After an incredible start to the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season, Talladega Superspeedway is set to hold a race that might determine a stunning member to the Chase for the Sprint Cup class. With NASCAR's new playoff format, David Ragan would have been in the Chase last season. 

Now, there are approximately 30-35 teams that can win the Aaron's 499 on Sunday afternoon. However, it is going to take the perfect combination of strategy and staying out of tomorrow, as seen in Saturday's Nationwide Series race, to win the second restrictor plate race of the year. 

Here is what you need to watch for during this year's running of the Aaron's 499:

  • Terry Labonte is making his 60th start at Talladega. Labonte announced this is his final year in NASCAR's top-tier division, and he will likely hang out at the rear of the field until the end of the race, making a charge late in the going.
  • Michael Waltrip is returning in the No. 66 Toyota. Waltrip, a two-time Daytona 500 champion, nearly won at Talladega in this race last year, and should be a contender on Sunday.
  • Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson are still looking for their first wins of the year. The two Hendrick Motorsports teammates usually have contradicting strategies during the plate races. Gordon likes to run up front, but sometimes hangs at the back, but Johnson usually runs towards the back.
  • Brian Scott won his first career pole on Saturday afternoon. Scott is making just his fifth career start in the Sprint Cup Series. He led multiple laps in Saturday's Nationwide Series spectacle, but was wrecked by Trevor Bayne - ending his day.
  • There were nine Chevrolet's inside the top-10 in qualifying. They have been extremely strong all weekend, but can they keep it up during the race?
  • Besides Scott winning the pole, there are several underdogs that are starting inside of the top-20 including - A.J. Allmendinger and Casey Mears in row two, Michael McDowell in 14th and Michael Annett in 17th. 
  • David Ragan won this race last year for Front Row Motorsports. He will be starting 39th for the Aaron's 499 with his teammate, David Gilliland with him in 40th. Though the two are back in the pack, they are both proven restrictor plate racers, and they will be a factor during the first Talladega race of the season.
  • Kasey Kahne and Martin Truex Jr. were penalized after qualifying and will have to start at the back of the pack. 
  • Will the higher grove be stronger than it was during the Nationwide Series race? The lower line was the strongest throughout the Aaron's 312.
  • How will tire strategy come into play? Tires will not wear too much, so most times will opt to take two tires instead of four on most pit stops.
  • Will we see a veteran go to victory lane or a young driver?
  • Denny Hamlin was extremely strong throughout Speedweeks in Daytona. Could Hamlin win on Sunday? 

After seven races, the young NASCAR Sprint Cup Series is now well underway. The level of competition has proven to have been dramatically improved from a 2013 season in which NASCAR received much criticism for a lack of passing.

This year, there has been only one race which has had fewer passes for the top position compared to last year, and that race was Las Vegas with one less pass for the lead this year. Clearly, NASCAR's new aero package is working well. However, NASCAR wants parity, and they have that. But something is missing, and that is the reward for consistency - something that helped a driver win championships until this season.

Last season, there were seven winners throughout the first 10 races. However, it was not so much easier for a driver to dominate a race, but a car simply had a lot more speed at the front of the pack over racing for position which was a part of why there was a lack of passing.

Jeff Gordon, the four-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion, currently leads the points standings. It is the first time that Gordon has been atop the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series points standings since the 2009 Coca-Cola 600 - 174 races ago.

NASCAR plans on awarding victories once the Chase for the Sprint Cup starts in September. However, just for the sake of an argument - what the heck happens if Gordon has a giant points lead with limited finishes outside of the top-10, but he has no wins? He would make the Chase, yes, but he would be put back a drop because he wouldn't have any bonus points from wins.

Fortunately, NASCAR's new championship format will actually benefit Gordon, or any other driver that is high in points, if they were not to have any wins at the time of the Chase cutoff at Richmond.

