Alabama 500 Preview: Separation Sunday

Alabama 500 Preview: Separation Sunday

This article is part of our Weekly Preview series.

This weekend the luck factor comes into play like no other race in the 10 events that makeup the Chase for the Sprint Cup. NASCAR comes to Talladega Superspeedway for the Alabama 500 and for the wild restrictor-plate racing action that Talladega provides. This is the perfect event to throw in with the short tracks, flat tracks, and intermediate ovals that make up the final 10 races in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship. Considering that we've spent the last two weeks racing on intermediate ovals with few cautions and few crashes, we're in for some major changes as the "big one" comes back into play. The multi-car, multi-line drafts and side-by-side racing at near 200 mph is nothing short of chaotic. Five hundred miles of racing in these tight conditions almost always leads to disaster, and that's where the luck factor comes into play this weekend.

Considering this weekend's race is the final of the Round of 12 and the cut for the Round of 8 in the Chase, the stakes will be even higher than usual. If Brad Keselowski hopes to engrave his name on the Sprint Cup trophy for the second time, a victory here will go a long way to that end. The Penske Racing star won here in May of this year in a pretty dominant performance. The No. 2 Ford team has been almost flawless on the super speedways this season, so that should go a long way towards boosting Keselowski's confidence entering

This weekend the luck factor comes into play like no other race in the 10 events that makeup the Chase for the Sprint Cup. NASCAR comes to Talladega Superspeedway for the Alabama 500 and for the wild restrictor-plate racing action that Talladega provides. This is the perfect event to throw in with the short tracks, flat tracks, and intermediate ovals that make up the final 10 races in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship. Considering that we've spent the last two weeks racing on intermediate ovals with few cautions and few crashes, we're in for some major changes as the "big one" comes back into play. The multi-car, multi-line drafts and side-by-side racing at near 200 mph is nothing short of chaotic. Five hundred miles of racing in these tight conditions almost always leads to disaster, and that's where the luck factor comes into play this weekend.

Considering this weekend's race is the final of the Round of 12 and the cut for the Round of 8 in the Chase, the stakes will be even higher than usual. If Brad Keselowski hopes to engrave his name on the Sprint Cup trophy for the second time, a victory here will go a long way to that end. The Penske Racing star won here in May of this year in a pretty dominant performance. The No. 2 Ford team has been almost flawless on the super speedways this season, so that should go a long way towards boosting Keselowski's confidence entering this event. The two biggest threats to Keselowski's hopes for a Round of 8-advancing win this weekend would be Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth. Both are past winners at this 2.66-mile oval and both are seeking that Chase-advancing win to make the Round of 8 this Sunday afternoon. The stakes will be high and so will the nerves. As we saw with Chase Elliott and Denny Hamlin at Kansas last weekend, the consequences of this Chase format is more pressure than ever at this point in the season. When the green flag drops the mayhem will ensue and championship hopes will be made or dashed after 500 miles of racing at 'Dega.

Talladega Superspeedway is unlike any of the other tracks in the Chase, but history still plays a big part. The drivers that tend to run up front and win at this large oval are usually the same drivers each and every time we visit Talladega. As you'll see in the table below, some of the drivers who are vying for the championship are also very proficient at Talladega Superspeedway. Here are the loop stats for the last 23 races at the famous restrictor-place track.

DRIVERAVG FINISHQUALITY PASSESFASTEST LAPSLAPS LEDLAPS IN TOP 15RATING
Chase Elliott5.0225327135101.3
Matt Kenseth18.05,493764512,82889.2
Jimmie Johnson15.74,827603192,55588.6
Kurt Busch17.46,36858962,82088.3
Brad Keselowski13.93,41957911,48887.1
Denny Hamlin20.04,234882321,89282.9
Joey Logano19.93,65158821,54681.9
Kevin Harvick15.74,394941512,12280.9
Jeff Gordon19.33,641654011,99780.7
Jamie McMurray20.34,470742182,12180.7
Ryan Blaney19.590661537580.7
Kyle Busch20.94,362951792,10180.6
Martin Truex Jr.19.64,77960502,18879.1
Clint Bowyer14.53,0011141001,46677.7
Kyle Larson24.21,19911946277.6
David Ragan19.33,17373381,40377.2
Aric Almirola 20.72,224421593676.4
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.12.81,172301149076.2
Tony Stewart19.62,971912691,65975.7
Paul Menard20.03,99388411,76275.5

