Pit position more important than pole at Talladega

Updated: April 29, 2006, 7:33 PM ET
By Rupen Fofaria | Special to ESPN.com

While Elliott Sadler celebrated his first pole position of the season, nobody else seemed too concerned about their starting positions for Sunday's Aaron's 499 at Talladega Superspeedway.

From top-10 qualifiers to drivers who didn't even make the race on their lap times, the possibility of a wreck at any point in the race and the constant shuffling of running order due to massive drafting lines picking up and losing speed make it almost irrelevant where a driver begins the race.

"It really doesn't matter where you start at Talladega," said Kyle Petty, who qualified 28th. "You could start up front and be running last in a couple of laps and vice versa."

"It's nice to start up front, but here it probably matters least of all places," said Ryan Newman, who qualified 18th. "You never know what's going to happen. There could be a big crash in the first two laps."

In that sense, it's nice to start up toward the front because conventional wisdom suggests that if a big wreck were to occur it would go down in the middle or back of the pack. However, that has not always been true.

As a result, fewer and fewer teams focus much attention on qualifying once they arrive at Talladega. Certainly, the crews work hard dating back to the offseason trying to find more horsepower for superspeedway engines. But once teams unload in Alabama, most focus on race trim and drafting during practices.

"We didn't put any emphasis into qualifying," said Scott Riggs, who will start 32nd. "We just made sure it drove good in the draft. We put the gear in we needed for the draft. We knew it was going to hurt us for qualifying, but it doesn't really matter where we start. We just want to stay out of the wrecks and have a good run."

Rookie Reed Sorenson's team did the same thing, focusing more on helping Sorenson figure out the draft than on practicing qualifying laps. As a result, Sorenson didn't qualify on time, but he's in the race on an owner's points provision and has a car he hopes will be able to get to the front quickly.

"We got it as good as we could in race trim and it felt good in race trim and wherever we qualify, that's where it is," Sorenson said. "You can't do anything about it."

Matt Kenseth qualified 12th, putting him on the sixth row. But even he wasn't so excited about qualifying. While he sees one benefit to qualifying high -- because teams select their pit stalls in the order that they qualify -- overall he gets no boost from doing well on Saturday afternoon.

"I don't think qualifying really matters," he said. "If you're on the pole, that's great and if you're in the top five, you get a good pit position. But, other than that, it doesn't really matter here. With the way the draft works you go from the front to the back and vice versa, so qualifying is probably least important here than any track we go to."

Pit selection is a big deal, though. When cars pit at Talladega, they tend to do it as a huge group. At any given time, 40-plus cars can be on the lead lap and all come down pit road at the same time. That makes for close quarters and nabbing a stall that allows for easy entry and exit can give a team an advantage.

Also, starting up front tasks a driver with fewer risks and decisions to make than starting in the back and trying to finagle his way up front. Take Tony Stewart, for instance. The last two superspeedway wrecks he got caught up in occurred when he was running outside the top 10. On Sunday, he starts on the outside of the front row.

Still, even he was unexcited about his runner-up qualifying run.

"Qualifying is just a formality," he said. "This is where the teams get to shine and show off. This is where all the preparation at the shop and everything that the crews do here at the race track is more of a testimony of their hard work than it is us (the drivers). The hardest thing I've got to do is not miss a shift three times during the run. It's pretty easy for us to do. It really doesn't matter for tomorrow.

"They've got nice long pit boxes here at Talladega."

Rupen Fofaria is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at rfofaria@yahoo.com.