Is this the week?
TALLADEGA, Ala. -- Take even more heart than usual, Junior Nation. Your man always comes to Talladega pumped up, but Friday he unabashedly used the "W" word.
"Always feel confident when we come here that we're going to have a good car, going to know how to use it," Dale Earnhardt Jr. said. "We had a great run at Daytona [second to Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson in the first plate race of the season]. Feel like as a company goes, Hendrick has done a great job with this [Gen-6] car at these particular racetracks.
"Our confidence level is real good, real high."
Then he popped the big one as part of a reference to the iffy weather forecast: "The weather here is going to be odd all weekend. Hopefully, we get an opportunity to race on Sunday and go to Victory Lane.
"We really feel like we have a good shot at it, and feel like it's about time for us to win one here at Talladega."
He is a bit overdue. During a stretch between 2001-04, he won five of seven Cup races here, but hasn't won here since '04.
-- Ed Hinton
Hamlin ready for early exit
TALLADEGA, Ala. -- Denny Hamlin ran several laps at 199 mph-plus Friday and felt "no discomfort inside the car at all," he said, after his first time in a race car since suffering a compression fracture in his back at Fontana, Calif., on March 24.
He likened his planned start here Sunday to "a quarterback taking a knee" since he'll be replaced during the first caution by Brian Vickers.
But, Hamlin conceded, "There is risk. I don't know the exact science. No one knows the exact percentages" of the possibility of worsening his injury in a crash.
"But as far as I've been told and understand it," he continued, "it would take such a significant hit that you probably would be injured from it even if you were 100 percent healthy."
After Friday's first practice for Sunday's Aaron's 499, Hamlin practiced climbing out of the car for Vickers to get in.
"It took us one minute, six seconds, twice in a row, so I think we'll be plenty good, if a caution comes out, to preserve a lap," Hamlin said.
"The most discomfort I have is getting out of the car," he continued. "That's why we're choosing to go through the roof [hatch] versus the window. It's much easier on me. Any kind of twisting we can [avoid] will be good.
"Inside the race car, I feel just like I did six or seven weeks ago."
Hamlin hoped to make a similar quick start with relief at Richmond last week, but wasn't cleared by his doctors.
"We had an amazing group of doctors who looked my scans over, saw me in person, and obviously it wasn't a full consensus for Richmond so we decided to err on the safe side," he said. "We're going to very much minimize our risk this weekend ..."
Hamlin said he'll be scanned again next week, with hopes of driving the full race at Darlington, S.C., on May 11.
-- Ed Hinton
Denny Hamlin returns at Talladega media session, in full ->How did it feel to be back in the car in practice... fb.me/2KapuLOmk— Marty Smith (@MartySmithESPN) May 3, 2013
A calm Happy Hour
TALLADEGA, Ala. -- Final Cup practice was anticlimactic to the point of ho-hum Friday, after an earlier all-out run that might determine the starting order for Sunday's Aaron's 499.
But those shakedown runs were nothing like the earlier session, when eight drivers topped 199 mph, led by Carl Edwards.
Teams focused more on the first session because it could determine starting order, should Saturday morning's qualifying session be rained out -- which seemed to be anticipated throughout the garage area.
-- Ed Hinton
A blistering pace
TALLADEGA, Ala. -- First Cup practice Friday went at a blistering pace, with eight drivers topping 199 mph, as teams anticipated a rainout of qualifying Saturday for Sunday's Aaron's 499.
Should qualifying be canceled Saturday, Sunday's lineup would be determined by practice speeds. Another session was scheduled for Friday afternoon, but that was iffy under threatening skies.
"I think everyone's halfway convinced that today's practices will line up the cars for Sunday's race," Kevin Harvick said. "You want to go out and practice and get the best speed you can for qualifying, possibly."
NASCAR spokesman Kerry Tharp said there are no plans to mandate smaller restrictor plates to lower speeds. But historically, those decisions have come as late as Saturday morning here.
-- Ed Hinton
One giddy pole winner in Pastrana
TALLADEGA, Ala. -- Travis Pastrana, being an extreme sportsman by background and extremely enthusiastic by nature, was talking faster than he drove after winning the pole Friday for Saturday's Aaron's 312 Nationwide race. Coverage begins at 2:30 p.m. ET on ESPN2 and WatchESPN.
Talladega Superspeedway is, after all, reputed to be NASCAR's most extreme track, so, "Bringing the guys to the line for the green flag is awesome," Pastrana said.
