Geico 500 Preview: Superspeedway Survival

Geico 500 Preview: Superspeedway Survival

This article is part of our Weekly Preview series.

Talladega Superspeedway plays host to the second restrictor-plate race of the 2018 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 double lines or multiple packs over long green-flag runs. With the ability to race to the back or the front very quickly, moving through traffic presented little problem. However, the 24 lead changes during the Great American Race were a four-race low at Daytona. That was attributable to Ryan Blaney's dominance, as he led more than half the race. Still, the excitement factor is still as high as ever at these ovals and the three lead changes over the final 10 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 three caution periods due to accidents involving five or more cars. With the return of the "big one" or "big ones" we may see some form of return to the sandbagging at the back. Despite

Talladega Superspeedway plays host to the second restrictor-plate race of the 2018 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 double lines or multiple packs over long green-flag runs. With the ability to race to the back or the front very quickly, moving through traffic presented little problem. However, the 24 lead changes during the Great American Race were a four-race low at Daytona. That was attributable to Ryan Blaney's dominance, as he led more than half the race. Still, the excitement factor is still as high as ever at these ovals and the three lead changes over the final 10 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 three caution periods due to accidents involving five or more cars. 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 stage racing 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 few seasons. Once again, winning on these superspeedways 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, Austin Dillon's late charge to the front (aided by Darrell Wallace Jr.) paid off as he crossed the finish line first and captured his first-career Daytona 500 victory. 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 13 years or 26 races at Talladega Superspeedway.

DRIVERAVG FINISHQUALITY PASSESFASTEST LAPSLAPS LEDLAPS IN TOP 15RATING
Chase Elliott15.81,17386259593.4
Brad Keselowski14.14,038672191,91389.0
Jimmie Johnson16.05,865663222,94688.5
Kurt Busch16.77,17974993,23388.4
Ryan Blaney20.91,811154581986.3
Joey Logano18.64,568691962,00485.6
Denny Hamlin18.34,979932912,32984.3
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.12.12,092413786481.4
Kevin Harvick15.85,0411021662,42881.0
Kyle Busch20.84,9591062332,39481.0
Kyle Larson19.01,99423980380.3
Jamie McMurray20.25,184802182,38079.1
Martin Truex Jr.21.15,50266522,49578.9
Clint Bowyer15.53,4911391101,69776.9
Paul Menard18.94,798103422,08776.0
Aric Almirola17.92,78546151,13175.9
David Ragan18.63,41385381,51675.3
Trevor Bayne25.13,62052431,25973.5
Kasey Kahne21.04,77369882,07472.8
Austin Dillon20.01,79544160672.1

We witnessed Chevrolet lose their grip on this superspeedway in 2012. Since then the Alabama oval has become solidly a Ford dominated track. Drivers from that manufacturer, specifically the camps of Penske and Roush Fenway Racing, have claimed six of the last seven wins at Talladega, including the current five-race Ford win streak. With this changing of the status quo, we have to look at the drivers currently dominating Talladega Superspeedway. Brad Keselowski, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Joey Logano have won six of the last seven events at Talladega, including a sweep of the huge oval the last two seasons. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is the only rival manufacturer win (Chevrolet) during this seven-race string, and with his retirement at the end of last season, Chevrolet needs a new contender to rise above the pack. Considering the struggles of the bowtie brand to start 2018, this may not be the year when a Chevrolet driver rises from the heap to retake the Talladega crown.

Given what we saw in the Daytona 500 earlier this season, a real shootout could be shaping up for Sunday's Geico 500. Ryan Blaney's Ford dominated the day with 118 laps led, and Chevrolet was well represented with Austin Dillon and Darrell Wallace Jr. finishing one-two. Toyota brought the heat with Denny Hamlin and Erik Jones combining to lead 33 laps, with Hamlin finishing third. 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 our three major manufacturers. 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 five-time Talladega winner has a real expertise at superspeedway racing. His victories in two of the last four Talladega events and over 150 laps led during that span are testaments to the strength of the No. 2 team on this or any other superspeedway oval. Keselowski's disappointing 32nd-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.

