Geico 500 Preview: Surviving the Big One

Geico 500 Preview: Surviving the Big One

This article is part of our Weekly Preview series.

Talladega Superspeedway hosts the second restrictor-plate race of the 2015 season. The enormous tri-oval in Talladega, Ala., is the largest track on the Sprint Cup circuit, measuring an amazing 2.66 miles, and 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. 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 new car rules package we're seeing more pack racing than ever throughout these superspeedway races.

What resulted in the Daytona 500 were heavy packs that would eventually spread out into lines or multiple packs over long green-flag runs. With the jeopardy of being shuffled out of the draft in play, we saw drivers content to follow the leader for stretches during the Great American Race. That led to a lowly 27 lead changes for the event, which was well below the 42 we witnessed in the 2014 Daytona 500. There was some multi-pack drafting mayhem on the restarts, but that quickly settled into multiple packs in a matter of laps. 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. At go time drivers had to find partners to help one another push to the front. That art of superspeedway racing hasn't changed despite the

Talladega Superspeedway hosts the second restrictor-plate race of the 2015 season. The enormous tri-oval in Talladega, Ala., is the largest track on the Sprint Cup circuit, measuring an amazing 2.66 miles, and 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. 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 new car rules package we're seeing more pack racing than ever throughout these superspeedway races.

What resulted in the Daytona 500 were heavy packs that would eventually spread out into lines or multiple packs over long green-flag runs. With the jeopardy of being shuffled out of the draft in play, we saw drivers content to follow the leader for stretches during the Great American Race. That led to a lowly 27 lead changes for the event, which was well below the 42 we witnessed in the 2014 Daytona 500. There was some multi-pack drafting mayhem on the restarts, but that quickly settled into multiple packs in a matter of laps. 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. At go time drivers had to find partners to help one another push to the front. That art of superspeedway racing hasn't changed despite the rules package on the car changing. Once again, winning on these superspeedways 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. and Kevin Harvick's tardiness to pounce likely cost both of them a chance to beat Joey Logano on the green-white-checkered finish and win the Daytona 500. 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 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. NASCAR has rejuvenated the "luck factor" with all the rules changes to the current stock 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 10 years or 20 races at Talladega Superspeedway.

DRIVERAVG FINISHQUALITY PASSESFASTEST LAPSLAPS LEDLAPS IN TOP 15RATING
Kyle Larson13.06413021995.6
Dale Earnhardt Jr.19.74,478803432,31390.7
Matt Kenseth17.14,664654092,42389.9
Kurt Busch18.55,28856942,43188.3
Jimmie Johnson16.03,944542352,07087.5
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.8.779711830685.0
Brian Vickers17.42,88838761,42384.0
Brad Keselowski15.12,41951451,03782.9
Joey Logano19.92,84949561,19182.2
Denny Hamlin19.03,507802171,57282.0
David Ragan16.53,01061351,34280.9
Jamie McMurray20.73,456592181,73679.8
Aric Almirola21.11,679331475179.2
Jeff Gordon19.53,103613461,65879.1
Kevin Harvick16.23,623821371,72078.8
Kyle Busch22.43,707901561,78478.6
Martin Truex Jr.21.34,01156501,84178.6
Clint Bowyer14.42,54499981,23778.5
Tony Stewart20.12,589822631,47577.0
Greg Biffle18.33,105811231,45576.3

In 2012 we saw Chevrolet lose its grip on this superspeedway. Brad Keselowski in a Dodge and Matt Kenseth in a Ford took both Talladega races in 2012. Prior to that, Chevy teams had won four straight races at Talladega Superspeedway, and five of the prior six. Since then we've only seen one Chevy driver in victory lane in the last six Talladega events. That was Jamie McMurray in the fall of 2013. With this changing of the guard, we have to give it due consideration for this Sunday's GEICO 500. Brad Keselowski (Ford) and Denny Hamlin (Toyota) won the two 2014 Talladega races, so these two drivers have a lot to prove to hold up their respective ends for their manufacturers. Kevin Harvick and Dale Earnhardt Jr. would appear to be in the best position to reassert Chevrolet's streak of dominance at Talladega superspeedway. Harvick is a one-time winner at this oval, and Earnhardt is a five-time Talladega winner albeit the most recent is way back in 2004. That gives both a leg up on the rest of the field since they were both strong in this season's Daytona 500 and have the superspeedway racing pedigrees you typically look to.

