GEICO 500 Preview: Superspeedway Battle

GEICO 500 Preview: Superspeedway Battle

This article is part of our Weekly Preview series.

Talladega Superspeedway is up next in the NASCAR Cup Series schedule. The enormous tri-oval in Talladega, Ala., is the largest track on the circuit, measuring an amazing 2.66 miles with stunning 33-degree banking in the turns. 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. This will be a big departure from the recent short track stint in the schedule, and with it a change of faces at the top of our driver recommendations. 

This weekend, action will be similar to what we witnessed in the season-opening Daytona 500 were heavy packs that would eventually spread out into double lines or multiple packs over long green-flag runs. With the ability to race to the back or the front quickly, moving through traffic presented little problem. The new Next-Gen car also seemed to generate a little more competition for the lead. The 35 lead changes during the Great American Race were more than the previous season's Daytona 500, but on par with what we've seen recently at the track. 

This season's Daytona 500 also saw the return of the multi-car crashes. There were four caution periods due to accidents involving multiple cars, with two of the incidents being particularly large with many cars involved.  With the return of the "big one" or "big ones" we may see some form of return to the sandbagging at the back. Despite the stage racing point system, some drivers might feel

Talladega Superspeedway is up next in the NASCAR Cup Series schedule. The enormous tri-oval in Talladega, Ala., is the largest track on the circuit, measuring an amazing 2.66 miles with stunning 33-degree banking in the turns. 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. This will be a big departure from the recent short track stint in the schedule, and with it a change of faces at the top of our driver recommendations. 

This weekend, action will be similar to what we witnessed in the season-opening Daytona 500 were heavy packs that would eventually spread out into double lines or multiple packs over long green-flag runs. With the ability to race to the back or the front quickly, moving through traffic presented little problem. The new Next-Gen car also seemed to generate a little more competition for the lead. The 35 lead changes during the Great American Race were more than the previous season's Daytona 500, but on par with what we've seen recently at the track. 

This season's Daytona 500 also saw the return of the multi-car crashes. There were four caution periods due to accidents involving multiple cars, with two of the incidents being particularly large with many cars involved.  With the return of the "big one" or "big ones" we may see some form of return to the sandbagging at the back. Despite the stage racing point system, some drivers might feel better about staying out of the wrecks and being around at the end to contend for the win. The 12 cars that DNF'd in the season-opener will make some drivers think twice about spending too much time in the eye of the storm.

The art of superspeedway racing hasn't changed despite all the rules and car changes over the past few seasons. Once again, winning on these superspeedways has been reduced to the lowest common denominator, which is when to make your move and who to do it with. As we saw at Daytona, Austin Cindric's late charge to the front and holding off several competitors during the overtime finish, it's all about timing often times in these superspeedway races. We expect to see a similar racing style prevail at Talladega Superspeedway this weekend, but hopefully without some of the nasty crashes we witnessed in the season-opening Daytona 500. 

Speaking of the race earlier this season at Daytona, we can rely on those results to some extent in looking at the GEICO 500 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. 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 the most recent seasons of Talladega electronic scoring to rely on for our fantasy racing picks this week. The loop stats in the table below cover the last two years, or four races, at Talladega Superspeedway.

DriverAvg. FinishQuality Passes# of Fastest LapsLaps LedLaps in Top 15Driver Rating
Brad Keselowski10.01,0271320612106.0
Ryan Blaney12.583958454897.8
Joey Logano21.378879749997.2
Chris Buescher9.8911132646294.4
Denny Hamlin11.0529169333792.6
Bubba Wallace14.5822193240791.7
William Byron13.3944152445687.5
Kevin Harvick10.5779163243587.0
Cole Custer19.08288737986.8
Ty Dillon7.537611015686.7
Kurt Busch20.079217934384.6
Erik Jones10.8597192032881.1
Alex Bowman24.385271335078.2
Chase Elliott25.5931144740376.3
Tyler Reddick18.3809192339673.9
Martin Truex Jr.22.3591141230273.2
Kyle Busch26.0863161542972.8
Austin Dillon17.571317030072.4
Christopher Bell22.573491835971.6
Ross Chastain24.532291216271.2

What used to be a solidly Chevrolet track has been tilted in another direction in recent seasons. The bowtie brand hasn't won at Talladega since this event in 2019. The last five Talladega victories have gone to Toyota or Ford drivers. In this event one year ago, it would be Brad Keselowski's last-lap pass of Matt DiBenedetto that would set him up with his sixth Talladega victory. Keselowski has now moved on from Penske Racing to his current Roush camp. It will be interesting to see what this veteran driver can muster with his new race team on his favorite superspeedway. NASCAR would return to Talladega in October of last year and it would be Bubba Wallace who would prevail for Toyota in a rain-shortened event. It was Wallace's first-career Cup Series victory, but it underscored just how capable and impressive Wallace has become in this form of racing. With Toyota having taken two of the last three Talladega victories, a lot of eyes will be on Wallace and his Toyota companions over at Joe Gibbs Racing this weekend.

