Geico 500 Preview: Talladega - Super Speedway Luck

Geico 500 Preview: Talladega - Super Speedway Luck

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 Geico 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 comes in this weekend. Considering that this weekend's race is the final of the Contender Round and the cut for the Eliminator Round in the Chase, the stakes will be even higher than usual. If Denny Hamlin hopes to engrave his name on the Sprint Cup trophy for the first time, a victory here will go a long way in that end. The Joe Gibbs star won here in May of this year, but it wasn't a completely dominant performance. The No. 11 Toyota team has been almost flawless on the super speedways this season, so that should go a long way towards boosting Hamlin's confidence entering this event. The two biggest threats to Hamlin's hopes for an Eliminator Round-advancing win this weekend would be Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Brad Keselowski. Both are past winners at this 2.66-mile oval and both are on the bubble for Chase elimination, short of a victory this Sunday afternoon. The stakes will be high and so will the nerves. As we saw at Charlotte last weekend, the unintended consequences of the new 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 may be 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 19 races at the famous restrictor-place track.

DRIVERAVG FINISHQUALITY PASSESFASTEST LAPSLAPS LEDLAPS IN TOP 15RATING
Matt Kenseth17.84,531644082,36190.9
Dale Earnhardt Jr.19.14,160783122,15590.3
Jeff Burton19.14,569561081,90189.1
Kurt Busch19.14,90555942,26287.1
Brian Vickers17.22,84635761,40886.9
Jimmie Johnson15.63,768521511,88185.9
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.8.779711830685.0
Denny Hamlin19.13,443702161,54383.1
David Ragan15.62,74459331,26982.1
Joey Logano20.72,57643561,11781.7
Aric Almirola 19.11,543271470981.7
Kyle Busch21.43,705881561,78281.1
Jamie McMurray19.93,307592151,69280.6
Jeff Gordon19.23,086543431,64480.6
Austin Dillon20.57056023080.5
Brad Keselowski16.42,079473387879.7
Tony Stewart19.32,578782581,46478.7
Clint Bowyer15.12,48791981,21078.6
Martin Truex Jr.20.93,63655491,67978.1

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 Joey Logano, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Jeff Gordon 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 race at Talladega in May we saw Denny Hamlin get by Harvick in the last two laps and hold on for the win under caution in a wreck-filled 500-mile race. Yes indeed, anything can happen at Talladega. The 48 lead changes and handful of late cautions led to a thrilling green-white-checkered finish. We're certain that we're in for more of the same in this Sunday's Geico 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 could see a return to the "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. Just like Hamlin did in May. 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 Eliminator 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

Denny Hamlin -
The Joe Gibbs Racing star is coming on strong as the Chase wears on. Hamlin comes to central Alabama this weekend poised to advance in the Chase unless something crazy happens. He could very well punch his ticket to the Eliminator Round with a victory. It wouldn't be that surprising considering that he won his first Talladega victory earlier this season. The No. 11 Toyota team has been lights out on the restrictor-plate race tracks in 2014. Hamlin has 28 laps led, one win and two Top-5 finishes in the three events to-date. To that he added wins in the Sprint Unlimited and Bud Duel at Daytona during Speedweeks. There has been no equal to this driver and team on these style ovals this season.

Kevin Harvick -
The Stewart Haas Racing veteran used to be one of our prime contenders on these super speedway 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 11 Top-10 finishes at Talladega Superspeedway, the driver of the No. 4 Chevrolet has steady stats at this track and a steady 41-percent Top-10 rate. Harvick has performed similarly at Daytona as well. His 15 laps led and seventh-place finish in the Aaron's 499 earlier this season shows that Harvick can race with the leaders in the closing laps.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. -
While the 2014 season has turned sour for Earnhardt and the No. 88 team during the Chase, he still makes a strong start on his favorite tracks. At this point, a Hail-Mary shot at victory lane is all he has left to stay alive in the Chase. Earnhardt's restrictor-plate resume this season holds a thrilling Daytona 500 victory, but two other uninspired efforts on these ovals. The NASCAR icon will be looking to swing for the fences this Sunday at the huge speedway in central Alabama. Earnhardt is a five-time Talladega winner and he's led over 800 career laps at this superspeedway. If there's anywhere that he holds his own Chase destiny in his hands, it's here.