Winning a pole "for restrictor-plate races means you went out there and drove a perfectly clean lap and that your car and your crew and everybody was working together, and you picked the right line and did the right stuff," he said.
Pastrana ran 176.500 mph in a Roush Fenway Mustang for his first pole in 17 Nationwide attempts.
"Winning the pole for a restrictor-plate race also means that you can have a lot of people who are willing to work with you come race day," he said. "So I'm excited about that."
Pastrana is always excited -- but extremely so this time.
-- Ed Hinton
Harvick trying to ride the wave
TALLADEGA, Ala. -- Kevin Harvick figures nothing, except maybe the good feeling, translates from his win last week at ¾-mile Richmond International Raceway to Sunday's Aaron's 499 at 2.66-mile Talladega Superspeedway.
"Obviously, they're very different," Harvick said Friday. The Richmond win was his first of the season, and "a win is a good fix. Whether you've had good runs or bad runs, it gives you that instant boost and all the guys are pumped up."
But, "There's really nothing you can take from last week to this week, other than some positive momentum and a win in the wins column and everything's going OK," he said. "It's just two totally different animals."
Harvick's fortunes have been mixed indeed on restrictor-plate tracks lately.
Last fall here, "I thought coming to the checkered flag, 'Man, when we get to the start-finish line, we're gonna have a shot to win the race. And I think we were running third and never made it off Turn 4," as he got caught in a monstrous pileup.
Then at Daytona in February, "We won the whole week and wrecked on Sunday," he said of winning both the Sprint Unlimited bonus race and his qualifying race only to get knocked out after 47 laps of the Daytona 500.
-- Ed Hinton
Greater expectations for Patrick?
TALLADEGA, Ala. -- Another restrictor-plate race, another spike in expectations for Danica Patrick … sort of …
She goes into Sunday's Aaron's 499 with a solid performance on her résumé from February's Daytona 500, where she ran in the lead draft all afternoon, entered the last lap third and finished eighth.
"Based on Daytona and how fast this car is -- this is the same car we ran at Daytona -- I suppose it's fair to say that there should be a little spike in expectation," Patrick said Friday in the garage area at Talladega Superspeedway.
"But you also have to take into consideration that on these big speedways, there's a whole lot of luck that comes into it," she continued. "Everything's got to be clean. The stops have to be good, you have to stay in the pack, no issues, no getting caught up in an accident. … Obviously this is a wider track than Daytona. So when we start getting four wide, that's when stuff starts to get exciting."
The last lap at Daytona didn't give Patrick much to go on for wild plate finishes, should she end up swimming with the last-lap sharks on Sunday.
"I learned that if I just stay in line and keep my foot down and don't try to come up with any kind of plan, you're kind of a sitting duck," she said. On the other hand, "I talked to [car owner] Tony [Stewart] and [500 winner] Jimmie [Johnson] after the race. Tony pointed out that … by pulling out and trying something I could have just as easily ended up 15th or so back.
Mark Garrow reports Denny Hamlin has been cleared to race this weekend at Talladega. Plus he previews the race with Dale Earnhardt Jr., Danica Patrick and Kevin Harvick.
"I have a better idea of what it's going to take, but it's also circumstantial. Jimmie told me after the race, 'Look, I didn't have a plan. In fact, the two times I've won [the 500] now, I didn't have a plan going into the last lap.'"
Patrick differentiated between gaining confidence and comfort.
"I don't know if the confidence level shifts a tremendous amount, as much as the comfort level does. Just being comfortable on these big speedways, comfortable with this pack style of racing that I was so used to in Indy cars on the ovals. Just having a feel for it.
"It's something that I probably caught on to quicker than anything in stock car racing."
As for running Saturday's Nationwide race here, "We're doing it to try to win, and we're doing it to try to get a little more practice in before the big day on Sunday," she said. "I think everything is happening really, really fast in the Nationwide race because you have such shifts in speed with bump-drafting and drafting, and I feel like it sharpens you up out on the track and gets you more prepared for the next day."
-- Ed Hinton
MORE RACING HEADLINES
- Keselowski passes Dale Jr., wins Las Vegas
- Keselowski holds on for Vegas N'wide win
- Ganassi inks Kwasniewski in development deal
- Ku. Busch to try Indy 500-Coca Cola 600 double
MOST SENT STORIES ON ESPN.COM