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Aaron’s 499 Preview: One Wild Ride at Talladega

Mark Taylor

Mark Taylor

Taylor covers NASCAR for RotoWire. He is a three-time winner of the FSWA's Racing Writer of the Year award. He is also a military historian, specifically the World War II U.S. Navy in the Pacific.

Talladega Superspeedway hosts the second restrictor-plate race of the 2014 season. The enormous tri-oval in Talladega, Ala., is the largest track on the Sprint Cup Series circuit. Measuring an amazing 2.66 miles in length, and offering a stunning 33-degree banking in the turns, the oval is truly a wonder and marvel of the modern world of racing. The track's size and banking make it a wide-open, four-wide, heart-pounding racing experience where speeds are high and margin for error is small. The restrictor-plates restrict the airflow into combustion chamber and as a result keep horsepower down, and top speeds limited. Otherwise, the speeds would greatly exceed 200 mph. With the tandem draft now becoming a distant memory, we're seeing more pack and single-file racing mixed throughout these super speedway races. The Gen-6 race car has added another variable into that equation. Additionally, the new aerodynamic rules gave us lots of lead changes and excitement at Daytona earlier this season. What resulted in the Daytona 500 were drivers mixing it up and shuffling the running order. We saw some multi-pack drafting mayhem on the restarts, and we saw some single-file drafts that quickly organized and ran down cars ahead of them. This season's Daytona 500 brought back the big crashes at "go time" and the riding around in the back hoping to avoid the big one. We had four multi-car crashes that involved no less than seven cars in each incident. Once again, winning on these super speedways has been reduced to the lowest common denominator, when to make your move and who to do it with. As we saw at Daytona, Dale Earnhardt Jr's timing was perfect and it led to the big win in the Great American Race. We expect to see the same rules and racing style prevail at Talladega Superspeedway this weekend, so we can learn a lot from looking back on this season's Daytona 500.

Speaking of the race earlier this season at Daytona, we can rely on those results to some degree in looking at the Aaron's 499 this weekend. The cars that were strong at Daytona in February will likely be the same to run up front on Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway. NASCAR has rejuvenated the "luck factor" with all the aero changes and the Gen-6 car. So you can only put so much faith in historical stats and strong cars. At the end of the day, the driver that keeps all the doors and tires on his car and finishes the race is as good as gold. As far as recent historical data is concerned, we have years of Talladega electronic scoring to rely on for our fantasy racing picks this week. The loop stats in the table below cover the last nine years or 18 races at Talladega Superspeedway.

DRIVERAVG FINISHQUALITY PASSESFASTEST LAPSLAPS LEDLAPS IN TOP 15RATING
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.8.06296825594.7
Matt Kenseth16.84,275634072,23991.6
Dale Earnhardt Jr.18.74,009752862,07891.5
Jeff Burton19.14,569561081,90189.1
Kurt Busch18.34,52954942,14487.4
Brian Vickers18.32,55534701,29987.3
Jimmie Johnson15.23,436491491,75785.1
Brad Keselowski14.22,027403286784.4
David Ragan14.22,55156321,20784.2
Aric Almirola19.91,478231468183.7
Jamie McMurray19.43,307582151,69283.3
Austin Dillon26.04183014181.5
Jeff Gordon18.12,838513421,57181.2
Joey Logano19.62,207413198080.8
Tony Stewart17.92,573702581,46180.8
Denny Hamlin20.23,093702041,38780.6
Kyle Busch21.93,432851551,64279.9
Clint Bowyer15.92,35087981,15879.3
Martin Truex Jr.21.23,34753491,58377.7
Kevin Harvick17.13,045791201,44676.3