Their Chevrolet teammate, Kurt Busch, is likely the other candidate to best defend Chevrolet's honor at the 2.66-mile oval. He piloted the No. 41 Chevrolet to a strong seventh-place finish last October, which was the last time the Sprint Cup Series visited Talladega Superspeedway. Coming off the big win at Richmond, the Stewart Haas Racing veteran is riding a lot of momentum coming to the huge oval in central Alabama. Considering what we saw in the Daytona 500 earlier this season, a real manufacturer's battle should be shaping up for Sunday's GEICO 500. Penske Racing Fords showed some real muscle. Both Joey Logano and Keselowski were major players in that race with Logano eventually prevailing. We could be in for more of the same Ford upheaval this weekend. Considering that our last Talladega winner was Keselowski in his No. 2 Ford in last October's GEICO 500. 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

Kevin Harvick -
One team that has really impressed us the last two seasons on the superspeedways is the No. 4 team of Stewart Haas Racing. Harvick has three career victories between the restrictor-plate tracks of Daytona and Talladega. When we couple that with the momentum of his strong Richmond performance this past weekend, we get good vibes for the SHR star at Talladega. Harvick had a dynamite car during Speedweeks. His runner-up finish in the Daytona 500 should not be overlooked. Harvick's superspeedway experience is as deep as they come.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. -
With the No. 88 team apparently on the trail of another Chase berth in 2015, 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. The driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet made a late-race move and finished a brilliant third in this season's Daytona 500. With over 800 career laps led at this oval and his great performances in Speedweeks at Daytona earlier this season, we have to take Earnhardt very serious from a fantasy racing perspective this Sunday afternoon.

Brad Keselowski -
The three-time Talladega winner has a real expertise at superspeedway racing. His victory in last October's GEICO 500 is still fresh in our minds as he is the most recent winner at the Alabama oval. Keselowski's disappointing engine failure in the Daytona 500 will fill the veteran driver with some resolve coming to Talladega Superspeedway this week. This track has been the kinder of the two superspeedways to his NASCAR resume. For whatever reason this track has held much more success for the driver of the No. 2 Ford. If there is a driver among the contenders to buy shares of this weekend, you could do far worse than Keselowski.

Kurt Busch -
We saw the driver of the No. 41 Chevrolet pickup his first victory of the season this past weekend at Richmond. That makes it difficult to put Busch anywhere but the contenders list this week. Busch has never won at Talladega but he's been painfully close on many occasions over his 14-year career. With 14 Top-10 finishes in 28 starts his 50-percent Top-10 rate ranks highly among the Sprint Cup Series driver field. With the current momentum of this team it could finally be time for Busch to taste the thrill of victory at Talladega Superspeedway.

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

Joey Logano -
The Daytona 500 winner has just begun to define his career on these high speed ovals. With only four Top 10s in 12 starts its finally time for Logano to begin posting gains at this particular oval. In this event one year ago the Penske Racing driver led 25 laps and looked like a contender to win before a multi-car crash took him out of the action short of the full distance. When we look back on the shear speed of the No. 22 Ford earlier this season at Daytona, it's hard not to like Logano's chances this weekend. If a win isn't in the cards then a Top-10 finish should surely be in the offing.

Denny Hamlin -
Hamlin always warrants fantasy racing consideration when Talladega weekend rolls around. The Joe Gibbs Racing star has one win and six Top-10 finishes at the central Alabama oval. He has been a top performer on the superspeedway circuit the last two years with one win, one runner-up finish and four Top 10s in the last five Daytona and Talladega events combined. The No. 11 team is presently among the series best when the haulers unload at either of these two ovals. Hamlin's fourth-place finish at Daytona earlier this season is proof enough of that fact. He should bring the same speed and tenacity to Sunday's GEICO 500.

Matt Kenseth -
The Joe Gibbs Racing star has been a top performer for years on the superspeedways. Kenseth has Daytona and Talladega victories alike in his long NASCAR history. The last time the Sprint Cup Series visited Talladega, Kenseth piloted his No. 20 Toyota to a superb runner-up finish in last October's GEICO 500. With close to 500 laps led at this facility it's clear that this veteran driver knows how to race up front here and finish there as well. If the breaks fall Kenseth's way there could more than just a Top-10 finish in store for the former series champion.

Clint Bowyer -
On a track that takes a lot of luck and skill to win, Bowyer has been excelling in both categories over the years at Talladega Superspeedway. The driver of the MWR No. 15 Toyota has won two career races at this facility, and Bowyer has three-straight Top-10 finishes at this facility entering this weekend. He claimed a pair of third-place Talladega finishes last season in what was a down season overall for the veteran driver. So we always expect excellence from Bowyer each time the Sprint Cup Series visits Talladega. With a strong 56-percent Top-10 rate at this huge oval, Bowyer ranks among the series elite in terms of finishing at this facility.

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

Jimmie Johnson -
Johnson is probably the boom-or-bust pick of the sleepers list this week. The six-time champion has two career Talladega victories to his credit, but also has had a tendency to fade to irrelevance at this huge Alabama oval. Johnson erases a few of those concerns with what he did in this season's Daytona 500. He led 39 laps and finished a strong fifth in our first superspeedway race of 2015. Given that the No. 48 Chevrolet team hoisted the trophy on this style oval (Daytona) as recently as 2013, it's easy to see why we've included Johnson in the sleepers list this week.

