Talladega Roundtable
Racing writers Dustin Long, Lars Anderson, Brant James, Cory McCartney, Bruce Martin and Tim Tuttle weigh in on what promises to be a wild weekend at Talladega. (Send comments to siwriters@simail.com)
 
Heading into Talladega, which driver has the most momentum?
 
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Long
Dale Earnhardt Jr. -- Six consecutive finishes of 12th or better -- something he hasn't done since 2008 -- not only gives him momentum, but confidence. He has confidence in himself and in crew chief Steve Letarte and the team. That can be a potent combination.

Anderson
Carl Edwards -- Yes, his teammate Matt Kenseth won last Saturday night at Texas Motor Speedway, but viewed with a wider lens, Edwards (right) clearly has emerged as the driver to beat thus far in 2011. He's finished sixth or better in five of the last six races and he already has three finishes of second or better through the first seven events of the season. Considering he came in second earlier this year at Daytona -- the other restrictor-plate track on the schedule -- Edwards should be very, very fast on Sunday.

James
Carl Edwards -- With a win and four top-5s in seven races (and another probably lost after being bumped by Kyle Busch at Phoenix) Edwards has led the points three times already, including right now. He might finally be ready to break through at a plate track ... assuming Brad Keselowski's not around.

McCartney
Carl Edwards -- He's your points leader again by virtue of a gutsy (pun most definitely intended) performance at Texas, marking his fourth top-5 in the first seven races. It's not a question of who has the mojo, but whether or not it will help Edwards overcome his horrendous track record at Talladega. He carries a career average finish of 22.1 on the Big One, his worst on any track, and hasn't finished within the top -10 in nearly five years.

Martin
Carl Edwards -- Carl Edwards has the most momentum, but has never won at Talladega in 13 starts. Edwards came close to victory here in 2009 before he was launched in the air by Brad Keselowski heading to the checkered flag. While he has four top-5 and five top-10 finishes in seven races this season, Edwards hopes momentum turns into a win on Sunday

Tuttle
Carl Edwards -- The restrictor-plate differences at Talladega in driving style, horsepower and handling make race-to-race momentum less of a factor, but there's no doubt Carl Edwards has it and plenty of confidence after finishing second the Daytona 500. Edwards' top finish in 13 starts is fifth in 2005 and it's his only top-5 at 'Dega, but Roush Fenway has its best plate package and he'll be a contender to win Sunday.
 
Who will take the checkers at Talladega?
 
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Long
David Ragan -- In the year of Trevor Bayne winning the Daytona 500, Butler and VCU making the NCAA Final Four and the Boston Red Sox going 0-6 to start the season, got to look at someone most folks might not consider. I'll go with David Ragan (right). He could have won the Daytona 500. He makes amends this weekend.

Anderson
Dale Earnhardt Jr. -- With his winless streak currently sitting at 100, Earnhardt is as desperate for a victory as he's ever been in his 12-year Cup career. But 'Dega has traditionally been his best track on the circuit. Back in the early 2000s, he won four straight races at the 2.66-mile tri-oval. Junior is still one of the top plate racers in the sport, and it says here he'll make a late-charge on Sunday to win his first race since 2008.

James
Clint Bowyer -- Been there. Done that. Going to do it again.

McCartney
Dale Earnhardt Jr. -- The way Junior has been running, with a career-best average finish of 10.9, the end of that 100-race drought has to be coming -- well, doesn't it? Talladega would seem to present the perfect opportunity to end that skid given that Earnhardt has more wins on the track (five) than anywhere else, including a record four straight from October 2001-April 2003 and has led laps in each of the last 10 races. In a year that has already seen two long dry spells end with Jeff Gordon (66 races) and Matt Kenseth (76), Junior may well join the club Sunday.

Martin
Kevin Harvick -- Harvick will win at Talladega because of his outstanding record at that track in recent years, including a win in this race last April and a narrow second-place loss to teammate Clint Bowyer last October. Harvick was an early exit in the season-opening Daytona 500 because of engine failure so we don't know where he would have finished if he had gone the distance. Remember, he was one of the favorites entering that race and unless engine failure strikes twice he will be the first to finish under the checkered flag on Sunday.

Tuttle
David Ragan -- With six different drivers -- all first-time winners at 'Dega -- in the past six races including the ultimate surprise in Brad Keselowski for Phoenix Racing in 2009, expect the unexpected. David Ragan will keep the trend going with his first Cup win. He was penalized out of the lead with six laps to go -- a mistake he's sure not to make again -- in the Daytona 500, so he knows how to get there at the right time and he's got great equipment with the Roush Fenway Ford.
 
Who will leave Talladega most disappointed?
 
