Cup drivers uncertain what to expect at untamed Talladega

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TALLADEGA, Ala. — For as wild as Talladega Superspeedway can be, Brad Keselowski has less of an idea what to expect Sunday “even for Talladega standards.’’

An offseason rule change has altered restrictor-plate racing and left drivers guessing.

This will be the track’s first race with no rule regulating ride height. The result is that cars are lower to the ground and run faster — but have less downforce, making them less stable.

“Right now with the ride height balance and the handling on the cars, I have never really seen this much uncertainty going into a plate race before,’’ said Kurt Busch, who starts second and is making his 70th start in a Cup plate race.

MORE: Starting lineup

Shortly after running a lap of 203.9 mph, Jamie McMurray’s left rear tire lost air and his car spun, was hit and went airborne in practice Friday. NASCAR reacted by reducing the size of the holes in the restrictor plate to shave some speed. Even so, Kevin Harvick’s pole-winning lap of 194.448 mph Saturday was nearly 4 mph faster than Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s pole speed at Talladega in October.

Sunday’s race is a riddle for drivers after how fussy cars were at Daytona in February. A particular problem was when the air was taken off the left rear quarter panel.

“I think that’s still going to be a key area, I don’t think there’s anything you can really do as a team to help that,’’ said Kyle Busch, vying to become the first driver since 2007 to win four consecutive races. “It is what it is and it’s just based off the air that’s on the nose of these cars and the buffer zone where the air is.

“Then it gets packed up on that big rear quarter panel of the car in front of you and also that shark fin that’s right there on the deck lid, and it just sort of pushes that car out a little bit and takes some side force away from the right side. It’s an aero thing and it’s certainly a situation you have to be ready for when you’re in competition when guys are … doing that to you.”

Even with all that, Talladega remains the best chance for some teams to win and make the playoffs. They see how there are only five different winners this year because of how Busch and Harvick have dominated. They know that unless there is a string of different winners, there could be several playoff spots determined by wins. For some teams, that path is less likely, so why not gamble in a restrictor-plate race?

Austin Dillon won the Daytona 500 to earn a playoff spot. Rookie Darrell Wallace Jr. finished second in that race for his best career result. He’s had one top-10 finish since.

Wallace is ready to see if he can finish one spot better.

I’m excited to get back in the race car and go back at it again,’’ he said. “Just from the experience we had at Daytona does bring a little bit of confidence.’’

But before the end, there are two stages and points to grab. An accident just before the end of the first stage of the Daytona 500 eliminated four cars, including Jimmie Johnson.

“If you don’t have a win, the stage points are pretty valuable,’’ said Ricky Stenhouse Jr., won this race a year ago and starts Sunday’s race seventh.

“I am going to be aggressive and try to keep our Fifth Third Ford up front and get as many points as possible. I can’t speak for everybody else, but I like driving hard and giving fans something good to watch. The fans really enjoyed when we were all racing hard at Daytona, and I think they get pretty frustrated when we get in single-file. If you are the leader, you don’t mind it, but for the most part, I would like for everybody to race all day long.”

After a Daytona 500 that saw 14 cars eliminated by accidents, aggression might not always be the best strategy. The question is who can make that ploy work and make it to the end.

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