The last couple years has seen Chevrolet lose its stranglehold on this super speedway. Ford and before that Dodge teams have won three of the last four races at this big oval. Prior to that, Chevy teams had won four straight races at Talladega Superspeedway, and five of the prior six. With this changing of the guard, we have to give it due consideration for this Sunday's Aaron's 499. Brad Keselowski, Matt Kenseth and David Ragan claimed those victories for Dodge and Ford. All three will be players in this weekend's 500-mile race. Dale Earnhardt Jr. would appear to be in the best position to reassert Chevrolet's streak of dominance at Talladega Super Speedway. Earnhardt is a five-time winner at this oval, and he captured the victory in this season's Daytona 500. That gives him a leg up on the rest of the field since he owns the only super speedway victory to this point with the new aero rules package. His Hendrick Motorsports teammates, Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson, are likely the other candidates to best defend Chevrolet's honor at the 2.66-mile oval. Gordon is a six-time Talladega winner and Johnson is a two-time winner at the Alabama super speedway. Both accounted very well of themselves at Daytona earlier this season. Considering what we saw in the Daytona 500, a real manufacturer's battle should be shaping up for Sunday's Aaron's 499. Roush Fenway Racing and Penske Racing Fords showed some real muscle. Greg Biffle, Joey Logano and Keselowski were real threats to win. We could be in for more of the same Ford upheaval this weekend. Considering how well Kenseth has raced on these huge ovals the last few seasons, we can't overlook his Toyota camp either. All-in-all it's shaping up to look like quite a battle between Ford, Toyota and Chevrolet. There should be plenty of potential Top-10 finishes for each. We'll take an in-depth look at past history at Talladega and recent trends on restrictor-plate tracks and give you the drivers you need to dominate your fantasy racing leagues on Sunday.

The Contenders - Drivers in the hunt for the win

Dale Earnhardt Jr. -
With the No. 88 team apparently on the trail of another Chase berth in 2014, Earnhardt makes a good fantasy racing play almost every weekend. On his best tracks, we have to upgrade the NASCAR icon to contender status. Earnhardt owns five career wins at this 2.66-mile oval and he led 38 laps and finished runner-up in the last visit to this oval last October. The driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet had a near-perfect race and won this season's Daytona 500, which marked the first super speedway victory in almost 10 years. With more than 700 career laps led at this oval and his great performances in Speedweeks at Daytona earlier this season, we have to give Earnhardt top contender status this weekend.

Matt Kenseth -
Our top super speedway driver of the last couple seasons comes into Aaron's 499 weekend looking to continue his dominance on these ovals in 2014. It took 26 career starts to get his first victory at the Alabama super speedway, but we're willing to bet it won't take that long to get the second. It could come as early as this Sunday afternoon. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver has over 200 laps led in his last three visits to this Alabama oval, but only the one victory in 2012. Luck and the breaks have to start falling Kenseth's way at some point. In this race one year ago, the driver of the No. 20 Toyota led a staggering 142 laps before falling to finish eighth in a rain-delayed race that ended in the dark. Kenseth will be in the mix for the win again in the Aaron's 499.

Brad Keselowski -
The 2012 Sprint Cup Series champion already has two Talladega trophies in his trophy case in just five short seasons of competition. Keselowski enters this event with a pair of Top 5s in the last five super speedway races. That places Keselowski in a very elite group due to the luck and skill necessary to put together such a streak on the restrictor-plate tracks. His Daytona 500 yielded 13 laps led and a strong third-place finish in the Great American Race. It's clear that this Penske Racing star knows how to race in the draft and in the multi-car packs. Keselowski is a threat to win every time the series visits one of these huge ovals.

Jimmie Johnson -
Johnson is probably the boom-or-bust pick of the contenders group this week. The six-time champion has two career Talladega victories to his credit, but also has had an up-and-down history on the restrictor-plate race tracks. However, Johnson erases a few of those concerns with what he's done in the last five super speedway events. He's won two of the last three Daytona races, and he's finished in the Top 5 in one of the last two Talladega events. With 189 laps led combined over those five races, we're used to seeing the No. 48 Chevrolet running up front in these super speedway races. Our last visit to Talladega netted Johnson 47 laps led, but a disappointing 13th-place finish.