Jeff Gordon -
One of the fastest teams of Speedweeks at Daytona earlier this year was the No. 24 Chevrolet. Gordon qualified on the pole and led 87 laps in the Daytona 500, so there's little doubt that the No. 24 team will have a fast car this weekend. The Hendrick Motorsports star did run into troubles and finish a disappointing 33rd in that race, but it doesn't erase the speed that the team possessed on a superspeedway. Gordon is a six-time winner at the Alabama oval and boasts 19-career Top-10 finishes. The veteran driver could easily crack the Top 10 or even sweep into victory lane in Sunday's GEICO 500.

Ryan Newman -
The driver of the No. 39 Chevrolet has had an up-and-down history on the plate tracks, but that has swung more to the positive side of the ledger the last year or so. Newman enters this event with three Top 10s in the last seven races between Daytona and Talladega. The last time the Sprint Cup Series came to Talladega, he piloted the No. 31 Chevrolet to a brilliant fifth-place finish in last October's GEICO 500. That was one of Newman's 10-career Top-10 finishes at the facility. We expect the veteran driver to be a Top 10 threat this weekend at the central Alabama oval.

Martin Truex Jr. -
The amazing 2015 season continues for Furniture Row Racing at Talladega this weekend. Truex has been one of the hottest drivers in the series with eight Top-10 finishes in the first nine events. That included a strong performance at Daytona where the veteran driver had tons of speed and finished an impressive eighth in the Great American Race. Truex has only six top-10 finishes in 20 career starts at Talladega Superspeedway, but cast that record aside for this event. The No. 78 team has hit the ground running this season and its tear should continue in this 500-mile event.

Michael Waltrip -
The owner of the No. 55 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 subpar 26th-place finish in the Great American Race. Waltrip's superspeedway 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. Prior to the Daytona 500, Waltrip claimed a pair of Top-20 finishes in last season's final two superspeedway events. He will be subbing for the regular driver Brian Vickers this weekend, but that makes Waltrip no less skilled or capable for this Talladega event.

Casey Mears -
One of the more successful and best kept superspeedway secrets the last two years has been veteran driver Mears and his No. 13 Germain Racing team. The small team has been giant killers on these big ovals. Mears has five Top 10s in the last seven races between Daytona and Talladega. That includes a strong 10th-place finish in last fall's event at Talladega and an impressive sixth-place finish earlier this season at Daytona. The team has the horsepower to race with the elite in the series on these ovals, and Mears has the experience to extend this Top-10 streak in Sunday's GEICO 500.

Slow Down - Drivers to avoid this week

Trevor Bayne -
The former Daytona 500 winner has had little to no success on the superspeedways since his big upset win in the Great American race back in 2011. As for Bayne's Talladega record, well it's nothing to write home about at all. In eight career starts the Roush Fenway Racing driver has only one Top-10 finish compared to four finishes outside the Top-30 and three DNFs. This style of racing not only requires the greatest skill and nerve, but also a very fast car, and that's been an area of shortfall for this young drivers. Considering the slow start that all the Roush teams are experiencing this season, we don't expect to see a rebound at Talladega this weekend.

Carl Edwards -
When your most memorable performance at a particular track is flying into the fence airborne at 190 mph, then it's probably not a good indicator for fantasy racing success. Edwards' last-lap crash with Brad Keselowski in 2009 is easily the most memorable or forgettable moment, if you're Edwards, in his Talladega resume. With a scant five Top 10s in 21 starts at the 2.66-mile oval, the stats are not on this Joe Gibbs Racing star's side going into the GEICO 500. Last season he picked up 30th- and 21st-place finishes at this superspeedway, so luck at Talladega has been hard to come by of late for this veteran driver.

Tony Stewart -
Coming off the crash and disappointing 41st-place finish at Richmond last weekend, Stewart comes to Talladega this weekend with only one Top-10 finish through the season's first nine races. He's ranked a lowly 30th in the driver standings, and his weekly tirades and tantrums clearly show that the driver of the No. 14 Chevrolet is not happy. Smoke has some great Talladega performances in his resume, but the indicators all point down for this weekend's GEICO 500. This driver and team crashed and finished a disappointing 42nd in the season-opening Daytona 500 and not much has gone right since.

Kyle Larson -
It's not very often that Larson makes our slow down list, but this week it's for good reason. The talented Chip Ganassi Racing driver has had his struggles through his brief career on the superspeedways. In Larson's five starts between Daytona and Talladega he has only one Top-10 finish and three finishes outside the Top 30. That includes a rookie-like mistake that resulted in a crash and DNF in the season-opening Daytona 500. The last time the Sprint Cup Series visited Talladega, Larson could only muster a sub-par 17th-place finish in last October's GEICO 500.

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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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