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Raceday: Your guide to the Aaron's 499

- rbonnell@charlotteobserver.com
Saturday, May. 04, 2013

Three things to watch

1. When does Denny Hamlin (first race back from a fractured vertebra) give up the wheel? By all logic he should head to the pits at the first caution, giving way to relief driver Brian Vickers. But Friday he never said definitively he'd do that. Broken back and all, it's tough for these guys to give up control over their fates season-to-season.

2. Apparently the easiest carryover from open-wheel racing to stock-car racing is superspeedways. It's the pure speed and the pack racing. That worked somewhat in Danica Patrick's favor in Daytona. Does it help, too, in Talladega?

3. The weather has been lousy in Alabama, much as in Charlotte. A rain-free Sunday, whether it's hot/cool or sunny/cloudy, would be a relief to the weekly carnival that is NASCAR.

Observations

• I'm guessing there are few world-class sports venues that just pop up at you more dramatically than Talladega. You're driving along the interstate from Atlanta to Birmingham. You look to your left, expecting another Raceway gas station or Waffle House. And out of nowhere is this gigantic complex close enough to the highway you can see its full expanse at a shocking glance.

• I wonder if today's star drivers end up with the financial weight to become tomorrow's Sprint Cup owners? When I listen to Jeff Gordon these days I think what he understands, both about stock-car racing and team-building, should be applied down the road.

• Get well, Jim Utter. Don't rush your comeback, but do get well soon.

Best bets

Three picks for your fantasy team:

Aric Almirola: He had the best 10-lap average in Friday's second practice, averaging 188.526 mph.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.: Despite those disparaging comments about the wrecks at Talladega a while back, he knows restrictor-plate racing as well as any driver.

Landon Cassill: Your late pick - he showed some sustained speed in the second practice session Friday.

Notes

Qualifying cancelled: In a move that surprised no one, considering the weather, NASCAR chose to cancel Saturday qualifying for Sunday's Aaron's 499 Sprint Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway.

It has rained here continuously since early evening Friday, and drivers were well aware of the bad weather on the way. NASCAR set the field based on times in Friday's first practice session. That set the top three as Carl Edwards, Martin Truex Jr. and Marcos Ambrose.

While starting up-front can only help at a track known for multi-car wrecks, restrictor-plate racing minimizes the advantage of track position.

"Where you start doesn't really matter. You can start second and be 27th at the end of the first lap," Truex said. "Plate racing is a big, revolving door.''

It was clear Saturday that the major wrecks that dotted the last restrictor-plate race at Daytona are still fresh in drivers' minds.

"Based on Daytona, you just hope you can stay out in front of the run," Truex said. "The chances here of getting into a wreck are great, so why not race and have some fun?''

In that regard, Edwards said he's glad his car was fast in practice, but that won't count for much in a race where you're trying as much to stay out of trouble as push the limits of the machinery.

"It's so chaotic, so unpredictable, you can throw all the stats out," said Edwards, who ran a top lap speed of 199.675 mph Friday. "I'm happy we have a fast car, but the last lap of this race could turn the field inside-out.

"It looks like it's going to be a crazy race. I guarantee the last couple of laps will be insane.''

Gordon on safety: Today will be the first restrictor-plate race since the Daytona weekend, when a late-race Nationwide crash sent debris into the stands, endangering spectators.

Veteran driver Jeff Gordon said Friday there will always be a risk to fans, based on the speeds at Daytona and Talladega, no matter what safety measures are taken.

"Cars are going to get airborne," Gordon said. "Parts are going to fly off into the fence. But I think most of the time it's going to be minimal debris that gets put up into the grandstands, as well as minimal injuries to the drivers. But it's still possible.''

Jones, McCarron part of show: They know their sports-crossover opportunities here - Chipper Jones and AJ McCarron will be prominent pre-race in Talladega.

Retired Atlanta Braves great Jones has been named grand marshal for Sunday's race, while Alabama quarterback McCarron will serve as the honorary pace-car driver.

Race facts

Where: Talladega Superspeedway

Track type: 2.66-mile trioval

Race distance: 188 laps, 500.08 miles

Weather: Iffy. A slow-moving storm system drenched Alabama Saturday and remnants were expected to linger over Talladega for portions of Sunday.

TV: Coverage begins at noon Fox. Green flag is 1 p.m. ET

Radio: Motor Racing Network

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