By Chris Knight
NASCAR Wire Service
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
One of the defining stories of the 2013 season was the popular win by Front Row Motorsports and driver David Ragan in last year's Aaron's 499 at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway. Fast forward a year later, the team returns to the 2.66-mile superspeedway with the mentality that they can pull off the upset again, despite being classified as an "underdog."
Knowing the importance of a win this season under NASCAR's new championship format, Ragan, a Unadilla, Georgia native, insisted that his Bob Jenkins-owned team has what it takes to make it into the playoffs, given the right circumstances.
"Absolutely," Ragan said of the potential to win on Sunday and likely earn a spot in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.
The two-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series winner has every reason to feel that his team can make the unthinkable occur again. He enters this weekend at Talladega with four straight top-10 finishes, all coming with Front Row Motorsports.
"In the back of our minds we do think a little bit about if we can get that win, and that's not just at Talladega but at any track, you're in the Chase," Ragan said. "That's something we don't want to be overwhelmed with and really think about that more than we should, but it is something that we think about and I guarantee every other team that has not got a win yet this year, they think about that too. We've just got to execute all weekend to try to get to that point."
Ragan's 15th trip to Talladega will be adorned by new sponsorship for his team in KFC Go Cup, which spawned to life after his triumph last May.
RESTRICTOR PLATE KNOCK-OUT QUALIFYING ON DECK
It's been one of the most talked about subjects in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series garage over the last two weeks and ready or not, NASCAR's first restrictor plate "knock-out" qualifying session is on deck for Saturday afternoon (1 p.m. ET on FOX).
With a vast array of opinions throughout the garage from drivers to crew chiefs to even owners, no one really knows what to expect tomorrow afternoon, but overwhelmingly one word has been used to categorize what lies ahead: "unpredictable."
Last week's winner at Richmond (Va.) International Raceway, Joey Logano laid out his thoughts about Saturday.
"I don't think anyone knows for sure what's gonna happen," Logano said. "I will say that we have a little game plan 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. Our car is still the only car to get through every (qualifying) segment this year so far. That's something to be proud of. This is the one real wild card because there's a good chance the fastest car may not get the pole this week. That's gonna be something very different. There's a lot of strategy that's gonna go into this.
"I think there will be a point that there are gonna be a lot of cars out there. I think you have to put your lap up very quick because I think after the first five minutes the top 18 cars or so are probably gonna pit, and not be out there. So the less cars that are on the race track, the harder it is to run that fast lap."
Six-time and defending NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson still doesn't know what his Chad Knaus-led team will do tomorrow, but he's confident that whatever his Hendrick Motorsports group decides, it will be the right call.
"I don't know what is going to exactly happen," Johnson said. "But to win the pole, you're going to have to go out there and race. And the run that you can get on a group that is a football-field-or-two ahead of you, is so dramatic that I even think that a 10 or 12-car line won't be as fast as somebody who falls way back in the pack and has a chance over a lap or two to pull up into the pack.
"So that's what every driver is going to try to do. And setting that up is going to be tough because one, everybody is going to be trying it; and two, if you see someone behind you coming, why are you going to stay on the gas to help them? So, bailing out of the gas, breaking up the pack, and things like that are all possible. So, I don't know. It's going to be exciting for sure."
NATIONWIDE IS ON HIS SIDE
It may be a little early to talk about 2015, but Dale Earnhardt Jr. revealed some good news on Friday morning.
Nationwide Insurance will partner with NASCAR's most popular driver at Hendrick Motorsports for 12 races in 2015. The Columbus, Ohio-based company has signed a three-year agreement with HMS, increasing their presence to 13 races for 2016 and 2017, respectively.
"We are really excited to be able to announce the sponsorship with Nationwide as it continues to grow," Earnhardt Jr. by video through his Twitter account. "We have had a relationship with them for a very long time. It's been successful on both sides. I'm really thrilled to be able to go to the next level with them and allow Hendrick Motorsports to be part of that. It's a great fit. We've had a lot of fun together and I'm excited to be able to continue that relationship. I can't imagine a better scenario and I think Nationwide is very excited to get going and start working together in the Cup series. Our current partners National Guard and Diet Mountain Dew are very excited about it as well to have them in the fold."
Nationwide will exit its role as entitlement of NASCAR's second-tier national touring division, currently the NASCAR Nationwide Series, at the conclusion of this season. It will close a seven-year relationship that launched in 2008.