Kyle Busch -
Rolling into Talladega riding a three-race win streak, it's impossible to ignore Busch this weekend. Despite his uneven luck with restrictor-plate racing, we have to consider the incredible momentum of the No. 18 team this week. Busch's success at this oval has been spotty, but interestingly his spring outings at Talladega have trended much better than his October outings at this volatile race track. His lone Talladega victory came in the spring race way back in 2008. More recently, the Joe Gibbs Racing star has nabbed a pair of Top-3 finishes in the last two spring dates in central Alabama. Of all the drivers in the contenders list this week, Busch is the most boom-or-bust pick, but he has a good recent history in this race, and it's hard to deny the excellence of this driver and team right now.

Joey Logano -
Seemingly, Logano picks up where Brad Keselowski's dominance leaves off in terms of Penske Racing. When the No. 2 Ford isn't pulling into victory lane on the large ovals, Logano's No. 22 usually is there to seize on the opportunity. He's a two-time winner at Talladega Superspeedway (2015 and 2016), and he finished fourth after leading 59 laps here last October. Logano also registered an impressive fourth-place finish in the season-opening Daytona 500, so we know the superspeedway speed is currently in the No. 22 Ford. When we get down to crunch time in the final laps of these races the Penske Racing star is usually there among the contenders more often than not. He makes a real nice value fantasy racing play this weekend for the Geico 500.

Ryan Blaney -
Now that the tough 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. 12 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 eight starts between Daytona and Talladega. The average finish across that span is a very respectable 15.7. The No. 12 Ford had tons of speed in the season-opening Daytona 500. Blaney led a whopping 118 laps and finished seventh in the Great American Race. His last two Talladega starts have been forgettable, but we'd rather focus on the world-beating speed this driver and team had at Daytona just a couple months ago.

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

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. -
The Roush Fenway Racing veteran has become a specialty fantasy racing play on these superspeedway ovals. Stenhouse nabbed a pair of restrictor-plate racing victories last season at both Talladega and Daytona, and that has built on recent Top-5 finishes the last few seasons. The No. 17 team's speed has improved on these tracks and Stenhouse's skill at racing in the draft is put on full display with that type of speed. Talladega Superspeedway in particular has been kind to the driver of the No. 17 Ford. He has a win and five Top-10 finishes in just nine-career starts. The miniscule average finish at Dega of 12.1 for this driver and team is impossible to ignore.

Denny Hamlin -
Hamlin always warrants fantasy racing consideration when Talladega weekend rolls around. The Joe Gibbs Racing star has one win and nine 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, three Top-5 and four Top-10 finishes in the last nine Daytona and Talladega events combined. The No. 11 Toyota team is presently among the series best when the haulers unload at either of these two ovals. Hamlin's outside pole, 22 laps led and third-place finish in this season's Daytona 500 is proof of his homerun potential when we visit these superspeedways. He should bring the same speed and tenacity to Sunday's Geico 500.

Kurt Busch -
The 2017 Daytona 500 winner has been a consistent performer on the superspeedways for his entire NASCAR career. Busch currently has five Top 10s in his last nine 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 17-season career. With 18 Top-10 finishes in 34 starts his 53-percent Top-10 rate ranks highly among the Monster Energy Cup Series driver field. With Top-10 finishes in four of his last five Talladega outings, you'll be challenged to find a more consistent driver at this high stakes oval. We'll be shocked if he's not racing inside the Top 10 when crunch time arrives this Sunday afternoon.

Aric Almirola -
Almirola possesses a gift for this superspeedway racing. The Stewart Haas Racing driver came within an eyelash of winning this season's Daytona 500, but an ill-timed block of Austin Dillon would take that victory away. He has spent several seasons building a good resume on the ovals of Daytona and Talladega, and now he finally has a team equipped to maximize his skill. Of late, Almirola has nabbed four Top-10 and seven Top-15 finishes in his last two seasons of racing between Daytona and Talladega. The veteran driver rides a three-race Talladega Top-10 streak into this weekend's action. If you're looking for a driver with surprise potential this weekend, the No. 10 SHR team and Almirola are great candidates.

