Geico 500 Preview: Return to the Fast Tracks

Geico 500 Preview: Return to the Fast Tracks

This article is part of our Weekly Preview series.

Talladega Superspeedway plays host to the second restrictor-plate race of the 2017 season. The enormous tri-oval in Talladega, Ala., is the largest track on the Monster Energy Cup circuit, measuring an amazing 2.66 miles in length, 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.

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. However, a lot of drafting in lines would contribute to 37 lead changes during the event, which was a three-season high mark at Daytona. The excitement factor has returned to these ovals and the three lead changes over the final three laps of the Daytona 500 were a testament to that fact. This season's Daytona 500 also saw the return of the multi-car crashes. There were eight total caution flags and five of those were for multi-car crashes. 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 new stages point system,

Talladega Superspeedway plays host to the second restrictor-plate race of the 2017 season. The enormous tri-oval in Talladega, Ala., is the largest track on the Monster Energy Cup circuit, measuring an amazing 2.66 miles in length, 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.

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. However, a lot of drafting in lines would contribute to 37 lead changes during the event, which was a three-season high mark at Daytona. The excitement factor has returned to these ovals and the three lead changes over the final three laps of the Daytona 500 were a testament to that fact. This season's Daytona 500 also saw the return of the multi-car crashes. There were eight total caution flags and five of those were for multi-car crashes. 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 new stages 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 art of superspeedway racing hasn't changed despite all the rules and car changes over the past season. Once again, winning on these super speedways 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, Dave Blaney's late charge to the front (aided by Joey Logano) nearly paid off as he came to the finish line right on the heels of Kurt Busch, but lost by a mere couple car lengths. 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. 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 12 years or 24 races at Talladega Superspeedway.

DRIVERAVG FINISHQUALITY PASSESFASTEST LAPSLAPS LEDLAPS IN TOP 15RATING
Chase Elliott8.554543831797.1
Dale Earnhardt Jr.19.04,893854712,69892.0
Kurt Busch16.86,64159962,99788.8
Matt Kenseth18.55,499824522,83688.0
Jimmie Johnson16.05,206633192,68787.9
Brad Keselowski15.43,502581811,63087.4
Denny Hamlin19.24,485902442,04984.0
Joey Logano18.73,990611271,71783.8
Ryan Blaney17.81,25391855683.5
Kevin Harvick15.44,621951512,25481.5
Kyle Larson21.21,54512962380.8
Jamie McMurray20.34,782772182,24780.4
Kyle Busch21.34,3681041812,11079.6
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.11.71,463341761978.7
Martin Truex Jr.20.44,87160522,21877.9
Clint Bowyer14.73,0651221001,50677.3
Aric Almirola19.82,43144151,00876.8
Paul Menard19.74,42293411,92076.1
David Ragan19.53,24174381,43175.7
Austin Dillon16.41,57029154075.0

In 2012 we saw Chevrolet lose their grip on this super speedway. 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 become solidly a Ford oval. Drivers from that camp, specifically Penske Racing, have claimed four of the last five wins at Talladega, including the current three-race Penske win streak. With this changing of the status quo, we have to look to the two drivers currently dominating on the restrictor plate circuit. Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano have won those four in the last five events at Talladega Superspeedway, including a sweep of the huge oval last season.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. is the only rival manufacturer win (Chevrolet) during this five-race string, and that makes Earnhardt a six-time Talladega winner. Considering Earnhardt's recent struggles, he may not be the top contender to dethrone the Penske duo this weekend. Given what we saw in the Daytona 500 earlier this season, a real manufacturer's battle should be shaping up for Sunday's Geico 500. Kevin Harvick's Ford dominated the day with 50 laps led, and Chevrolet was well represented with both Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson leading lots of laps and showing tremendous speed. Of course, it was the Ford of Kurt Busch that would pull out the thrilling win at the end of the Daytona 500. We could be in for more of the same multi-manufacturer upheaval this weekend. So it will be the Penske Racing Fords setting the pace and leading the way, and they will take on all comers in a NASCAR battle royale. All-in-all it's shaping up to look like quite a fight between Ford, Toyota and Chevrolet. There should be plenty of potential Top-10 finishers for each camp. 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 this Sunday afternoon.

The Contenders - Drivers in the hunt for the win

Brad Keselowski –
The four-time Talladega winner has a real expertise at superspeedway racing. His victory in this event one year ago, and his dominant near-miss last October are testaments to the strength of the No. 2 team on this or any other superspeedway oval. Keselowski's disappointing 27th-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 to beat this weekend, it's without a doubt Keselowski and his Penske Racing team.

Joey Logano –
Our last Talladega winner has just begun to define his career on these high speed ovals. Now with two victories and six 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 took advantage of his teammate's engine failure to lead 45 laps and take home the trophy in the Hellmann's 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-5 finish should surely be in the offing.

