TALLADEGA, Ala. — David Ragan's surprise victory last season at Talladega Superspeedway gave his fledgling Front Row Motorsports team a taste of the potential in the organization.
As he returns to Talladega for today's Sprint Cup race, the stakes are far greater.
Should Ragan win again, it could be worth a spot in the 16-driver Chase for the Championship field.
Under new Chase rules this season, drivers can become eligible for NASCAR's 10-race playoff with a victory as long as they are in the top 30 in points. There have been no surprise winners this season, but Talladega and its unpredictable restrictor-plate nature can provide a lottery ticket for one lucky driver.
"In the back of our minds, we do think a little bit about if we can get that win," said Ragan, 31st in points. "That's something we don't want to be overwhelmed with and really think about … more than we should, but it is something that we think about. … I guarantee every other team that has not got a win yet this year, they think about that, too.
"In the closing laps … I guarantee the top six or eight or top 10 guys that are in contention for the win, they're going to be thinking about that Chase berth if they can cross the finish line first."
There have been seven winners through the first nine races of the season, with Kevin Harvick and Joey Logano owning two victories each. But the list of drivers still seeking a win includes six-time and defending series winner Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth. Both are divided on how the stakes alter the racing.
"I just don't think it changes the racing," Kenseth said. "I don't think it changes the winners. I just think it changes the reward you get for winning. I don't see anybody showing up in May and being like, 'Man, I hope I run 10th today.' "
But Johnson believes it does change the racing, especially for drivers who already have a win. He pointed to Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s race-ending fuel gamble in the Kobalt 400 at Las Vegas two weeks after his Daytona 500 win.
"It definitely does change the way you race," Johnson said. "I think with that pretty much guaranteed lock (in the Chase field) with one win lets you take two tires when maybe you should take four, or try for fuel. Look at what Junior did in Las Vegas. Why not try?"
NASCAR debuted knockout qualifying at restrictor-plate tracks, and Saturday's session provided the first upset of the weekend. A group decision for all cars powered by Earnhardt Childress engines to work together at the end of the session proved the correct call; Brian Scott earned the pole for today's Aaron's 499 in just his fifth Sprint Cup start.
Richard Childress Racing drivers and their affiliates swept the first three rows on the starting grid after all 12 drivers in the final session headed out to the track together.
"Who would have thought that, huh?" Scott said after his lap of 198.29 mph on the 2.66-mile oval. Richard Childress Racing teammate Paul Menard (197.888 mph) will start second.