What NASCAR has done is actually great for the sport. A playoff based system that is being compared to the NCAA Men's Basketball tournament, or several other major sport's playoff formats for that matter, has entered NASCAR. If a driver finishes very well (without winning) during the multiple elimination rounds - a driver can win the championship.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., Gordon's teammate at Hendrick Motorsports, would have edged out their partner in crime, Jimmie Johnson, last season if this new system were in place. NASCAR has aimed for awarding drivers for wins, and that they are doing, but consistency still plays a factor. However, as long as a driver such as Gordon continues to run up front, they will get a win.

Through the first seven races this season, Gordon has five top-10 finishes, and no finish worse than 13th at Auto Club Speedway. He is showing everyone that even though NASCAR wants drivers to have wins to get into the Chase, there will likely be a handful of slots open to drivers that do not have wins. Having the points lead, or being within the top-10 at Richmond without a win should lock a driver into the Chase.

By then, most of the top-10 in points should have wins. However, there will be a few exceptions to that such as in 2013 where Clint Bowyer, Earnhardt Jr., Kurt Busch and Gordon did not have any wins come Richmond, but were high enough in points to continue on - competing for the championship in NASCAR's version of the playoffs. 

Gordon has been extremely close to winning a race this year. He finished runner-up to Joey Logano at Texas due to a risky move by his crew chief, Alan Gustafson, and has led 67 laps to begin the year. Although there is room for improvement (as there always is in any sport), Gordon is extremely close to scoring his 89th career NASCAR Sprint Cup Series win.

Before the Chase took on the ruthless Kansas Speedway, many experts and fans were saying it was a three-man chase for the Championship. Well, they were wrong.

Going in to the race weekend, there was a clear separation between the top three drivers, Matt Kenseth, Jimmie Johnson, and Kyle Busch, and the rest of the field. All three drivers were running consistently strong races and looked to be pulling away in points. After Kansas, that isn’t the case anymore.

All three of the top Chase contenders ran into problems during the race, some more than others. Busch and Kansas collided once again with Busch wrecking his primary early on Friday in practice. During the race, things went down hill quickly as he spun through the grass trying to avoid a wrecking Danica Patrick. There was little damage to his car and he rallied back to the front of the field. It didn’t last long. With just 68 laps to go, Busch slammed hard into Turn 1. He would go on to finish 34th.

Kenseth had his own issues throughout the race making several extra trips down pit road. He said it was a “struggle all day” and that he hadn’t had to race in a car that bad in a long time. Giving props to his team, he came across the start/finish line 11th. Johnson had one of the strongest cars all day. Passing cars left and right, Johnson seemed to struggle on restarts. With two to go, his car gave out and he limped around to finish 6th.

When the checkered flag flew, Kyle Busch and Ryan Newman, who was collected early in a wreck, lost the most in the Championship standings. Busch dropped two to fifth, and Newman dropped five to 12th.

At the end of the day, the top seven drivers in the standings are separated by one race worth of points. It is still anybody’s game, but Johnson and Kenseth will be the ones they will have to beat.

 

Current Standings:

Matt Kenseth

-3 Jimmie Johnson

-25 Kevin Harvick

-32 Jeff Gordon

-35 Kyle Busch

-44 Greg Biffle

-47 Kurt Busch

-54 Dale Earnhardt Jr

-55 Clint Bowyer

-59 Joey Logano

-60 Carl Edwards

-73 Ryan Newman

-83 Kasey Kahne

Kansas Speedway qualifying turned in to a pretty special day for Kevin Harvick. For the first time since 2006, Harvick will sit on the pole for the Hollywood Casino 400 on Sunday afternoon. Knocking Ricky Stenhouse Jr. off of the pole, Harvick will have the honor of first pit stall in the 4th Race for the Chase. Harvick ran a lap speed of 187.526, just slightly faster than Rookie Stenhouse Jr at 187.480.

Harvick topped practice earlier in the day and had nothing but praise for his team. "Everybody on our Budweiser team has done a good job," he said in his press conference following the Pole win. "We made a couple really good runs in practice...but we knew the conditions would be cooler so we put the car back how we started practice and hoped that the race track came our way."