Solid Plays - Drivers who are near locks for the Top 10 with an outside shot at winning

Kyle Busch -
The Joe Gibbs Racing star has a rough history at Talladega over the years, but it's really turned positive in a very strong way the last couple seasons. If you're looking for a swing for the fences, the No. 18 Toyota team is it. Busch avoided the crashes in 2012 and picked up second- and third-place finishes at Talladega. Last season he was caught up in one of the accidents in the Aaron's 499, but he returned to the oval in the fall and registered a strong fifth-place finish in our last visit to the super speedway. Busch is a one-time Talladega winner and he's been flirting with that second career victory in the last two years.

Joey Logano -
Logano is the trendy, hot fantasy racing play as we come to central Alabama this week. The Penske Racing rising-star just claimed his second win of the season at Richmond and he's looking for more coming to the Aaron's 499. Logano has four career Top 10s in 10 starts at Talladega Superspeedway. While most of those came earlier in his career, it's still a decent 40-percent rate. The surging driver of the No. 22 Ford will be riding a lot of momentum this Sunday afternoon and looking for a career-best finish at this track. Given that he led a couple laps and was mixing it up with the leaders in this season's Daytona 500, there's a good chance Logano will have a strong race car.

Clint Bowyer -
On a track that takes a lot of luck and skill to win, Bowyer has been excelling in both categories recently at Talladega Superspeedway. The driver of the MWR No. 15 Toyota has won two career victories at Talladega Superspeedway, and he checks in at a strong 50-percent Top-10 rate at this 2.66-mile oval. Bowyer had a disappointing engine failure and DNF at Daytona earlier this season, so we didn't get a real good gage for his speed, but we're sure that he's poised to rebound in the Aaron's 499 since he has such clear expertise at this oval.

Jeff Gordon -
Luck has been plentiful for the Hendrick Motorsports star this season. After nine races Gordon finds himself atop the championship standings and having the field chase after him each week. The No. 24 team's cars have been very fast and very consistent. Regarding the luck factor, he's been missing the luck to get into victory lane yet, but he's been very close a few times already in 2014. Gordon is a six-time winner at Talladega and he has 19 Top-10 finishes (45%). The veteran driver should be a steady and strong upside play in Sunday's 500-mile event.

Sleepers - Drivers with good history at Talladega who can provide a solid finish

Greg Biffle -
Despite being winless on the superspeedways of the Sprint Cup Series, you won't find a more consistent recent performer on these huge ovals than Biffle. The Roush Fenway Racing veteran has two Top 10s in the last five trips to the restrictor-plate tracks, including an eighth-place finish in this season's Daytona 500. With three Top-10 finishes in his last six trips to the Alabama super speedway, you can see that he sports a respectable 50-percent rate in recent performances. The reassuring statistic is that Biffle hasn't had a DNF at Talladega since the 2008 season and he's been on the lead lap at the checkered flag in nine of his last 10 starts at the oval.

Jamie McMurray -
The driver of the No. 1 Chevrolet is our last Talladega winner. Last October the Chip Ganassi Racing veteran held off the fast Dale Earnhardt Jr. and claimed the win in the Camping World RV Sales 500. It was McMurray's second career Talladega trophy. His 239 laps led at this facility shows that he knows how to race in the draft and how to win. McMurray owns a pair of Top 10s in his last three restrictor-plate races so he's running well and with speed at these large ovals right now. He may not sneak back into victory lane this time around, but he won't be too far down the running order.