Given what we saw in the Daytona 500 earlier this season, Ford dominance was on full display. Austin Cindric would win for Team Penske but it would also see Ford drivers capture seven of the Top-9 finishing spots in the Daytona 500. Penske, Haas, Roush and other Ford camps will get an upgrade this weekend. Chase Elliott, Alex Bowman and William Byron will likely be Chevy's strongest contenders. However, it's pretty clear that the bowtie camp is at a steep disadvantage with the new Next-Gen car in superspeedway racing. For Toyota, the burden will largely rest with the drivers of Joe Gibbs Racing and 23XI Racing based on what we witnessed in Daytona. They are the best-positioned to challenge the Ford drivers for dominance in the GEICO 500. Talladega races always hold plenty of thrills as well as surprises. We'll take an in-depth look at past history at Talladega and recent trends on superspeedway ovals and give you the drivers you need to dominate your fantasy racing leagues this Sunday afternoon.

The Contenders – Drivers in the hunt for the win

Ryan Blaney – The two-time Talladega winner likely will be the driver to beat this weekend. Blaney won at this oval back-to-back in the fall of 2019 and spring of 2020. He's now led close to 200 laps in his career at this huge facility and has cracked the Top 10 in three of his last five starts at Talladega Superspeedway. Blaney is off to an impressive start this season and rides a four-race Top-10 streak into this weekend's action. The driver of the No. 12 Ford Mustang led 36 laps and collected an impressive fourth-place finish in the season-opener at Daytona. That just further underscores Blaney's ability in superspeedway racing. He'll be the man to beat in Sunday's 500-mile Talladega battle.

Joey Logano – Logano is a three-time winner at Talladega Superspeedway, with all three victories coming since the 2015 season. He's led over 400 combined laps at this speedway for his career, making Talladega his favorite of the two superspeedway tracks.  Logano's last start at this facility last October netted 9 laps led and a brilliant third-place finish in the Yellawood 500. The Penske Racing star cracks the Top 5 at this oval at an impressive 35-percent rate, so he's almost always racing among the leaders at crunch time in this 500-mile races. Logano will be a strong contender to take home a fourth Talladega trophy this Sunday afternoon.

Brad Keselowski – The six-time Talladega winner has a real expertise at superspeedway racing. Keselowski's victory in this event one year ago and follow up second-place finish at Talladega last fall easily demonstrate this fact. This will be his first visit to his favorite superspeedway with his new Roush race team and the new Next-Gen car, so there are a few unknowns. However, the driver of the No. 6 Ford made it very clear in the Daytona 500 with his 67 laps led and Top-10 finish that the move to his new team would not negatively impact his superspeedway performance. Keselowski's 300+ career laps led at Talladega Superspeedway and his 50-percent Top-10 rate at this oval speak for themselves. He loves this race track and is always a threat to win here.

Denny Hamlin – Hamlin is the best-positioned Toyota driver to obstruct Ford dominance this weekend at Talladega. The Joe Gibbs Racing star is a two-time winner at this facility and he's sat on the pole here in the last three-straight Talladega races. The last of his two Talladega victories was very recent as it came in the fall of 2020 in the Yellawood 500. Hamlin has led close to 400 career laps at this facility and is quite used to racing up front here. While the veteran driver hasn't enjoyed as much success at this oval as the similar oval in Daytona, Hamlin still races at a very high level here. His 44-percent Talladega Top-10 rate underscores this fact.  

Solid Plays – Near locks for a Top 10 with an outside shot to win

Chase Elliott – The driver of the No. 9 Chevrolet was a Top-10 finisher in the season-opening Daytona 500 and he has six Top 10's in his last 10 starts between both Daytona and Talladega. Elliott is a one-time Talladega winner (2019) and he has three Top 10's in his last six Talladega starts. Based on what we witnessed at Daytona to start the season, all the Chevrolet teams have some ground to makeup in this style of racing. However, this driver and team seemed to be the bright spot for what was a tough afternoon for most Chevrolet drivers in the Daytona 500. Elliott and the No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports team will carry the fight for manufacturer into this Sunday's GEICO 500.           

