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NASCAR Sprint Cup Preview: Talladega

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It's big, it's scary and it divides opinion like nothing else in the world of NASCAR, and it's not Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s facial hair.

It's Talladega. The longest oval track in NASCAR – at 2.66 miles – and arguably its most famous in recent years, though mostly thanks to the all too regular occurrence of multi-car accidents, which the NASCAR PR department labels 'The Big One' in the quest to sell tickets.

It was this race a year ago which ended with Carl Edwards flipping through the air and into the catch fencing. Perhaps mindful of the higher speeds the cars can reach on the Alabama track, largely due to its surface which is far smoother than the Daytona surface that caused so many in February, NASCAR have elected to shrink the size of the holes in the horsepower limiting restrictor plate.

The cars at Daytona ran a plate with 63/64th inch holes, increasing speeds. However, at Talladega the engine will be fitted with a 15/16th restrictor, which while smaller than the Daytona plate is the same size as when Keselowski sent Edwards airborne.

Depending on who you ask the four restrictor plate races are either the best races of the season – three hours of edge of your seat, get a beer and you'll miss it action – or the worst – an ugly freak show NASCAR persist with to engage with masses, for whom racing is all about the crashes.

But no matter what you think they have become a part of modern NASCAR, something even Jeff Burton admits they “have to do”.

“The win I had at Talladega last year exemplifies the core of stock car racing's rise to popularity,” claims Keselowki, who returns to the track driving for Penske Racing. “The idea that any driver can win a race based on his own moves, his won risks, his own strategy.”

That, its supporters will argue, is the best thing about restrictor plate races – the fact anyone can win. No-one predicted Keselowski to win last year, fewer people probably predicted that Regan Smith and Paul Menard would push Tony Stewart all the way in October 2008, only for Smith to be foiled by NASCAR's yellow-line-is-out-of-bounds rule.

That rule will no doubt come into play once more this year, especially with NASCAR's renewed 'have at it boys' mantra encouraging bump drafting. “We can bump draft of push all the way round [Talladega] it's smooth enough,” explains Greg Biffle.

“When NASCAR said 'we're taking the gloves off, you guys police yourselves' that didn't really show up at Daytona because you can't really do anything [there] and that rule was made because of Talladega.”

“It's going to be interesting to really see what happens with guys pushing each other all the way around that place.”

The unknown, as Biffle goes on to point out is the spoiler, which is mandated at 4.5 inches high and 64 inches wide. Paul Menard predicts it will make very little difference, his only comment that it will help cars behind “suck up” in the draft, which could see the 'slingshot' move re-enter the drivers' armoury.

However, NASCAR, and the fans probably won't care what the spoiler does on the track, as long as it stays there, keeping cars from taking off. In that way Talladega is the biggest test yet of the new aero package.

Now, normally in these previews we try and give an idea of who to expect upfront, but at Talladega you simply can't tell. We, like you will simply have to watch the race, start time 6pm UK time, and try to make sense of it.

If you need a reason why, listen to Greg Biffle; “It's going to be fun. I'm almost willing to bet it's going to be the most exciting race of the season.”

Photo Credit: John Harrelson/Getty Images for NASCAR

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