This article is part of our Weekly Preview series.
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. 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 11 years or 22 races at Talladega Superspeedway.
|DRIVER||AVG FINISH||QUALITY PASSES||FASTEST LAPS||LAPS LED||LAPS IN TOP 15||RATING|
|Dale Earnhardt Jr.||18.0||4,829||84||471||2,673||93.8|
|Martin Truex Jr.||19.9||4,394||59||50||2,031||78.6|
|Ricky Stenhouse Jr.||12.2||985||27||11||438||76.9|
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 the Alabama oval has been a battle of manufacturer parity. Ford, Chevrolet and Toyota have each won in the last four Talladega races. With this changing of the status quo, we have to give all teams equal weight in evaluating the contenders and potential Top-10 finishers. 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 six-time Talladega winner, including this event one year ago. 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 10th-place finish last October, which was the last time the Sprint Cup Series visited Talladega Superspeedway. 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. Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas dominated the day with Hamlin winning and he and teammates Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch combining to lead 154 of the 200 laps. We could be in for more of the same Toyota upheaval this weekend. Considering that our Daytona 500 winner Hamlin won this event two-years ago at Talladega, we can look to the Gibbs teams to set the pace this weekend in the 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
Dale Earnhardt Jr. - With the No. 88 team apparently on the trail of another Chase berth in 2016, 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 six career wins at this 2.66-mile oval. The driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet had a fast race car in the Daytona 500, but a crash cut his hopes short of victory lane. With over 950 career laps led at this oval and his great performances in Speedweeks at Daytona earlier this season, we have to consider Earnhardt the top contender this Sunday afternoon at Talladega.
Denny Hamlin - Hamlin always warrants fantasy racing consideration when Talladega weekend rolls around. The Joe Gibbs Racing star has one win and seven Top-10 finishes at the central Alabama oval. He has been a top performer on the superspeedway circuit the last two years with two victories, one runner-up finish and seven Top 10s in the last nine 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 win at Daytona earlier this season is proof enough of that fact. He should bring the same speed and tenacity to Sunday's Geico 500.
Joey Logano - Last season's Daytona 500 winner has just begun to define his career on these high speed ovals. With one win and five Top 10s at Talladega, he's just beginning to etch his contender status in stone at this particular oval. In his last start at Talladega Superspeedway last October, the Penske Racing driver led 20 laps and took home the trophy in the CampingWorld.com 500. 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.
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 a big oval in the season-opening Daytona 500, Kenseth led 40 laps and looked like a candidate to win before finishing a subpar 14th-place. 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.
Solid Plays - Drivers who are near locks for the Top 10 with an outside shot at winning
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 fourth-place finish in the Daytona 500 should not be overlooked. Harvick's superspeedway experience is as deep as they come.
Jimmie Johnson - Johnson is probably the boom-or-bust pick of the solid plays 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 18 laps but finished a subpar 16th in our first superspeedway race of 2016. Given that the No. 48 Chevrolet team hoisted the trophy on this style oval (Daytona) as recently as 2013, and he has four Top 10s in his last nine speedway starts, we have to give him respect in this 500-mile battle.
Kurt Busch - The driver of the No. 41 Chevrolet has been a consistent performer on the superspeedways for his entire NASCAR career. He rides a three-race superspeedway Top-10 streak into this weekend's Geico 500. Busch has never won at Talladega but he's been painfully close on many occasions over his 15-year career. With 15 Top-10 finishes in 30 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, but at a minimum he'll be racing inside the Top 10 when crunch time arrives Sunday afternoon.
Martin Truex Jr. - The good 2016 season continues for Furniture Row Racing at Talladega this weekend. Truex has been one of the more consistent drivers in the series on the big ovals this season. That included a strong performance at Daytona where the veteran driver had tons of speed and finished an impressive runner-up in a photo-finish in the Great American Race. Truex has only eight top-10 finishes in 22-career starts at Talladega Superspeedway, but cast that record aside for this event. The No. 78 team collected a pair of Top-10 finishes at this oval last year, and the notes from those outings should come in handy this weekend.
Sleepers - Drivers with good history at Talladega who can provide a solid finish
Brad Keselowski - The three-time Talladega winner has a real expertise at superspeedway racing. His victory at this speedway two seasons ago is still fresh in our memory. Keselowski's disappointing 20th-place finish 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 sleepers to buy shares of this weekend, you could do far worse than Keselowski.