David Ragan -
The surprise winner of this event one year ago has become nearly a Talladega specialist. While Ragan's performances elsewhere have been subpar this season, he gets the much-needed fantasy racing upgrade for Sunday's Aaron's 499. Aside from the victory the Front Row Motorsports driver has earned seven Top 10s in 14 starts at Talladega Superspeedway. Entering this weekend, the driver of the No. 34 Ford is riding a four-race Top-10 streak at this huge oval. This is not by accident. Ragan knows the draft and how to race in it as evidenced by his victory at Daytona as well.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. -
The young Roush Fenway Racing driver has had a forgettable season to this point in 2014. However, he gets a major upgrade this week as the series pulls into central Alabama. With only two career starts at Talladega Superspeedway, his resume is short but impressive. Those starts netted 13th- and third-place finishes in 2013. Stenhouse has been just as strong at Daytona with one Top-10 finish and a 12.5 average finish in four starts at that super speedway. The driver of the No. 17 Ford should be another consistent performer in Sunday's Aaron's 499. We expect Stenhouse to crack the Top-15 at the 2.66-mile oval.

Michael Waltrip -
The owner of the No. 66 Toyota will slip behind the wheel for the first time since the season-opening Daytona 500. It will be a shot at redemption after his crash and 41st-place finish in the Great American Race. Waltrip's super speedway racing skills need no introduction. With three career Daytona wins and one career Talladega win, Waltrip has been one of the most successful restrictor-plate competitors of the last decade. In his last four Daytona starts the veteran driver has netted a pair of Top-10 finishes. In his last five Talladega starts he's come up with two more Top 10s. Waltrip has been a steady fantasy racing play with a lot of upside in these super speedway events despite his very light part-time schedule.

Austin Dillon -
The rookie driver gets his second restrictor-plate start of the season and yet more experience to build on for his growing career. Dillon won the pole position and finished ninth in this season's Daytona 500. That's the high water mark for the No. 3 Chevrolet team thus far this season, and likely the reason that Dillon will be excited about this visit to Talladega. With four Top 10s in six career Nationwide Series starts at Daytona and Talladega it's clear that this Richard Childress Racing rookie is not short on experience or skill in this style of racing.

Slow Down - Drivers to avoid this week

Kevin Harvick -
Despite being a one-time winner at the Talladega oval, we have to proceed with caution for the No. 4 Chevrolet team. Harvick's luck has been quite tough in recent years at this huge oval. He has no Top-10 finishes at Talladega in the last five visits and two DNF's over that span. Harvick's Daytona luck has been just as shaky with only one Top-10 finish in his last four visits there. We know that this veteran driver has the skill and experience to win on this oval, but his recent performances are big negative indicator heading into this weekend's race.

Denny Hamlin -
The slumping Joe Gibbs Racing star isn't likely to break out of his funk this weekend in the Aaron's 499. Despite having a strong Speedweeks at Daytona, the rest of the season hasn't gone according to plan. Hamlin enters this race 14th in the championship standings and in a four-race Top-10 drought. When you match his current slump with his historical performance at this oval, you get a big caution flag. The driver of the No. 11 Toyota has only one Top 10 in his last six trips to central Alabama. Over that span he has four finishes outside the Top 20.

Trevor Bayne -
You would think the one-time Daytona 500 winner would be a strong play on the large ovals, but he hasn't measured up since his big Daytona victory. In fact, the driver of the No. 21 Ford has one Top-10 finish in six career starts at Talladega Superspeedway. That averages out to a subpar 25.0 over the span. It seems that Bayne was one of the bigger victims of NASCAR removing the tandem draft from these races. He's a driver to avoid in this weekend's Aarons' 499.

Kurt Busch -
The Stewart Haas Racing veteran has had a lot of difficulties adjusting to his new team and surroundings in 2014. Busch comes to Talladega 25th in the driver standings and with only two Top-10 finishes in the first nine races. His history at this track is pretty respectable with a 50-percent career Top-10 rate. However, recent outings have been downright confounding. Busch has no Top 10s in his last seven visits to Talladega Superspeedway and he has three DNF's over that span. The average finish for this recent sample is an abysmal 27.3.