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Long
Joey Logano -- The way misfortune has followed Joey Logano like a black cloud this season, it would be easy to say him. Then again, maybe all he needs is to run at a track built on an Indian burial ground, as legend has it, to turn this luck around. Or maybe that will compound his woes this season.

Anderson
Kyle Busch -- Busch (right) does have one win at Talladega (back in the spring of 2008), but NASCAR's biggest track hasn't been kind to Busch lately. In his last five starts at 'Dega, Busch has finished 14th or better only once (a ninth place run in this race last year). More worrisome for Busch, who is currently second in the standings, he's failed to finish this race four times in 12 career starts -- in other words, 33 percent of the time -- due to either a crash or engine failure.

James
Dale Earnhardt Jr. -- One hundred is a big round number. That's the length of Earnhardt Jr.'s current winless streak. He's won more races at Talladega (five) than at any other track. Anything short of a win will be deflating, especially to all the fans there waiting so long for the next win, and sure they're positivity will make it all happen.

McCartney
A.J. Allmendinger -- He continues to be one of the season's most improved drivers, but Talladega is a different kind of monster for the 'Dinger. He has one finish of better than 30th in five starts, in the last four races has an average starting position of 30.5 and his average finish of 29.8 is the worst of any full-time driver. Allmendinger has also crashed twice, including that airborne ride last fall that prompted him to say "I hate this place. I always have. I always will." It may not be that ugly, but less than pretty results are a distinct possibility.

Martin
Carl Edwards -- Despite having momentum heading into Talladega, Carl Edwards will be the most disappointed because getting shuffled out at the finish or getting caught up in "The Big One" can leave any top driver disappointed when their car leaves this track either on a flatbed tow truck or much further back in the pack.

Tuttle
Jeff Burton -- Jeff Burton is 25th in points and needs to get his season turned around, but Talladega isn't the track for him to do it. The Richard Childress Racing driver has four top-5s in 34 career starts and an average finish of 19.0. He and teammate Kevin Harvick had engine failures at Daytona in the previous restrictor-plate race this season and it will be a concern Sunday.
 
Though a relatively feud-less 2011 so far, rivalry to keep an eye on at 'Dega?
 
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Long
What will be better is to see which drivers work together in the two-car drafts. Won't be surprised to see some pairings one might not expect but you've got to have a partner or when the music stops you're out of luck.

Anderson
Carl Edwards vs. Brad Keselowski -- The two swear they have made nice, but at restrictor-plate tracks you always need to watch closely whenever Carl Edwards and Brad Keselowski are in the same vicinity. The two have a history of violently wrecking each other -- Keselowski sent Edwards flying into the fence at Dega in 2009; Edwards did the same to Keselowski at Atlanta the next year -- and if they're both in contention as the laps wind down on Sunday more fireworks could occur.

James
Carl Edwards v. Kyle Busch -- Edwards says he still owes Kyle Busch one for the Phoenix incident. Busch and he could very well tussle for the same real estate on Sunday.

McCartney
Kyle Busch vs. Carl Edwards -- It's the one to watch because frankly it is the only feud with any potential in an early goings short on fireworks. We honestly don't know if the beef is squashed or whether Edwards is simply holding back and waiting for the perfect opportunity. But given his past struggles at Talladega, it could be an opportune time to wreck Busch should things go sour for the No. 99.

Martin
At Talladega, the biggest rivalries are in the grandstands more than on the race track and the two main combatants are Dale Earnhardt Jr. fans vs. Jeff Gordon fans. This rivalry has been tempered somewhat given that these two drivers are at Hendrick Motorsports but in the grandstands, it remains lively. As far as on the race track, Brad Keselowski and a variety of drivers -- Denny Hamlin, Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch -- could all be likely candidates.

Tuttle
Carl Edwards vs. Brad Keselowski -- With their history, it's hard to imagine that Carl Edwards and Brad Keselowski have buried the hatchet. Their hard feelings began at Talladega when Keselowski knocked Edwards into the catch fence and if it means a position late in the race, the likelihood of it being revived is high.
 
Will restrictor plate shrinkage at Talladega make for a less exciting race?
 
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Long
Watching on TV or sitting in the stands, fans won't notice the slight decrease to the plate in the racing they see.

Anderson
I don't think so. You're probably going to see a lot of two-car drafting like you did at Daytona in February. This style of racing isn't for the traditionalists, but there's little denying that it makes for a compelling event. After all, the Great American Race in February was widely regarded as one of the most exciting in recent memory.

James
That's relative. And a matter of taste. Two-car pod racing will likely remain the norm, despite the new plate, but perhaps at slower speeds.

McCartney
It won't be any less exciting, just maddeningly unpredictable. The reduction in the size of the restrictor plate, which is 1/64th of an inch smaller than the one used at Daytona, may cut horsepower, but it won't change the dynamic of the race. Expect to see the two-car drafts that dominated Speedweeks and which led to a completely random finish in the Daytona 500 with four drivers in the top 10 who haven't come close to duplicating those results.