The loop stats from Talladega look a bit odd when compared to other tracks in the series. Right away we notice a lack of drivers like Martin Truex Jr., Kasey Kahne, Kyle Busch, Kyle Larson and Carl Edwards in the Top 10 of this list. Luck plays a large part in winning Talladega. Some times it's all in the timing and when to make your move at this oval. The second thing we notice is the lower overall driver ratings. Wrecks play a big part in Talladega racing, and everyone eventually gets caught up in a big one, putting a dent in their statistical performance. In this season's earlier race at Talladega in May we saw Brad Keselowski take the lead on the lap 172 restart and survive two subsequent cautions and restarts to claim the win in a thrilling 500-mile race. Yes indeed, anything can happen at Talladega. The 37 lead changes marked a three-race Talladega high, and showed improved action and competitiveness at this larger-than-life oval.

We're certain that we're in for more of the same in this Sunday's Alabama 500. We should see some big multi-car crashes and some late cautions as the urgency gets the best of the drivers in the closing laps. With the big wrecks and caution flags as a result of the pack racing, we should see the familiar "sand-bagging" drivers who hang out in the back of the field. The driver who keeps a low profile most of the race may ultimately be the one to push to the front in the closing laps and make for a thrilling victory. One thing is for certain, the championship field will narrow even more after this 500-mile event, as four more drivers drop from the Chase field and only eight advance to the next round. From that standpoint this truly is separation Sunday in NASCAR. Some drivers will move on to Martinsville with their Chase for the Cup hopes intact, while others will load the wrecked remains of their race cars onto the hauler and start to think about next season. Here are the drivers who you need to focus on for fantasy racing glory at Talladega Superspeedway.

The Contenders - Drivers in the hunt for the win

Brad Keselowski -
The four-time Talladega winner comes to central Alabama this weekend looking for a win and automatic bid to the next round of the Chase. Considering his recent luck, urgency will be very high for a driver and team on the verge of elimination. Penske Racing has taken four of the last seven trophies on superspeedways, with two victories for Keselowski and two for his teammate Joey Logano. This Ford stable is currently setting the pace to beat at the tracks of Daytona and Talladega. The driver of the No. 2 Ford won this event one year ago and he won here in the spring of this year, which makes Keselowski poised for the season sweep of Talladega. Make no mistake about it, Keselowski is the driver to beat this weekend.

Matt Kenseth -
The Joe Gibbs Racing star is a one-time Talladega winner (this event in 2012) and 10-time Top-10 finisher at the Alabama oval. Those stats aren't dazzling, but he's displayed good speed on the large ovals this season but less-than-stellar luck. Kenseth led 40 laps in the season-opening Daytona 500 and he led 39 laps at Talladega in May. The results have not followed though. We believe the difference this time will be the team's current momentum and drive to advance in the Chase. Kenseth five-race Top-10 streak into Talladega this Sunday, and that includes a pair of runner-up finishes. While he would appear to be pretty safe in the points to make the Round of 8, nothing says safe like capturing a Chase-advancing win. The No. 20 Toyota will be in the mix for this victory.

Kyle Busch -
The defending champion has had a pretty darn good season on the superspeedway ovals. Busch lauds finishes of third-, second- and second-place in the three Daytona & Talladega events to-date. During that span he's combined to lead 47 laps in those contests. Busch has had a dominant presence at the front in these races, he's just lacked the nudge over the top to win. That could come this Sunday. The Joe Gibbs Racing star has one-career victory and a dubious history of bad luck at the Talladega oval, but he could shake that off in this 500-mile battle. With another championship within reach, we should see a very focused and strong No. 18 Toyota team this weekend at Dega.

Joey Logano -
The other half of the Penske Racing dominance on super speedways has been Logano and his No. 22 team. While his two victories came last season at both Daytona and Talladega, he has still been race-winning fast in 2016 at these two tracks. Logano finished sixth- and fourth-place in his two Daytona starts this season, and he had a fast car at Talladega in May before bad luck struck and he crashed in the closing laps of that race. The driver of the No. 22 Ford won this event one year ago, so Logano is familiar with the clutch performance in this elimination race. He enters Talladega weekend on shaky ground in the points, and needing a big performance to avoid elimination. Logano will be sharp and focused for the Alabama 500.