Stenhouse ran a great qualifying lap but unfortunately it just wasn't quite good enough. "We were close but our average start here at Kansas is going to be pretty solid now," he said following his qualifying run.

Jimmie Johnson, who currently sits second in points, will start third on Sunday with a qualifying speed of 187.162.

With some incidents during practice that included a spin and a leaking oil cooler and radiator, Johnson still managed to put his Lowe's No.48 Chevrolet in the second row for Sunday.

Here is how your Chase Contenders qualified:

P1: Kevin Harvick

P3: Jimmie Johnson

P5: Joey Logano

P6: Dale Earnhardt Jr.

P7: Matt Kenseth

P9: Carl Edwards

P14: Jeff Gordon

P15: Kasey Kahne

P17: Ryan Newman

P18: Kyle Busch

P19: Kurt Busch

P22: Clint Bowyer

P26: Greg Biffle

They started off the season by taking home a win in the biggest race of the season. They followed that up with a second place finish in Phoenix and then a sixth place finish at Las Vegas. Jimmie Johnson, Chad Knaus and the rest of the Lowes No. 48 team have already begun to prove that they are going to be the team to beat, and we are only heading into the fourth race of the season.

After barely missing out on his 6th championship last season, everyone in the racing industry knew that Johnson, Knaus and their crew were going to be fighting harder than ever to not let that happen again. With Johnson’s recent luck at Super Speedways, it was quite a shock to see him win the Daytona 500; his first with Crew Chief Knaus. He had the highest running average out on the track: 5.0. The only one who came close to that was pole sitter Danica Patrick. After a disappointing end in Homestead-Miami in 2012, it didn’t come as a surprise to see the No.48 team well ahead of everyone else in the new Gen.6 car.

During Daytona Winter Testing and even Speedweeks, Johnson was the only car to NOT run in the draft. He had absolutely no drafting practice in the new car until he took to the track for the Duels (he wrecked out early in the Sprint Unlimited). Many drivers and fans thought he was foolish for not getting out there and testing the limits of the new car, but for Johnson, his reasoning was simple: he didn’t want to ruin a great racecar. This is why he and Knaus are 5-Time Champions.

Johnson went from a win in Daytona to a runner-up finish in Phoenix. He chased race winner Carl Edwards for the final 70 laps but just couldn’t close the deal. Johnson also partnered with his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. and drove the No. 5 Great Clips Chevy for JR Motorsports in the Nationwide Series race. It was his first Nationwide Series start since 2011. The reasoning behind this decision was simple: more track time. Since its reconfiguration, Johnson hasn’t performed as well as he would like to at Phoenix. He finished 12th in the Nationwide race and all of that extra track time ultimately paid off. Look for Johnson to make a run for the win when they return in November.

Las Vegas was no different. Although he didn’t finish in the top-5, Johnson still had an impressive showing in Sin City. Johnson led 66 laps during the Kobalt Tools 400 and looked like he might just take his Kobalt sponsored Chevy to Victory Lane once again. Johnson didn’t fall out of the top-5 until the closing laps of the race after a few late cautions caused him to fall just outside the top-5. Matt Kenseth went on to win followed closely by Hendrick teammate Kasey Kahne: Johnson finished 6th.

Can Jimmie Johnson’s top-10 streak continue at Bristol this weekend? It’s definitely possible, but not entirely likely. Bristol ranks in the bottom four tracks for Johnson in NASCAR’s driver rating system but he has performed well there lately. His last win was in 2010 and he has recorded a few top-10 finishes since. While Bristol might be a bit of a challenge for the No. 48 team, don’t look for Johnson to be slowing down at all. He is more than ready for that 6-pack of Championships and if his season ends anything like it’s starting, I can see him holding up that shiny Sprint Cup Series trophy in Homestead-Miami.

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