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Five things to watch in Sunday’s Sprint Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway

GEICO 500 - Practice

GEICO 500 - Practice

NASCAR via Getty Images

TALLADEGA, Ala. – David Ragan’s uniquely eventful season could take its most interesting turn yet Sunday.

Ragan will close out his nine-race stint in place of injured Kyle Busch in Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 18 Toyota with Sunday’s Geico 500 at Talladega Superspeedway, and it’s prompted some curiosity about a scenario that Ragan already has experienced at the 2.66-mile oval known for unexpected endings and bizarre twists.

What if Ragan, who conquered Talladega in 2013, wins in his final start for JGR before moving to Michael Waltrip Racing’s No. 55 Toyota to finish out the 2015 season?

Start with the obvious – Ragan would become eligible for a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, regardless of whose car he is piloting. Though his MWR team technically wouldn’t be in the Chase (unless he were to win in that car), it still would reap the PR benefits of having a driver compete for a championship in one of its Camrys.

But so would JGR.

A win for the No. 18 by Ragan would catapult the car into the owner’s championship, creating the possibility for the first split driver-owners title in NASCAR’s premier series since 1963. In that season, Joe Weatherly won his final driver title, and Wood Brothers Racing took the owners championship.

There has been only one other split title in Cup – Lee Petty (driver) and Herb Thomas (owner) finished the 1954 season as respective champions – but it’s been a common occurrence in the Xfinity Series, where JGR and Team Penske rotate drivers through top-caliber cars and Sprint Cup drivers can’t earn points. The past three seasons have featured split driver-owner champions on the Xfinity circuit.

Since the inception of the Chase in 2004, the field for the playoff (which started at 10 drivers, expanded to 12 in 2007 and grew to 16 last year) has featured no deviation between the eligible contenders and the cars they drive full time. The drivers competing for the title are mirrored by their teams vying for the owners championships.

But there always has been the possibility of “parallel” Chases for the driver and owner championship in which a driver might be racing for a title even though the car isn’t eligible.

And it’s more than semantics. There are millions at stake for each share of the championship. The championship driver and team roughly split the point fund money doled out by NASCAR and Sprint for winning the title. Last year, Kevin Harvick received a bonus check for nearly $5 million, bringing his total season winnings to $12.7 million.

When Chase Elliott won the Xfinity title last season, he picked up a bonus of nearly $1 million, and Team Penske (whose No. 22 Ford won the owners championship) earned a similar haul in bonus money.

In a season that perhaps has become best known for a spinning carousel of replacements for drivers sidelined by injuries and suspensions, it would seem fitting to have Ragan win before he hops into his third car in three months.

The Unadilla, Ga., native probably has a better shot at it than when delivered Front Row Motorsports’ underfunded No. 34 Ford to victory lane here in May 2013. That was the second of Ragan’s two career Sprint Cup wins at restrictor-plate tracks (he also won at Daytona International Speedway in July 2011), and he seems confident again.

“Man, I feel great,” he said after qualifying ninth Saturday. “I feel like we’ve got a car that can win this race. There are obviously a lot of really good cars, a lot of really good drivers, but at the end of the day, we’ve just got to execute. We’ve got to be perfect on pit road – no mistakes –and just have to be in contention.”

Other storylines to watch Sunday:

Strange bedfellows: Alliances often used to determine the outcome of restrictor-plate races before they even began as drivers, teams and manufacturers made deals to work together exclusively in the draft.

But that’s faded over the past two years with the Gen 6 car, which doesn’t allow partnerships so easily because it’s more difficult to maneuver.

The latest proof was Matt Kenseth pushing rival Brad Keselowski to a victory last October. After shoving Keselowski after the race a week earlier at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Kenseth would have preferred to help any other driver, but he said he had no choice – which has become common.

“It was so much easier to pass guys in the past and team up with people and make things happen, so you could pick and choose,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. said Saturday. “You could say, ‘I don’t want to work with that guy. He’s going somewhere, but oh, he’s a Ford. I’m going to get over here with this Chevy, and we’re going to team-up and I’ll see him later. In another lap or two, we’ll go by him’. Today, you’ve got to take whatever you can get. Every significant run is so rare, that you might not like the guy, but you’ve got to do it and help people you don’t want to help.

“It’s difficult because a lot of times you’re helping people get by people you like, or your teammates, even. But you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do because these opportunities are few. You’ve got to be in the top three all day long to expect to be in the top three at the end when it counts. If you get shuffled out, it’s so hard to pass these people with this kind of car. So, we sit there in two lines: the bottom and the middle, and you aren’t going to jump out there by yourself and go around them. So, you’ve sort of got to sit there in line and hopefully some dummy pulls out, and he gets shuffled back. Hopefully, that happens a lot, and you end up toward the front.”

Big Mac: It’s hard to call Jamie McMurray a dark horse considering that four of his seven victories in Sprint Cup have occurred on plate tracks. But as the lesser heralded driver at Chip Ganassi Racing (Kyle Larson was the consensus preseason pick as 2015’s breakthrough star), McMurray quietly is putting together one of the best seasons of his career. A fourth last week at Richmond International Raceway (on a gamble by rookie crew chief Matt McCall) was McMurray’s fourth top 10, which has him a solid ninth in the points standings.

Though he will start 27th Sunday, McMurray has been strong at Talladega since making his Sprint Cup debut here in October 2002 (in place of injured Sterling Marlin), and he is less than two years removed from his last win at the 2.66-mile oval (in October 2013). A win would qualify McMurray for the Chase for the Sprint Cup, one of the only voids on a resume that includes victories in the Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400.

Dynamic duo: The past two plate races have been won by the Team Penske Fords of Keselowski and Joey Logano, who opened 2015 with a win in the Daytona 500. It isn’t by accident as Earnhardt and others have taken note of the prowess of the Penske drivers. Just as he did over 500 miles at Daytona International Speedway, Logano won Saturday’s Xfinity race at Talladega by making every right move in a 200-mph chess match where a mistake can drop a driver from first to 30th.

Faster horses: Hendrick Motorsports engines claimed five of the top six spots in qualifying, including a stunning gap of 0.3 seconds from pole-sitter Jeff Gordon to Hendrick teammate Kasey Kahne. Though NASCAR essentially equalizes what’s under the hood at a plate race, a significant edge can magnify the margin over the competition.

In his most impressive of six wins at Talladega, Gordon paced 139 of 194 laps and credited the engine for his dominance in the May 2005 race, in which he drove a Star Wars-sponsored Chevrolet. A decade later, a sequel could be brewing.

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