Bubba Wallace – The 23XI Racing driver returns to the scene of his first Cup Series victory. Wallace led 5 laps and was declared the winner in last October's Yellawood 500 after rain brought racing to an early end. The victory didn't happen by accident. Wallace has finished runner-up, first-place and runner-up in his last three superspeedway starts. The pattern of performance is unmistakable. The driver of the No. 23 Toyota has figured out how to race in the draft and when to make his move late in these events. Those are the two key components to success in racing at either Talladega or Daytona. Wallace has a tendency to stay out of the accidents and that helps as well, as his 12.3 average finish over the last 10 superspeedway events attests.   

Austin Cindric – This season's Daytona 500 was the first superspeedway event in the new Next-Gen car, and it proved one big point. The Penske Racing Ford's past success in this form of racing has carried forward into the new car. We're used to seeing the No. 2 Ford dominate these Talladega events, but that was with old driver Brad Keselowski. Austin Cindric proved with his Daytona 500 win that he's going to carry the torch high in a continued effort for this race team at both Daytona and Talladega. Cindric led 21 laps in the season opener and forged a convincing victory for his first-career Cup Series win. It would be shocking if he didn't bring that same speed to Talladega for this Sunday's GEICO 500.

Aric Almirola – Almirola possesses a gift for superspeedway racing. He demonstrated that with his strong fifth-place finish in the season-opening Daytona 500. It snapped a bit of a cold spell Almirola had in this style of racing thanks to his slump of 2021. Historically speaking, this veteran driver has always excelled at this form of racing. Almirola rode an eight-race Talladega Top-10 streak between 2016 and 2020. That hot streak boosted his career Top-10 average at the track to a respectable 38-percent. He's always performed better at this oval than the one in Florida anyway. However, that drive from 38th on the starting grid to fifth-place in the Daytona 500 signals that Almirola is ready to mix it up with the leaders in this form of racing once again. 

Sleepers – Drivers with good history at Talladega & solid upside

William Byron – Byron is a bit of a boom-or-bust pick, but he comes with tremendous upside. That's the reason we've kept him included and in the sleepers list this week. Byron has been racing just about as well as anyone in the new Next-Gen car and that's half the battle at this point. The driver of the No. 24 Chevrolet also has some superspeedway racing success that's hard to ignore. Byron won the 2020 summer race at Daytona and then he followed later that season with a strong fourth-place finish at Talladega. He has three Top-5 finishes in his last seven superspeedway starts. Byron almost always leads some laps in these races. He has crashed out of his last three Daytona/Talladega events, so that's the primary reason for the caution tag.      

Tyler Reddick – Coming off a near-brush with victory on the Bristol dirt, but somewhat disappointing runner-up finish, Reddick will now set his sights on the big oval at Talladega. The Richard Childress Racing youngster has been strong this season with four Top 10's through the first nine events and a respectable 11th-place points ranking coming into the GEICO 500. Reddick has enjoyed some success at Talladega Superspeedway recently. Two of his last three starts at the huge track have netted Top-10 finishes. The driver of the No. 8 Chevrolet finished seventh-place in this event one year ago. Reddick crashed out of this season's Daytona 500, so he really didn't get to show his best in that race. He'll get another shot to impress us in Sunday's GEICO 500. 

Kurt Busch – Both 23XI Racing teams have struggled of late, but we expect both to rebound in a big way this weekend in the GEICO 500. Busch has years of fantastic performances at Talladega Superspeedway in his racing resume. The driver of the No. 45 Toyota owns 22-career Top-10 finishes at this track for a strong 52-percent Top-10 rate. Busch's success here has been recent as well. Three of his last six starts at the Alabama oval have netted Top-10 results. Busch's start in last October's Yellawood 500 resulted in a strong fourth-place finish with 9 laps led. We expect Busch to work well with his teammate, Bubba Wallace, and the other Toyota drivers to gain track position and finish strong in the GEICO 500.

Chris Buescher – The Roush Fenway Racing veteran has enjoyed a good bit of superspeedway success since moving to Roush Fenway Keselowski Racing. Buescher has four Top 10's in his nine starts at Daytona/Talladega since moving to the No. 17 Ford team. He was a bit subpar in the season opening Daytona 500 (16th-place), but we're willing to toss that performance aside. We see that as the floor for this driver and team this weekend. Buescher's last four Talladega starts have netted a pair of Top-10 finishes, including his last start at the track last October. He peddled the No. 17 Ford to a strong sixth-place finish in the Yellawood 500.