Carl Edwards - The surging Joe Gibbs Racing star comes to Talladega at a great time. This is not one of his best ovals, but after consecutive victories at Bristol and Richmond the last two weeks the No. 19 team is riding high coming to central Alabama. Edwards has just a scant six Top-10 finishes in 23-career starts at Talladega Superspeedway, but one of those came here last fall. The veteran driver started 15th and finished a strong fifth in last October's CampingWorld.com 500. The horsepower that Gibbs has been putting under Edwards and the other JGR teams this season has been quite noticeable. If there's a weekend for Edwards to shake his Talladega bad luck for good, it should be this Sunday afternoon in the Geico 500.
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 HScott Motorsports No. 15 Chevrolet has won two-career victories at this facility, and Bowyer has four Top-10 finishes in his last five starts at Talladega entering this weekend. He claimed an eighth-place finish in his last start at the Alabama oval last October in the CampingWorld.com 500. So we always expect excellence from Bowyer each time the Sprint Cup Series visits Talladega. Despite some struggles this season, it's hard to overlook his strong 55-percent Top-10 rate at this huge oval. Bowyer ranks among the series elite in terms of finishing at this facility.
Chase Elliott - One of the fastest teams of Speedweeks at Daytona earlier this year was the No. 24 Chevrolet and Elliott. The rookie driver won the pole position for the Daytona 500, and he finished a strong sixth in his Can-Am Duel qualifying race. While Elliott would crash and finish poorly in the Great American Race, the speed on that restrictor-plate race track was undeniable. The Hendrick Motorsports youngster has proven a quick study since that first race of the season and he comes to Talladega with a handful of Top 10s and several lessons learned. We expect to see that same fast No. 24 Chevrolet this Sunday afternoon, but with a wiser rookie behind the wheel looking to make up for his Daytona 500 misfortune.
Austin Dillon - The driver of the No. 3 Chevrolet has been a strong performer on these huge ovals since ascending to the Sprint Cup Series ranks a couple seasons ago. Dillon has one pole position and four Top 10s in his last nine starts between Daytona and Talladega. That includes a strong ninth-place finish in this season's Daytona 500. The Richard Childress Racing driver may not qualify that well this week at Talladega Superspeedway, but he'll possess the speed and skill to navigate to the front of the pack. While Dillon may not be a major threat to win, he will be a good candidate to crack the Top 10 in Sunday's Geico 50.
Reagan Smith - One of the surprise names to visit the Top 10 in the season-opening Daytona 500 was journeyman driver Smith and his No. 7 Tommy Baldwin Racing team. He qualified 27th on the grid and ran a clean, smart race to finish eighth in the Great American Race. That didn't happen by accident. TBR has always had a good restrictor-plate racing program. In addition, Smith has 25-combined starts of experience at NASCAR's top level on superspeedways. He's claimed five Top-10 finishes in those starts for a hodge-podge of different and disadvantaged teams. Smith knows how to get around the Talladega oval well.
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 10-career starts the Roush Fenway Racing driver has only one Top-10 finish compared to five finishes outside the Top 30 and four DNF's. 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.
Michael Waltrip - The 53-year-old driver is a four-time winner between Daytona and Talladega. His superspeedway racing skill has been well documented over the years. However, it seems now that he's just hanging on for glory's sake. The teams that he races for on these big ovals are under-funded and under-equipped at best. Waltrip hasn't cracked the Top 10 at Talladega since the 2013 season, and he has just one Top-15 finish in his last eight combined Daytona and Talladega starts. Premium Motorsports will supply the No. 55 Toyota for him this weekend, but we don't expect a finish inside the Top 20 at Talladega.
Tony Stewart - Coming off a 19th-place finish in his season-debut last week at Richmond, the still-healing Stewart will set his sights on Talladega Superspeedway. Considering the nature and sensitivity of his back injury, we'd imagine Smoke can only be somewhat apprehensive about this start at an oval that is known for violent, multi-car crashes. The driver of the No. 14 Chevrolet used to be a top performer at the Alabama speedway, but some performance erosion has taken place the last few seasons. After winning one victory and posting 13 Top 10s in his first 26 starts at Dega, Stewart has failed to crack the Top 15 in his last seven starts. In fact, he only has one Top-20 finish over the last four seasons at this imposing oval.
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 nine starts between Daytona and Talladega he has only two Top-10 finishes and five finishes outside the Top 30. That includes a rookie-like mistake that resulted in a crash and DNF in this event one year ago. The last time the Sprint Cup Series visited Talladega, Larson could only muster a sub-par 24th-place finish in last October's CampingWorld.com 500. The odds are just not in this young driver's favor this week.