TALLADEGA, Ala. -- NASCAR's elite are gathered in the heart of Alabama for its bi-annual scrum known as restrictor-plate racing. But they may as well grab a passport and jaunt to a casino in Monte Carlo.
These are the days of wild odds and crapshoots and the possibility of a mid-packer journeyman named David Ragan winning at one of the most iconic venues in NASCAR country.
“This is very much a crapshoot, a roulette wheel,” Ragan said Friday, acknowledging a reporter's question about the quirky luck scenario. “There are so many factors that go in to what happens because you're dependent on one another in the draft.”
Ragan won the race here a year ago with a push from Front Row Motorsports teammate David Gilliland in a highly unexpected double-double. But that's typical of what happens at Talladega Superspeedway.
Unpredictability is the common thread, especially now that group qualifying is part of the equation. Forget the monotonous one-car drone of qualifying in past seasons. The wild-card element gets amped up now with 47 drivers on the track for the first 25-minute qualifying session Saturday afternoon. The top 24 will advance to a 10-minute session, and the top 12 advance to a final five-minute session.
“A big wreckfest and a disaster,” former Cup champion Brad Keselowski predicted recently.
He may have a point, which may be why Fox will televise qualifying live, starting at 1 p.m. Eastern. It's believed to be the first time that a qualifying session has been aired live on network TV, aside from the Daytona 500.
Will drivers play it safe and hang back to avoid a wreck? Will drivers who post a fast lap bail early? Will drivers scratching for a qualifying spot mix it up with the top contenders, jeopardizing their runs?
“I don't think anyone knows for sure what's gonna happen,” said Joey Logano, a two-time winner this Cup season. “I will say that we have a little gameplan to work and try to make sure our cars not only stay safe but are able to go out there and post a good lap and just try to get through all of the segments.
”I've been working with my teammate Brad, and also (Michael) McDowell some. I think and kind of figure out what we've got to do to put together a good package for us to run a fast lap and have the right strategy, and also stay out of the crash because I think it's gonna happen.“
Another thing that is virtually assured: The fastest car and driver may not be your pole-sitter on Sunday. A driver may just go fast enough to qualify and wait until Sunday to mix things up.
Aggressive driving will have its risks and rewards on Saturday.
”To win the pole, you're going to have to go out there and race,“ six-time Cup champ Jimmie Johnson said. ”And where do I take a large risk? Trying to qualify well or trying to work my way through the pack to get to the front?“
And that's just the prelude to Sunday's deal, which is a handicapper's nightmare. A guy like Ragan has a shot at Talladega at stealing a Chase spot, given the new rules in which every race winner is virtually assured a spot in the 10-race playoff format known as the Chase.
In what he called a ”true David vs. Goliath moment,“ Ragan won the race on a last-lap pass (aided by a push from Gilliland) against veteran Carl Edwards.
”There's no question about it, we would have a very tall order to compete with those teams and, really, we are not a Chase contender,“ Ragan said. ”We're a wild-card contender.“
”… We are not consistent enough to win several races, click off five or six top-10s in a row and we realize that, but what NASCAR has done has given us a chance to be in the Chase for the Championship, and that would really change the course of Front Row Motorsports and what we're trying to achieve as a team and personally as a driver.“
It's all out there for the taking, all comers welcome.
Talladega does not discriminate.
It can make your dreams come true.
Or destroy them.