Michael McDowell – The 2021 Daytona 500 winner has always had a knack for superspeedway racing. McDowell has a victory and three Top 10's in his last five superspeedway starts. He peddled the No. 34 Ford to a strong seventh-place finish in the season-opening Daytona 500 in the new Next-Gen car. That same success recently has also occurred at Talladega Superspeedway. Two of McDowell's last five Talladega starts has netted Top-5 finishes, including this event one year ago. The veteran driver piloted the FRM Ford to a stunning third-place finish in last season's GEICO 500. McDowell makes a great fantasy racing option in the deeper tiers of weekly lineup and salary cap leagues.   

David Ragan – The veteran driver is our deep dive into the driver pool pick this week for fantasy racing success at Talladega. The semi-retired Ragan only makes a few starts per season, but they're primarily on these superspeedway ovals. He piloted the No. 15 Rick Ware Racing Ford to a strong eighth-place finish in the season-opening Daytona 500. Ragan will once again pilot that car at Talladega Superspeedway this Sunday afternoon. His last four starts, dating back to 2019, between Daytona/Talladega have netted a pair of Top-10 finishes. Ragan understands racing in the draft and as a past Daytona and Talladega winner, it shows in his driving.

Slow Down – Drivers to avoid this week

Kyle Larson – The Hendrick Motorsports star has never been a big-time performer at the Talladega oval. With just two Top-10 finishes in 14-career starts the 14-percent Top-10 rate will discourage most players from deploying Larson in the GEICO 500 and for good reason. The driver of the No. 5 Chevrolet as crashed and DNF'd in four of his last six Talladega starts. His career average finish now stands at a lofty 24.5 at this oval. Larson has looked less than superhuman to this point in the new Next-Gen car, and that's a theme to carry into Talladega. This is not a good track for the reigning champion and his crash and DNF in the season-opening Daytona 500 underscores this fact.

Kyle Busch – At best Busch has had uneven luck with superspeedway racing over the years. With only one win, and 24-percent Top-10 rate at Talladega, there are much better tier "A" drivers to choose from. Busch's success at this oval has been spotty, and in particular of late it's been leaner than normal. The Joe Gibbs Racing star has only one Top 10 in his last nine Talladega starts. The average finish is checking in around 22.1 during the span. Daytona has only been marginally better for the No. 18 team. He had a sixth-place finish in the season-opening Daytona 500, but that's been an outlier for recent seasons at that superspeedway. Busch is a bit of a boom-or-bust pick this week, but his 10-percent Top-10 rate on superspeedway ovals the last two-and-a-half seasons is a big caution flag.    

Martin Truex Jr. – While 2022 has been turning more and more positive for Truex as we go, there are the odd occasions to let the Joe Gibbs Racing star take a seat on the bench.  This would be one of those instances. Superspeedway racing is just one of those areas where Truex struggles. The veteran driver has only one Top-10 finish in his last 10 starts between Daytona and Talladega. Truex has failed to crack the Top 10 in his last 12 Talladega starts, and that has brought his career Top-10 average at the oval down to just 24-percent. That's compared against a staggering 13 DNF's at the central Alabama oval.  Don't be tempted into deploying Truex in the GEICO 500.

Kevin Harvick – It's been a tough season for the driver of the No. 4 Ford. Harvick has just three Top-10 finishes to this point and he's a subpar 13th-place in the driver point standings after his crash and DNF at Bristol this past week. His start with the new Next-Gen car has been more of a hate than love affair for Harvick. Superspeedway racing has been a lean affair for the Stewart Haas Racing star. His crash and DNF in the season-opening Daytona 500 is just the most recent example. Despite a 43-percent career Top-10 rate at Talladega Superspeedway, Harvick has just two Top 10's in his last seven starts at the Alabama oval. This driver and team are a high-risk fantasy racing prospect for Sunday's 500-mile battle at Talladega.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mark Taylor
Taylor is RotoWire's senior NASCAR writer. A nine-time FSWA finalist, Taylor was named the Racing Writer of the Year in 2008, 2009, 2010, 2016 and 2017. He is also a military historian, focused specifically on World War II and the U.S. Navy's efforts in the Pacific.
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