Kevin Harvick –
One team that has really turned things around the last three events is the No. 4 team of Stewart Haas Racing. Harvick rides a three-race Top-5 streak into Talladega this week and he's looking for his first win of the season. The veteran driver has three-career victories between the restrictor-plate tracks of Daytona and Talladega. When we couple that with the momentum of his strong recent level of performance, we get good vibes for the SHR star at Talladega. Harvick had a dynamite car during Speedweeks. His 50 laps led in the Daytona 500 should not be overlooked. This driver's superspeedway experience is as deep as they come.

Chase Elliott –
One of the fastest teams of Speedweeks at Daytona earlier this year was the No. 24 Chevrolet and Elliott. The young driver won the pole position for the Daytona 500 for the second-straight season, and he led 39 laps in the Great American Race. When we couple that with Elliott's win in his Can-Am Duel qualifying race, the Hendrick Motorsports prodigy had quite a Speedweeks this season. The team's speed on that restrictor-plate race track was undeniable. He has proven to be a quick study on the superspeedways since promoting to NASCAR's top division. We expect to see that same fast No. 24 Chevrolet this Sunday afternoon, and quite possibly career victory number one could be in store.

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

Denny Hamlin –
Hamlin always warrants fantasy racing consideration when Talladega weekend rolls around. The Joe Gibbs Racing star has one win and eight Top-10 finishes at the central Alabama oval. He has been a top performer on the superspeedway circuit the last two years with one victory, four Top-5 and five Top-10 finishes 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 thrilling win in last season's Daytona 500 is proof of his homerun potential when we visit these speedways. He should bring the same speed and tenacity to Sunday's Geico 500.

Kurt Busch –
This year's Daytona 500 winner has been a consistent performer on the super speedways for his entire NASCAR career. Busch currently has six Top 10s in his last seven superspeedway starts coming into this weekend's Geico 500. The veteran driver has never won at Talladega but he's been painfully close on many occasions over his 16-season career. With 17 Top-10 finishes in 32 starts his 53-percent Top-10 rate ranks highly among the Monster Energy Cup Series driver field. The team has been on the upswing of late, and coming off this season's Daytona 500 win 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.

Kyle Larson –
By far the most impressive driver this young season is the budding superstar Larson. His one win and six Top 10s have him sitting squarely atop the driver point standings as we roll into Talladega this week. Superspeedway racing hasn't been his strong suit in his four seasons of Cup racing, but it's been turning more and more positive of late. Larson earned a career-best sixth-place Talladega finish last October in the Hellmann's 500, and he led laps and earned a respectable 12th-place finish in this year's wild Daytona 500. The Chip Ganassi Racing driver's current string on Daytona and Talladega shows three Top-10 finishes in his last five starts. That's a level good enough to endorse fantasy racing expectations.

Austin Dillon –
The driver of the No. 3 Chevrolet has been a strong performer on these huge ovals since ascending to the Monster Energy Cup Series ranks four seasons ago. Dillon has five Top 10s in his last nine starts between Daytona and Talladega, including third- and ninth-place finishes at the Talladega oval last season. The young driver led seven laps in the Daytona 500, but had somewhat of a forgettable 19th-place finish. He should rebound nicely at Talladega Superspeedway. The Richard Childress Racing driver should fetch a Top 10 qualifying/starting spot this week at Talladega, and he'll possess the speed and skill to navigate the wild pack drafting. 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 500.

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

Martin Truex Jr. –
The good 2017 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 13th after a wild and crazy last few laps of the Great American Race. Truex has only eight top-10 finishes in 24-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 in 2015, and Truex won the pole position here last October in the Hellmann's 500. A faulty engine part would lead to a failure and DNF that day, but Truex easily had the speed to challenge for the win in our last Talladega event.

Ryan Blaney –
Now that the tough spring short track portion of the schedule has come to a close, Blaney will be glad to get back to racing on the larger tracks. The No. 21 Ford team has been in a slump throughout the Martinsville, Bristol and Richmond portion of the schedule. This young driver is a good performer on the restrictor-plate race tracks. Blaney owns three Top-10 and five Top-15 finishes in his last seven starts between Daytona and Talladega. The average finish across that span is a very respectable 14.6. The No. 21 Ford had tons of speed in the season-opening Daytona 500. Blaney led a couple laps and finished a brilliant runner-up in the Great American Race. His last start at Talladega last October was almost as impressive when he led three laps and brought home a respectable 11th-place after 500-miles of racing.

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 Stewart Haas Racing No. 14 Ford has won two-career victories at this facility, and Bowyer has four Top-10 finishes in his last six starts at Talladega entering this weekend. He claimed a seventh-place finish in this event one year ago when racing for the underequipped HScott Motorsports team. So we always expect excellence from Bowyer each time the Monster Energy Cup Series visits Talladega. Considering how well this veteran driver has started the 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.