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

Denny Hamlin -
The Daytona 500 winner is looking to regroup as we come to this elimination race of the Chase. Hamlin comes to central Alabama this weekend in precarious points position, and in desperate need of a good performance to advance to the Round 8. He could very well punch his ticket to the next round with a victory. It wouldn't be that surprising considering that he won his first Talladega victory just two seasons ago. The No. 11 Toyota team has been very strong on the restrictor-plate race tracks since 2014. Hamlin won the pre-season Sprint Unlimited at Daytona and then one week later he led 95 laps in a dominant Daytona 500-winning performance. The No. 11 Toyota team has been second only to the No. 2 team in terms of performance on these big ovals the last two years.

Kevin Harvick -
The Stewart Haas Racing veteran used to be one of our prime contenders on these superspeedway tracks. Although Harvick's numbers cooled in the last couple seasons, he's on the upswing as we visit the 2.66-mile tri-oval again. Having one career win and 13 Top-10 finishes at Talladega Superspeedway, the driver of the No. 4 Chevrolet has steady stats at this track and a steady 42-percent Top-10 rate. Harvick has performed similarly at Daytona as well. His fourth-place finish in this season's Daytona 500 speak volumes of his superspeedway racing skill. Harvick's win at Kansas this past week as taken the pressure to win off at Talladega, but he should still easily cruise to a Top-10 finish in the Alabama 500.

Jimmie Johnson -
Johnson has been uncharacteristically poor on the restrictor-plate race tracks this season. After posting a pair of runner-up finishes and three Top 5's at Daytona and Talladega last year, he's tanked a bit this season. The news is mostly good as the series visits Talladega Superspeedway this week. The No. 48 team has found their stride since the Chase began. Johnson has one win and four Top 10's in the five Chase events to-date. The Hendrick Motorsports star is a two-time Talladega winner, and he's finished as high as runner-up as recently as last season at the Alabama oval. Johnson's 38-percent Top-10 rate at this facility is not eye-popping, but his current momentum and tremendous upside trump that history as far as we're concerned.

Kurt Busch -
We look forward to the Stewart Haas Racing star's start at Talladega this weekend. Coming off the decent finish at Kansas, the No. 41 team is in good position to advance to the Round of 8 of the Chase. So there's plenty of reason to be optimistic about his chances at Talladega. Busch's plate-track stats speak for themselves with 16 Top 10's in 31 Talladega starts. That's a strong 52-percent Top-10 rate on a track that requires as much luck as skill to succeed. The veteran driver has posted a pair of Top-10 finishes on the super speedways this season, so they have the speed to succeed. The No. 41 Chevrolet should be very fast, and Busch will know what to do with it in this race.

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

Chase Elliott -
Elliott is sort of the boom or bust pick this week. He's showed tremendous potential and speed on the super speedways this season. The rookie claimed the pole in the Daytona 500 and he claimed the pole in May at Talladega. Elliott has only been able to follow through with one Top 5 in these three large oval events of 2016, despite 30 laps led. The driver of the No. 24 Chevrolet is under the gun to advance in the Chase, and he needs a win this week to make the Round of 8. That urgency could be a good or bad thing depending on how he manages this race. Regardless, we feel that Elliott will respond in the clutch and do everything he can with a fast race car in an attempt to win.

Martin Truex Jr. -
A not-so-surprising inclusion in our sleepers list this week, but there's no doubt the No. 78 Toyota has been powerful on these restrictor plate tracks season. Truex has second- and 13th-place finishes at Daytona and Talladega earlier this season, and the poor finish at Daytona in July is the only blight on the record. The Furniture Row Racing veteran now has eight-career Top 10's at Talladega Superspeedway, and that includes two of the last three races here. The No. 78 team is still quite alive in the Chase for the Cup and we expect Truex to race with a real sense of urgency this Sunday afternoon.

Austin Dillon -
Dillon's super speedway resume is short, but there's already a number of accomplishments here to point towards. In his first-career start at Daytona in 2014 he earned the pole position and finished ninth in his first Daytona 500. In the 13-career starts so far between Daytona and Talladega the Richard Childress Racing driver has collected six Top-10 and 10 Top-15 finishes. That works out to a surprising 14.5 average finish for the driver of the No. 3 Chevrolet. Dillon finished third (a career-best at this oval) in the May race at Talladega, and proved he can race with the leaders at this facility. The young driver will be racing to advance in the Chase for the Cup this Sunday, and he'll have that puncher's chance of doing something very big in the Alabama 500.

