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Nowhere to run – Talladega provides few safe havens for drivers

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TALLADEGA, Ala. — At a track where a NASCAR driver once claimed a voice told him to park his car during a race, is there really anyplace safe to run at Talladega Superspeedway?

That’s a question many Chase drivers wonder with the field of title contenders cut from 12 to eight after Sunday’s race at NASCAR’s fastest, longest and quite possibly scariest racetrack.

“I have wrecked racing up front, I’ve wrecked in the back and I’ve wrecked in the middle, and I can tell you it just feels better to be up front,’’ Carl Edwards said.

While many drivers agree that the front provides the safest place, NBC Sports’ study of incidents in the last five Talladega races raises questions about that assumption.

In more than half of the incidents (11 of 20) in the last five Cup races at Talladega, the first car involved was running in the top 10.

Of those 11 incidents, nearly half (five) started with a car in the top five, including the leader once.

The May race proved that running at the front was not as safe as drivers figured. Six of the eight accidents started with a car in the top 10. NASCAR’s race report listed 36 of the 40 cars as being involved in at least one incident.

Chase Elliott, one of four drivers not listed in an incident in that race, said that threat of rain increased the intensity and led to the chaotic pace.

“I think we were all pretty antsy because we felt like that rain could be there anytime,’’ said Elliott, who finished fifth in that race. “To me, the entire race looked like the last 20 laps of a typical weekend. To me, it didn’t have the same feel as the Daytona 500 did or the Fourth of July Daytona race did.’’

Twice in the May race at Talladega, a car running fourth was involved in an incident.

Michael Waltrip was running fourth when a shove from Martin Truex Jr, who was being pushed by Joey Logano, forced Waltrip off the track on the backstretch. He tried to run back up the track in Turn 3 but two other cars were collected.

In the other incident, Jimmie Johnson was fourth at the time when he lost control after being pushed by Kurt Busch. Three other drivers running in the top 10 at the time — Paul Menard, Regan Smith and Truex — were collected in the 21-car incident.

That incident was one of six since 2014 that saw at least 10 cars involved, according to NASCAR’s race statistics.

There was a 12-car incident also in last spring’s race. That started when Michael McDowell’s car hit Danica Patrick’s car, sending it into Matt Kenseth. Kenseth’s car then got airborne.

Even a normal race isn’t easy at Talladega.

“This is no doubt one of the toughest races there is just to stay mentally focused,’’ Truex said. “It’s not a physically demanding race, but the mental side is pretty insane to be three or four wide all day long, especially if you decide you’re going to try to stay up front all day and try to race all day and not ever go to the back and try to be in a safe spot.’’

If there is such a thing.

For those who think running at the back is better, Kyle Busch will likely disagree. Busch entered this race two years ago with a 26-point lead on the first car out. Busch was running 36th when he slowed for a crash in front of him and he was hit from behind by Austin Dillon.

Logano, who won this race last year, defines his safe place not by position but by his surroundings.

“When you’re around other cars it may not be who you’re driving against, it may just be the way their car handles,’’ he said. “You might say, ‘His car looks loose, or he looks out of control for some reason,’ and understanding that scenario and what position you’re in. There are times in the race that you can back out of it and say, ‘OK, let’s wait for this to calm down a little bit and then we’ll try to work our way back up.’ 

“The whole race you weigh out in your mind risk vs. reward.  That’s what you think about, ‘Am I willing to take this risk and if I do, what do I gain?’ You think about that when you’re trying to make a move and say, ‘Am I gonna make this move to take the lead and am I gonna go back to 20th if it doesn’t work?’ You weigh that out. Is it making a move that’s going to put you in a really tight spot and you could possibly crash to gain three or four spots? You’ve got to weight that out. Does that make sense? 

“A lot of that changes throughout the race. When it’s early in the race a lot more people are conservative and say, ‘It’s not really worth it at this point in the race.’ But at the end of the race everyone is trying to get every spot they can and depending on your point situation you’re going to have to make decisions.”

Dale Earnhardt Jr., Ryan Newman share thoughts on possible restrictor plates in Brickyard 400

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The Xfinity Series race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway this July will work as a testing ground for the future use of restrictor plates at the historic 2.5-mile track.

NASCAR announced earlier this week the July 22 race would be raced under the influence of the plates that have previously only been used at Daytona International Speedway, Talladega Superspeedway and one Cup race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in 2000.

Depending on the effectiveness of the plates on the level of competition, they could be used in future Cup Series races at the track.

On Friday, Dale Earnhardt Jr. said he was “up for whatever” in hopes of improving the racing at a track that seen drastic declines in attendance in the last decade.

“That race is really suffering as far as the show and how entertaining I think it is to watch,” Earnhardt said. “I don’t really know what the answer is to make it more exciting, but I think this is a great opportunity to find out if this is the direction to go.  I am all for it. And I like the idea of trying it in the Xfinity Series or the (Camping World) Truck Series or what have you whatever track it is at to try it in that feeder series.  That is an opportunity to see if we can get it right without ruining anything for the Cup guys.”

NASCAR has been visiting IMS since 1994 and will return for the 24th Brickyard 400 weekend this summer. But the competition level in the race has paled in comparison to what’s usually seen two months earlier in IndyCar’s Indianapolis 500.

