The Great Unknown: Expect only the unexpected at Talladega

It was 2009 and Brad Keselowski was driving the No. 09 car for owner James Finch when he scored his first career Sprint Cup victory at Talladega.

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It’s real simple: You can parse statistics, talk about trends and which drivers are high up in the points, look at who’s hot and who’s not. And at the end of the day, when you race at Talladega Superspeedway, none of it matters a whit.

Because what ultimately happens Sunday during the Aaron’s 499 at the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series track is as unpredictable as unpredictable gets. Nothing that takes place anywhere else on the circuit seems to translate at Talladega.

NASCAR’s largest and fastest track has seen virtual unknowns like Richard Brickhouse, Dick Brooks, Lenny Pond, Ron Bouchard and Bobby Hillin Jr. win.

More recently, a brash, mouthy rookie from Michigan named Brad Keselowski won here in just his fifth career start, giving team owner James Finch his only career victory in 253 Sprint Cup starts dating back to 1990, when Jeff Purvis first drove for him.

And Saturday, another driver making only his fifth Cup start, Brian Scott, earned the pole for today’s Sprint Cup race. None of the top-five qualifiers — Scott, Paul Menard, AJ Allmendinger, Casey Mears and Austin Dillon — is in the top 10 in Sprint Cup points. Collectively, they have two Cup victories in 880 starts.

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Think about that.

The front three rows of this race will feature five drivers who have only won twice in 880 starts.

Conversely, Jimmie Johnson (20th), Matt Kenseth (21st), Clint Bowyer (27th) Dale Earnhardt Jr. (30th), Jamie McMurray (32nd), Denny Hamlin (34th), Greg Biffle (35th), Terry Labonte (37th) and Kasey Kahne (42nd) have nine championships and a total of 212 Cup race victories, yet are starting at the middle to the back of the field.

That suggests a lot of drivers starting up front who could fall back, and a lot of drivers starting deep in the field who could charge forward. Throw in 2.66 miles of asphalt wide enough to let drivers race four- and five-wide, 200 mile-per-hour speeds and the potential for "The Big One" at any moment and the stage is truly set for an unpredictable afternoon. And a white-knuckle one at that.

Johnson, the greatest driver of his generation and certainly one of the best ever, has eight DNFs at Talladega. Jeff Gordon, also one of the sport’s all-time greats, has nine DNFs, along with six race victories here.

Last year, Front Row Motorsports teammates David Ragan and David Gilliland scored a stunning one-two finish in this race.

Who will it be this year?

An established star like Earnhardt, Kenseth, Keselowski or Kevin Harvick?

An underdog like Scott or Allmendinger or Mears? How about a woman? Danica Patrick starts seventh and is looking for her breakthrough first victory.

All we know is this: Whatever happens on Sunday will be exciting. And that excitement starts at noon ET on FOX. See you then.