By NASCAR Wire Service
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
Anything can happen at Talladega Superspeedway.
Anyone can win at Talladega.
That's the allure of racing at the 2.66-mile behemoth in Alabama. And that's what all drivers will have in the back of their minds this weekend as they prepare for Sunday's Aaron's 499 (1:00 p.m. ET, FOX).
They all know they have a chance to be the lucky driver celebrating in Victory Lane. They all know it's an unpredictable race ... even with a couple laps left.
"Talladega is like rolling the dice at a craps table -- how do you do it, when you do it -- are you going to get on a roll," said Clint Bowyer, driver of the No. 15 Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota. "I mean, that's exactly the way it is. Everybody has a shot at winning. Everybody has the same dice. You just have to have a lucky roll, lucky push and just get up there. That's really what it's come down to."
Bowyer knows what he's talking about having won there twice in the past five races. He is also the proud owner of four top-five and seven top-10 finishes in 15 starts at the track.
"We've been on a roll here recently with our race team and we're hoping to get through Talladega with a good finish -- if not a win -- and keep digging," said Bowyer.
In last spring's race, the Kansas native finished a respectable sixth. Then, in the fall 2012 race, he was leading the field with one lap to go when a 25-car pile-up coming out of turn 4 knocked him out of contention for the win and relegated him to a 23rd-place finish.
The 2011 Aaron's 499 provided the typical Talladega excitement, especially on the final lap. Bowyer battled Jimmie Johnson door-to-door around the track only to be beaten by Johnson at the finish line by 0.002 seconds, tying the closest finish in NASCAR since the introduction of electronic timing in 1993. Bowyer led a race-high 38 circuits.
Bowyer's second-place showing was sandwiched between two Talladega performances that both resulted in victories. In the fall 2010 race, Bowyer had barely passed Kevin Harvick on the white-flag lap when a five-car accident brought the race to an end under caution. Bowyer passed Jeff Burton on the final lap of the fall 2011 race to capture the checkered flag in the Good Sam Club 500. The finish was another nail biter with Bowyer winning by only 0.018 seconds.
Bowyer, arguably, has had more success than any other driver having collected 151 championship points over the past four races at Talladega, more than any other driver since NASCAR introduced a simpler scoring system prior to the 2011 season.
This season, however, brings an unknown element to the high-banked, restrictor-plate track with the introduction of the Generation-6 race cars. Although Sunday's race will be the first time the Gen-6 cars will face competition at Talladega, it will be the cars' second go with restrictor plates.
One of the biggest advocates for the new Gen-6 cars and the on-track action it provides is Bowyer, especially after last Saturday's race at Richmond International Raceway.
"Look at these highlights. Isn't this awesome! I love this sport, I'm telling you. Whoever designed this new car, we should kiss 'em every weekend. It's creating drama," exclaimed an elated Bowyer while highlights of last Saturday's Toyota Owners 400 played on televisions in the Richmond media center after finishing second to Harvick in the race.
"Look at that. There we go right there, Joey (Logano). Right up the inside. Here we come."
Bowyer, who jumped from eighth to fifth in points after last week's runner-up performance, finished 11th in the season-opening Daytona 500 -- the first restrictor-plate race of the season. In nine races this season, the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship runner-up, has four top fives and five top 10s.
With the exception of a 27th-place finish at Las Vegas and a 35th-place finish at Auto Club, all of Bowyer's finishes were in the top 15.
Fantasy Focus: This week there are two veteran drivers everyone should look at -- one obvious and one not so obvious. First, let's start with the obvious one. Although he's only won twice since 2007 and hasn't been to Victory Lane at Talladega since 2004 (ok, maybe he's not quite that obvious), Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s success there is undeniable. He has five career victories there; four of them came in consecutive visits from fall 2001 to spring 2003. He has the second highest driver rating (89.6) among active drivers and is among the best in categories like fastest laps, laps in the top 15, green passes and quality passes. In the past six spring Talladega races (dating back to 2007), Earnhardt has finishes of seventh, 10th, second, 13th, fourth and ninth. What about the driver with the highest driver rating (91.4) and most green passes (6,338) and quality passes (4,327) at Talladega? That would be none other than South Boston, Va., native Jeff Burton. Although he has never won a NASCAR Sprint Cup event there, Burton has finished in the top 10 during his last three visits and was runner-up in the fall 2011 race.
SMITH MAKES PLAY FOR POINTS LEAD
Regan Smith is in prime position to give his new team JR Motorsports something it's never had -- a driver atop the NASCAR Nationwide Series points standings.
When the series rolls into Talladega Superspeedway for Saturday's Aaron's 312 (3:00 p.m. ET, ESPN), Sam Hornish Jr. will be sporting a slim one-point advantage over Smith.
After taking a five-year break from the NASCAR Nationwide Series to focus on his NASCAR Sprint Cup Series career, Smith returned to the series for the final race of the 2012 season. He lost his seat at Furniture Row Racing with six races to go in the season and appeared in four of the last six races, splitting time between Hendrick Motorsports and Phoenix Racing.
During that time he searched for a full-time ride in 2013.
He landed with JR Motorsports' No. 5 team in the NASCAR Nationwide Series. In his first race with them, the 2012 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, he drove the Chevrolet to Victory Lane.
Seven races into the 2013 season, Smith is proving that co-owner Dale Earnhardt Jr. made the right decision by offering him the ride. All seven of his finishes thus far are top-15 performances, five of them top-10 performances.
Because of their success this year, it's normal for the No. 5 TaxSlayer.com team to expect their success to continue at Talladega. But, Smith knows its Talladega and you can't take anything for granted when it comes to the Alabama track.
"With this type of racing, absolutely anything can happen. No matter how much you prepare or how good your car is, it's Talladega," said Smith. "The best car doesn't always win the race there. We just want to keep our good finishes going."
If Smith is to pass Hornish in the standings this weekend at Talladega, he'll need to draw more upon his success this season than his previous success at the superspeedway. In two NASCAR Nationwide starts, Smith has finishes of 23rd and 37th -- not exactly the type of finish one wants when trying to claim the points lead.
In 11 NASCAR Sprint Cup races at the track, he has one top-five finish. Fortunately, the fifth-place showing came in his most recent trip -- fall 2012. In his one NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, he finished a respectable ninth.