Trevor Bayne –
The former Daytona 500 winner had a tough go on the big tracks for several seasons after his big win in the big race. However, the Roush Fenway Racing veteran has been turning his luck around in these superspeedway races the last couple seasons. Bayne owns finishes of 10th-, third-, 17th- and 10th-place at Daytona and Talladega just last season alone. He looked very impressive in this event one year ago when the No. 6 Ford led 22 laps and finished 10th in the Geico 500. Bayne was back at it again in the season-opening Daytona 500 when the 26-year-old Tennessean finished 10th in the Great American Race. Crew Chief Matt Puccia has clearly elevated Bayne's equipment and his performance on the superspeedways. He should be strong again in Sunday's 500-mile battle at Talladega.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. –
Something clearly big is happening at Roush Fenway Racing, at least in terms of superspeedway performance. Both Trevor Bayne and Stenhouse are displaying more speed and looking more competitive on the ovals of Daytona and Talladega. Stenhouse nabbed a pair of Top-5 finishes last summer and fall at the two tracks. His Daytona 500 outing didn't go as well as he was collected in one of the many multi-car crashes. However, the speed is improved and Stenhouse's skill is on display each time he starts at one of these tracks. Talladega Superspeedway in particular has been kind to the driver of the No. 17 Ford. He has four Top-10 finishes in just seven-career starts. The average finish at Dega of 11.7 for this driver and team is hard to ignore.

Aric Almirola –
Almirola possesses a gift for this superspeedway racing. The Richard Petty Motorsports driver was one of the surprise names in the Top 5 earlier this season in the Daytona 500. He also visited the Top 10 in our last Talladega race when he finished eighth in last October's Hellmann's 500. The driver of the No. 43 Ford took his game on these large ovals to the next level with his new crew chief Drew Blickensderfer last season. Almirola can now be considered a safe name to place among the Top 15 in almost every one of these Daytona and Talladega events, with the upside of potentially cracking into the Top 10.

Slow Down - Drivers to avoid this week

Dale Earnhardt Jr. –
With the shocking news that the NASCAR icon will retire at the end of the season, the racing world and Junior nation was rocked this past week. Truth is that much has not gone right for Earnhardt this season. A quick look at his recent stats tell a difficult tale. Despite the veteran driver having six-career wins at this 2.66-mile oval, we have to recommend the downgrade this week. The driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet hasn't won on a superspeedway since 2015 (Daytona) and his last four visits to Daytona and Talladega combined have netted three DNF's and no finishes inside the Top 20. Clearly his ability and nerve to race up front and lead laps on these ovals has been affected. It could be that Earnhardt is more concerned (rightly so) with his health than letting it all hang out and going for the win in this high stakes form of racing.

Matt Kenseth –
The Joe Gibbs Racing star had been a top performer for years on the superspeedways. Kenseth has Daytona and Talladega victories alike in his long NASCAR history. However, the veteran driver has fallen on hard times of late in terms of restrictor-plate racing. He has generally qualified well at both Daytona and Talladega, but the finishes just haven't been there. Kenseth has failed to crack the Top 10 in his last nine-straight starts between the two ovals, and his Talladega finishes last season alone were subpar 28th- and 23rd-place efforts. The speed that used to be in the No. 20 Toyota on these huge ovals just isn't there anymore. The season-opening Daytona 500 kind of summed things up for this driver and team recently. Kenseth was caught back in the pack on lap 103 and was caught up in one of the multi-car crashes in the Great American Race.

Jimmie Johnson –
Johnson is probably the biggest boom-or-bust pick of any of the field this week. The seven-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 has only one Top-10 finish in his last seven starts at Talladega Superspeedway. While he's generally running at the end of these races, he's just too far back in the pack to get the finish his stardom expects. Johnson crashed out and finished 34th in the season-opening Daytona 500, and that's a bad indicator as the series returns to another restrictor-plate race track this Sunday afternoon.

Kyle Busch –
It's tough to put star drivers in the slow down list any week, but it's somewhat understandable every time we go high-stakes superspeedway racing. Talladega just hasn't played well to Busch over the years. Despite being a one-time winner at this track (2008), the Joe Gibbs Racing star has had far more forgettable starts here than memorable ones. Busch finished runner-up in this event one year ago, but we have to take note that this finish was the only Top 10 he's posted at the track since 2013. His seven-career Top-10 finishes in 23 starts checks in at a lowly 26-percent rate. In fact, we've seen the No. 18 Toyota hauled or towed back to the garage area more over the years at Talladega then we've seen it visit the Top 10. The homerun potential is there, but Busch's poor luck trumps any thoughts of safe fantasy racing deployment this week.

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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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