Look, let's be honest: you have to be a serious gearhead to enjoy watching NASCAR practice. Not that there's anything inherently wrong with either practice or the watching thereof, but there's this: you know how know-nothings slag NASCAR as being just cars going around in a circle? Yeah, practice is literally just cars going around in a circle. (Well, "oval" if we're going to be literal.) It can be interesting from a strategic perspective, and qualifying has a measure of drama, but as spectator sport, you'd have a lot more fun watching the on-ramp at the highway. Is anybody gonna let that minivan in before it runs out of ramp lane? NO!
Friday's practice will be very different than almost any other practice this season, however. For the first time this year, NASCAR is headed to a familiar track where the old rules don't apply. (Kentucky, where NASCAR had never raced at the Sprint Cup level, doesn't count.) The changes in restrictor plates, cooling systems and bumper gloss mean that we'll see plenty of on-the-job learning.
The changes were made to help mitigate the two-by-two racing at restrictor plate tracks which led to more lead changes than ever before, but also infuriated fans and drivers alike with their random nature. But what, specifically, are we talking about here? Drivers can look forward to three major changes: the restrictor plates are somewhat larger, allowing more air to the engine and thus increasing speeds; alterations to the pressure relief valve mean cars can overheat much faster; and lubricants on the back of bumpers are now prohibited.
Combined, these changes may or may not bring back the Big Pack of Talladega yore, but they'll in theory prevent the ballroom dancing of recent races. And it'll be up to the drivers to learn on the fly how these changes affect their racing.
"We need to understand the restrictor plate change and the cooling system change," Kurt Busch said earlier in the week. "I think most guys will limit their practice and save things for Sunday. But Friday is a very important day this week."
Here's the thing, though: the duo racing won't entirely disappear, so you'll see several drivers pairing up in practice to test who runs better where. Kevin Harvick and Paul Menard practiced together for much of a Thursday fuel injection test, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. has seen success this season partnering with both Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart. Where does that leave other Chase competitors? Would Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth pair up? (Probably not.) Who's going to dance with Kyle Busch?
We won't get answers to these questions until Sunday, but we'll start getting more information on Friday. Qualifying means almost nothing at Talladega; anybody can get to the front within a couple laps. Beyond that, though, it's all up in the air ... or on the high banks of the track, whichever.
Sprint Cup practices will be at 2:30 p.m. and 4:00 p.m. Eastern, and will be shown on SPEED. Check 'em out if you have access to a TV, and if you don't, we'll be right here for you.