Martin
That depends on your definition of "exciting." By the numbers, it was hard to top this year's Daytona 500 based on lead changes and the strategy that was involved with the two-by-two format of racing. By decreasing the restrictor plate size this may allow the large "freight trains" to return, but can also lead to more danger on the track.

Tuttle
It should be very much like Daytona in February. Pairs of cars running together will produce virtually the same speeds as with the larger plate. The difference will be when a driver gets hung out to dry, he'll be even slower.
Will Fords keep leading the charge in 2011?
 
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Long
Their engine and cooling system seems to be perfect for this type of tandem drafting. That alone won't get them to Victory Lane. Many other factors from driver skill to luck will matter.

Anderson
Yes. It's become readily apparent that the relatively new Ford FR-9 engine is the class of the field. Its superior cooling system has allowed the Ford drivers to place more tape on the front grills of their cars than the other drivers, which has given the Ford boys more downforce and, hence, more speed through the corners. Can Ford maintain this mechanical advantage for the entire season? If they can, you'll see a Ford driver -- probably Carl Edwards (right) -- hoisting the big trophy at Homestead in November.

James
They appear to have returned to the fray for good, but the Chevrolets can be expected to regain some ground, especially since Jimmie Johnson has not yet rounded into midseason form. The FR9 engine seems to have evened the playing field and Roush Fenway is reaping the benefits.

McCartney
It's hard to argue with the results when they've been as widespread as Ford's have been. Through seven races, Ford has a legitimate title contender in Edwards and a collective 18 top-10s and three victories among Roush Fenway Racing, Richard Petty Motorsports, Wood Brothers Racing and Front Row Motorsports. The Chevrolets and Toyotas have had their moments, but with the FR9 engine Ford, especially those piloted by RFR's quartet, has clearly looked formidable on the intermediate-type tracks that truly matter when it comes Chase time.

Martin
Points leader Carl Edwards and third-place Matt Kenseth are having outstanding seasons driving Fords for Roush Fenway Racing but they are the only two Ford drivers in the top 12. A.J. Allmendinger is 13th, David Ragan 17th and Greg Biffle continues to dig himself out of an early season hole and is up to 18th in the standings.

Tuttle
It's too early too tell if one team or manufacturer has an overall advantage. Fords have been top dog at the lone restrictor plate race at Daytona and have two wins on intermediate tracks with Edwards at Las Vegas and Matt Kenseth at Texas. Edwards leads and Kenseth is third in the points, but Toyota (Kyle Busch), Chevrolet (Jimmie Johnson) and Dodge (Kurt Busch) are in the top-5. Chevrolet and Ford each have three wins. It's been pretty even.
 
Is it time for Denny Hamlin to start worrying?
 
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Long
Yes and no. Yes, it is in terms of making sure the pit crew is getting stronger with the recent change and that motor issues stay away as they have the last two races. No, it's not time to worry because the wild card provides a new option and there are still 19 races left until the Chase field is set.

Anderson
Absolutely. Currently 20th in the standings, Hamlin (right) has only authored one top-10 finish this season. If he doesn't start ripping off a slew of top 10s and top-5s, the driver who held the points lead heading into Homestead last season won't even qualify for the Chase this fall. For Hamlin, it's quickly getting to the point where he can't afford any more mistakes. All of which means Hamlin will be under as much pressure to perform on Sunday as any driver in the field.

James
Yes. Seven races is a enough of a sample, considering that races have been run at a restrictor-plate track, on short and midsized ovals and the 1.5-milers than comprise much of the 36-race schedule. Failing to win or even finish better than 12th at Martinsville and Texas, where he swept four races last season -- half of his 2010 total -- is telling and worrisome.

McCartney
Yes and no. Yes because following a disappointing 15th-place at Texas, where he had won the last two races, Hamlin slid to 20th in the points and he's shown nothing close to the consistency that made him the preseason favorite to dethrone Jimmie Johnson. No, because Hamlin has the ability to rattle off wins in bunches (think last season's five wins in 10 races), meaning a wild-card spot in the Chase isn't out of the question should the No. 11 team find its footing.

Martin
Not yet. Although he is 20th in the standings and 82 points behind leader Carl Edwards, Hamlin will make the Chase because he will win races this season. Hamlin may be off to a slow start because of engine problems at Joe Gibbs Racing, but he is going to be a multiple-race winner in 2011.

Tuttle
Yes. He's had only one top-10, seventh at Las Vegas. Hamlin has gotten off to slow starts before and the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing team won't panic, but they need to start finding the speed that has eluded them thus far. They also can't afford to make any mistakes in strategy or pit stops.
 

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