“I think NASCAR watches the Indy 500 and they see those guys drafting and passing and they are competitive,” Earnhardt said. “They have to try to put on that type of show if not better at that race track.  It is not good in conversation to have the IndyCar race be more exciting to watch than the NASCAR race there.  That is just business.  I think it’s great for them to be aggressive.”

Earnhardt referenced the big swing NASCAR took in the Brickyard 400 two years ago when Cup cars had an aero package that included nine-inch spoilers, an attempt at creating pack racing. The result was disappointing and widely panned.

NASCAR held a three-car test at IMS last October to try out eight different configurations with restrictor plates that included various splitter heights and gear ratios. The setup that will be used will also include NASCAR’s first ever use of “aero ducts.”

Xfinity teams will also use the 2016 specs for splitters and spoilers.

When it comes to the restrictor plates, 2013 Brickyard 400 winner Ryan Newman said his view of restrictor plates is they are used where there is a need for “a balance there on speed and safety.

“I don’t know what their sim results are or what their testing has been to validate what needs to be done, but I believe it’s all based off of safety,” Newman said of the decision to use restrictor plates. “Indianapolis is unique in the fact that the corners really are kind of 90 degrees. You never really hit at 90 degrees, but you’re hitting more so at a sharper angle than you are at a place like Fontana or Michigan or even at 1.5-mile race tracks. … But given the driver’s throttle response and acceleration and the ability to pass people is equally important. And we’ve seen some racing that gets pretty spread out at Indianapolis. I don’t know if a restrictor plate would make that the same or worse; or even better for that matter. To me, I think the restrictor plate, or at least the term restrictor plate, is usually more about safety and top speeds than it is anything else.”

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Starting grid for the NASCAR Cup Series’ Auto Club 400

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With the second pole of his NASCAR Cup Series career, Kyle Larson will lead the field to green Sunday in the Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway.

Joining Larson the front row is Denny Hamlin.

Filling out the top five is Brad Keselowski, Martin Treux Jr. and Ryan Newman.

Click here for the starting grid.

Kyle Larson wins pole for Auto Club 400, second Cup pole of career

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Kyle Larson ended a three-year drought by winning the pole for the NASCAR Cup Series’ Auto Club 400.

Larson won his second Cup Series pole with a speed of 187.047 mph around Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California. His first pole came in the August 2013 race at Pocono Raceway.

The pole continues Larson’s impressive start to 2017. The Chip Ganassi Racing driver leads the point standings after earning three consecutive second-place finishes.

“I felt like messed up there in Turn 1 and 2 and I got a little bit loose off the wall on the entry and it got me to split the seam in (Turn) 1 and 2,” Larson told Fox Sports. “I was able to commit to (being) wide open off (Turn) 1 and 2. I hadn’t ran up high in (Turn) 3 and 4 at all in practice or qualifying here. Didn’t really know what I would have out there but ran a good ways and it stuck. … Our Target team has been really amazing to start the season and to get a pole is great. … Got a little team dinner tonight, so this will be a good thing to celebrate.”

Larson’s run knocked Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin from the top spot. As Larson drove down pit road, a Fox Sports camera caught Hamlin playfully showing his dissatisfaction by emptying a cup of ice in the direction of the No. 42.

“This is No. 1 on my list of track I want to win,” Hamlin told Fox Sports. “It’s bitten me mentally and physically … definitely one I want to check off.”

Filling out the top five is Hamlin, Brad Keselowski, Martin Truex Jr and Ryan Newman.

Daniel Suarez qualified 10th for his best career Cup start.

No Hendrick Motorsports entries will start in the top 10. Kasey Kahne was the top qualifier in 12th, followed by Chase Elliott.

Five cars did not make qualifying attempts, with one of them being by choice. Jimmie Johnson’s team elected not to make an attempt following his accident in practice. He will start 37th.

Joining Johnson at the back of the field will be Joey Logano, Trevor Bayne, Matt DiBenedetto and Gray Gaulding. All of their cars did not make it through inspection in time to qualifying.

Click here for qualifying results.

Jimmie Johnson’s team elects not to make qualifying run after accident in practice

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Following Jimmie Johnson’s accident in practice early Friday, Hendrick Motorsports’ No. 48 team chose not to qualify with a backup car at Auto Club Speedway.

Johnson, a six-time winner at Auto Club Speedway, will start 37th in Sunday’s Auto Club 400.

Four other cars, including those of Joey Logano and Trevor Bayne, will start in the back after they did not make qualifying attempts. Their cars failed to get through inspection in time. Rookie Gray Gaulding and Matt DiBenedetto also did not qualify because their cars failed to get through inspection.

Johnson explained his team’s decision.

“We had a tough practice session and mid-pack was probably going to be our goal anyway,” he said. “So, to take our lumps here, at a track that’s really wide with a lot of lanes, a long race; we’ll just take our lumps and get the car right where we can take advantage of the precious minutes that we have in Saturday’s practice session and go from there. Pit road is going to be a problem. We’re not going to have a great pick there. We’re definitely not in a position we want to be in, so we’d rather take the time now and make sure we get everything right and get this car right; and also kind of control our risk factor.”

With ACS being such a wide race track with plenty of passing opportunities, Johnson is not in as bad a position to start Sunday’s race as he would be at more narrow track.

Crew chief Chad Knaus told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s Claire B. Lang he wasn’t comfortable forcing Johnson to “hustle” to qualify a car he hadn’t practiced in.