Kyle Busch -
Busch has struggled with consistency at times this season, and he's looked absolutely brilliant at times as well. Not the ideal fantasy racing scenario. For this weekend, we're going to focus on the positive for the No. 18 Toyota team. He's riding a five-race Top-10 streak throughout the Chase to this point. Busch is runner-up in the current standings and as close as he's ever been to the coveted Sprint Cup championship. The Joe Gibbs Racing star has been strong in recent Talladega outings. In his last five visits to central Alabama, he's come away with one runner-up finish and three Top-5 finishes. If lightning strikes and a surprise winner is in the offing this weekend, it's likely going to be Busch and his No. 18 Toyota.

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

Greg Biffle -
A surprising inclusion in our solid plays list this week, but there's no doubt the No. 16 Ford has been powerful on these super speedways this season. Biffle has led 75 combined laps on the plate tracks, including 58 at Talladega alone earlier this season. He has one Top-5 and two Top-10 finishes to this point. The Roush Fenway Racing veteran has been in the running for the win in both Daytona and lone Talladega race, and has easily had Top-10 capable cars. With three of his last five visits to this historic speedway yielding Top10's you have to like Biffle's chances again in Sunday's Geico 500.

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 one Top-5 and two Top-10 finishes. Bowyer has two wins and nine career Top 10's at Talladega Superspeedway, and that ranks him among the leaders at this facility. Considering the recent and historical numbers, we expect Bowyer to be on his game in Sunday's 500-mile melee at Talladega.

Brian Vickers -
This veteran driver's Talladega record has yielded seven Top-10 finishes at Talladega with three different teams over 15 starts. That works out to a respectable 47-percent rate at this high-risk track. The numbers show true skill at this style of racing. Vickers has displayed that consistency and excellence this season as well. He has a pair of Top-5 finishes in the three restrictor-plate events to-date. The Michael Waltrip Racing team has been giving these two drivers good cars on these super speedways. That should be the case again Sunday afternoon at Talladega Superspeedway.

Jeff Gordon -
Gordon is the top restrictor-plate driver among all active drivers with a series-leading 12 victories. So it's not surprising that we've listed him in our solid plays list this week. The Hendrick Motorsports star is still thick in the hunt for this season's championship and that's more than enough motivation for this driver and team to forge a good finish. There's good reason to believe that Gordon will be one of the top drivers at Talladega this weekend. He has been one of the top three or four drivers on the track since the Chase began. The No. 24 team has had fast cars in 2014 on these huge ovals. Gordon qualified sixth and finished fourth in the season-opening Daytona 500.

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

Kurt Busch -
We look forward to the Stewart Haas Racing star's start at Talladega this weekend. Coming off the good finish at Charlotte, the No. 41 team has shown that they can rebound from the toughest breaks the series can dish out. So there's plenty of reason to be optimistic about his chances at Talladega. Busch's plate-track stats speak for themselves with 13 Top 10's in 27 Talladega starts. That's a strong 48-percent Top-10 rate on a track that requires as much luck as skill to succeed. The No. 41 Chevrolet should be very fast, and Busch will know what to do with it in this race.

Austin Dillon -
While the rookie driver has had plenty of ups-and-downs this season, he's been rock solid and consistent on the super speedways. After winning the pole position for the Daytona 500 and coming in ninth in the Great American Race, Dillon has gone on to pick up 15th- and fifth-place finishes in the other two super speedway events. For the RCR youngster, the possibility of that first-career Talladega Top-10 finish looms large. From what we've seen of this driver and team this season they'll have the speed and the experience to make it happen.

Paul Menard -
The Richard Childress Racing veteran needs a good performance this weekend, and he comes to a good venue to turn things around. Menard has had a good record recently at the Talladega oval. With finishes of fourth- and sixth-place in his last two trips to the speedway, things look pretty promising for the No. 27 Chevrolet team. The speed the team has displayed this season on the plate tracks has translated into 39 laps led combined between Daytona and Talladega. Menard is a promising prospect for the Geico 500, and he comes with a lot of upside.