Trevor Bayne -
The 2011 Daytona 500 winner spent a number of seasons mired in malaise on these large ovals, but Bayne has had an awakening this season. The No. 6 Ford has looked very competitive in all the restrictor-plate races of 2016. Bayne led an amazing 22 laps earlier this spring at Talladega Superspeedway before finally finishing 10th. He then went to Daytona in July and nabbed a stunning third-place finish in the Coke Zero 400. It seems that Roush Fenway Racing is giving this driver and team great superspeedway cars this season and Bayne finally has the experience in this style of drafting to take advantage of them. He's another out-perform driver for this 500-mile event.

Clint Bowyer -
Bowyer has always been very good on super speedways. Although he established most his stats and wins as a Chevrolet driver for Richard Childress Racing, it's clear that he has the knowledge of pack racing in the draft to succeed. His three restrictor-plate starts this season have netted two Top-10 finishes. Bowyer has two wins and 12-career Top 10's at Talladega Superspeedway, and that ranks him among the leaders at this facility. The veteran driver has had only one DNF at Talladega since the 2007 season, and that's some remarkable security on this high-risk oval. Considering the recent and historical numbers, we expect Bowyer to be on his game in Sunday's 500-mile melee at Talladega.

Ryan Blaney -
The young Wood Brothers Racing driver has been up-and-down the last few weeks. After failing to crack the Top 30 at Charlotte two weeks ago, the team traveled to Kansas this past week and Blaney raced like a veteran en route to a Top-15 finish in the Hollywood Casino 400. The superspeedway racing this season has been a mixed affair for the No. 21 team, but generally pretty good. Blaney kicked off the season with a Top-20 finish in the Daytona 500, but he then went to Talladega in May and grabbed an impressive ninth-place finish in the GEICO 500. His Coke Zero 400 outing in July netted a respectable 14th-place finish at Daytona. So all-in-all, Blaney has been finishing on the lead lap of these races and not being caught up in the big wrecks. He should be in or around the Top 15 again this Sunday afternoon.

Slow Down - Drivers to avoid this week

Carl Edwards -
Ever since Edwards flew airborne into the fence at Talladega in 2009, there has just been bad vibes between this driver and this track. Sure, the Joe Gibbs Racing star has brought plenty of fast cars here over the years, but the results have been hard to come by. With only six Top-10 finishes in 24 starts, Talladega Superspeedway ranks as one of Edwards worst tracks on the circuit. The 2016 season on restrictor plate tracks has been particularly puzzling for the driver of the No. 19 Toyota. Edwards has one Top-5 finish (Daytona 500) and two finishes outside the Top 25, both DNF's. Even though the weight of the Chase will be bearing down on this driver, this just isn't a horse to bet on in the Alabama 500.

Danica Patrick -
Despite her decent performances on intermediate and small ovals this season, we've determined this is a weekend to avoid Patrick and the No. 10 SHR team. It's become painfully clear over the last two seasons that she just doesn't excel at this style of racing. Patrick hasn't cracked the Top 10 on a superspeedway since 2014 and her last seven starts between Daytona and Talladega look like a mine field with no finishes inside the Top 20 and three DNF's. At this point it's safe to say that Patrick should not be started in any weekly lineup leagues. There's just no upside here and way too much risk.

Chris Buescher -
Despite a fairly good rookie season and victory at Pocono, Buescher has had tremendous problems adapting to pack racing in the draft in these Cup cars. The Front Row Motorsports driver has three crashes and three DNF's in his visits to Daytona and Talladega this season. He's yet to make it past the mid-way point in one of these races in 2016. The driver of the No. 34 Ford made the initial Chase for the Cup field, which was thrilling, but he failed to get past the opening round, which has had a negative impact. Four of his five Chase starts have been finishes outside the Top 20. That can only be seen as a precursor to this weekend at Talladega Superspeedway.

Kasey Kahne -
This veteran driver has been on fire the last seven weeks. Kahne has six Top-10 finishes in the last seven events and has been one of the most consistent drivers of the late season. However, we're calling for the fantasy racing flop this week. The Hendrick Motorsports driver has never really displayed a talent for superspeedway racing. Kahne has 51-combined starts between Daytona and Talladega and only 13 Top-10 finishes to show for his work (25-percent). Talladega in particular has been difficult with just one Top 10 in his last eight starts at the Alabama oval. The career 22.2 average finish at this facility does little to inspire any hope of his current hot streak continuing past this Sunday afternoon.

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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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