen.

Lucas :  It’s a literal roll of the bones for teams. You either race hard and get wrecked, or race conservatively and pray a wreck takes everyone ahead of you out. If I were in this position, I’d tell my driver to “giver it hell and lead the whole dang race!” I am not a fan of “hanging out at the back,” like what the Gibbs team did last year.

Did they truly give 100 percent last fall at Talladega? I do not believe so, but their strategy payed off. Little risk, little reward, it will be a chess game for sure. I’d expect teams to be running hard for stage points early, then perhaps a cooling down over the midpoint of the race, followed by a mad dash to the front with 30 laps to go. Make sure you tune in, it’ll be an exciting one!

Solid effort in the first four laps of the Alabama 500 at Talladega!  Before the winning move is made, let’s review our race and points reports from Charlotte!
Hobbs emerged as a winner again...

Hobbs emerged as a winner again…

...and it looks like a familiar scene from last season!

…and it looks like a familiar scene from last season!

As the field crosses the stripe, the flagman waves the white flag!  With one lap remaining on this edition of Track Talk, let’s see those winning picks!
Eight race picks for Talladega? This should go well!

Eight race picks for Talladega? This should go well!

Tiongson :  Throughout this season, Chip Ganassi Racing has been prominent thanks to Kyle Larson’s strongest season yet.  However, we can call this organization “Hot Chip” when Jamie McMurray strolls his way to Victory Lane at Talladega.

Conley :  This week’s lucky bingo ball number is 18 for Kyle Busch.

TPF Stats :  With two wins this season, both at restrictor plate tracks, and in three starts in the Alabama 500 with an average finish of 5.67, how can you not go with Ricky Stenhouse Jr this weekend?

Hull :  My pick for Sunday is a young man who won the Spring race, and that’s Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

Hobbs :  A driver like Ricky Stenhouse Jr., one of the best restrictor plate racers we have today, is hard to count out. However, could the pressure of this race and still being in the Playoffs get to him? Maybe. So, I will go with Clint Bowyer, a driver who has nothing to lose this weekend, but can certainly ruin some playoff drivers’ day.

Cassidy :  Brad Keselowski wins on Sunday!

Magda :  Dale Earnhardt Jr – because why not?

Lucas :  It’s somewhat bittersweet but my gut says it’s now or never for Dale Earnhardt Jr. Thank you Junior for everything you have done for the sport!

Sturm :  My pick to win is Chase Elliott.

Shoppe :  Going with Matt Kenseth.

That wraps it up, race fans!  Thanks for joining us for another edition of Track Talk! We’re ready for some racing. How about you? What do you think are the biggest storylines heading into Sunday’s race and who is your favorite to win?  Tweet us now @ThePodiumFinish and tell us now!

Thanks as always to the TPF team for their amazing efforts each week! The opinions and thoughts expressed in Track Talk are solely of the authors. They do not reflect any organizations affiliated with the participants and author outside of TPF. This weekly feature is strictly for entertainment purposes and are not indicative of TPF, the organization, and its staff.

Rob Tiongson is a sports writer and editor originally from the Boston area and resides in the Austin, Texas, area. Tiongson has covered motorsports series like NASCAR and INDYCAR since 2008 and NHRA since 2013. Most recently, Tiongson is covering professional basketball, mainly the WNBA, and women's college basketball. While writing and editing for The Podium Finish, Tiongson currently seeks for a long-term sportswriting and sports content creating career. Tiongson enjoys editing and writing articles and features, as well as photography. Moreover, he enjoys time with his family and friends, traveling, cooking, working out and being a fun uncle or "funcle" to his nephew, niece and cat. Tiongson is an alum of Southern New Hampshire University with a Bachelor of Arts in Communication and St. Bonaventure University's renowned Jandoli School of Communication with a Master of Arts in Digital Journalism.

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