Ryan Newman -
We can usually depend on Newman when we visit the super speedways. The Richard Childress Racing veteran has been strong on this oval in recent visits. With a pair of Top-10 finishes in his last four trips to Talladega, things have been pretty steady for this veteran driver. Considering he's thick in the middle of the Chase battle and looking towards advancing, the pressure is on this weekend. Newman posted a bunch of Top 10's at Talladega in the middle part of this past decade, and he's been reviving that success of late. The RCR veteran finished ninth in this event one year ago. Newman will likely have a decent car this Sunday, and he'll know just exactly what to do with it.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. -
The young Roush Fenway Racing driver is one of a handful of drivers to claim a pair of Top 10's on the restrictor-plate track circuit this season. With finishes of seventh at Daytona and 10th at Talladega, you can be certain those finishes didn't happen by accident. Stenhouse's brief career on these ovals has been filled with success. Aside from his three Top 10's he also has six Top-15 finishes in those eight Daytona and Talladega starts. That works out to a stellar 14.6 average finish at these huge ovals. Don't be surprised if you see the No. 17 Ford cross the finish line inside the Top 10 this Sunday afternoon.

Michael Waltrip -
He missed the cut for the solid plays list, so we'll put him soundly within the sleepers list for Talladega Superspeedway. The driver of the No. 66 Toyota will get back to his roots this weekend, which is restrictor-plate racing. Waltrip has been among the best in the series the last few seasons with a pair of Top-5 finishes in his last six starts on super speedways. The last time he piloted this car on a restrictor-plate race track, Waltrip claimed a Top-20 finish at Daytona this summer. That should be the low-end for him at Talladega. Waltrip should challenge the Top 10 Sunday afternoon in the Geico 500.

Slow Down - Drivers to avoid this week

Brad Keselowski -
The two-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 penalty and turmoil of Charlotte, it will be a tall task for a driver and team on the verge of elimination. Keselowski has had some tough luck at the historic superspeedway in recent visits. His last three finishes are 15th-, 29th- and 38th-place. That goes against his historical trend of contending to win here and finishing inside the Top 10. With finishes of 38th- and 18th-place in his last two restrictor-plate starts, the current trends don't bode well going into the Geico 500.

Trevor Bayne -
The 2011 Daytona 500 winner is normally one of our favorite drivers when we visit Daytona and Talladega. However, things have been difficult for this part-time driver and team the last couple seasons. Bayne has no Top-10 finishes in 9 starts this season. He's also been disappointing on the super speedways with 33rd-, 41st- and 38th-place finishes at the plate tracks this season. The driver of the No. 21 Ford is slumping right now, and that's not a good way to come to the nation's largest speedway. Bayne is a high risk driver for Sunday's Geico 500.

Jimmie Johnson -
Johnson has been uncharacteristically poor throughout the Chase for the Cup, and now he faces the very real possibility of being eliminated before the next round begins. He faces a tall task coming to one of his poorer ovals on the circuit. The Hendrick Motorsports star is a two-time Talladega winner, but his record is also dotted with eight DNF's at this facility. It works out to a lowly 17.2 average finish. His last six trips to the 2.66-mile oval have only yielded one Top-10 finish, and his last visit was a 23rd-place finish in May's Aaron's 499. The chips are stacked against Johnson, and we don't expect any miracles this weekend.

Matt Kenseth -
While the Joe Gibbs Racing star is a one-time Talladega winner (this event in 2012) and nine-time Top-10 finisher at the Alabama oval, he's currently experiencing a power outage on the super speedways. After a sixth-place finish at the season-opening Daytona 500, Kenseth has picked up 37th- and 20th-place finishes at Talladega and Daytona since then. His 31-percent career Top-10 rate at this oval is below average for such a talented driver. The driver of the No. 20 Toyota has had a very streaky career at this huge track, and he's currently mired in a bit of a slump here. One verge of Chase elimination, it's not the ideal fantasy racing scenario.

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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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