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

Chase Elliott -
While the finishes have not come yet to this point in his early NASCAR career, it's hard to deny the speed of this driver and team on superspeedways. Elliott has captured three pole positions, and two outside poles in his nine-career starts between Daytona and Talladega. He's led 112 laps in those outings as well. The young driver still has a lot to learn about this style of racing, but the good news is he has a lot of knowledge and good cars behind him in the No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports camp. Elliott's first-career start at Talladega netted 22 laps led and a fifth-place finish in 2016. That's the potential we know he brings to the table. Elliott led 26 laps last October in the Alabama 500 at this oval only to be rolled up in one of the multi-car crashes that day. The young driver is boom or bust, but with tremendous homerun potential.

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 12 Top-10 finishes in his 24-career starts at Talladega entering this weekend. He led 10 laps and claimed a 14th-place finish in this event one year ago in his Stewart Haas Racing debut at Talladega. So we always expect excellence from Bowyer each time the Monster Energy Cup Series visits this track. Considering how well this veteran driver has started the season, it's hard to overlook his strong 50-percent Top-10 rate at this huge oval. Bowyer ranks among the series elite in terms of finishing at this facility.

Ryan Newman -
The Richard Childress Racing veteran is proving that when it comes to restrictor-plate racing, age and experience trumps youth and exuberance. You'll notice the overall tone of this week's race preview hedges toward the elder statesmen of NASCAR, and Newman fits right in with that theme. The driver of the No. 31 Chevrolet has made 32-career starts at the Alabama oval. He's come away with close to 100 laps led and 12 Top 10s during that time. Newman's last start at Talladega netted a runner-up finish in last October's Alabama 500. That dovetails nicely with his recent superspeedway record. Newman rides a three-race Daytona/Talladega Top-10 streak into Sunday's action, and that includes his eighth-place finish in the season-opening Daytona 500. This driver and team will be overlooked by most, but use that information to your fantasy racing advantage.

Paul Menard -
The veteran Wood Brothers Racing driver has shown in recent seasons a real improvement in terms of superspeedway racing. Menard has claimed four Top 10s in his last five superspeedway starts. That includes his sixth-place finish in the season-opening Daytona 500. The driver of the No. 21 Ford was making his Daytona debut for this race team in that event, and he didn't miss the opportunity to impress. That uptick in performance has been especially notable in his recent seasons at Talladega Superspeedway. Menard has nabbed five Top-10 and seven Top-15 finishes in his last nine Talladega starts. That's an amazing 12.8 average finish across the span in this very risky form of racing. Again, many will look past Menard for more hyped younger drivers this weekend, seize the opportunity to deploy this driver in your lineups and reap the rewards.

A.J. Allmendinger -
His body of work over the years at Talladega Superspeedway is nothing to write home about (two Top 10s in 16 starts), however, his recent restrictor-plate performance has taken a swing in a better direction. It's like something has finally clicked with this veteran driver, and now he's piling up the good finishes. Allmendinger has four Top 10 and six Top 15s in his last eight starts between Daytona and Talladega. That includes his Top-10 finish at Talladega in the fall of 2016, and his Top-10 finish in this season's Daytona 500. This veteran driver has figured out when to make his move and who to dance with, and that's an important component of superspeedway racing. Knowledge and skill like this only comes through experience, and Allmendinger has a decade of it on these ovals.

Austin Dillon -
The Daytona 500 winner may be a bit down our list, but we haven't forgotten about the driver of the No. 3 RCR Chevrolet. Dillon has always been a steady performer on these huge ovals, and it finally paid off in February with his win in the Great American Race. With that victory, he now has five Top-10 finishes in his last nine starts between Daytona and Talladega. Two of his last four Talladega starts have netted Top 10s. While Dillon is looking to overcome a devastating DNF in his last start at this oval last October, that should be of little concern. The speed to finish well will be in the No. 3 Chevrolet, and Dillon's confidence should be through the roof in this installment of the Geico 500.

Slow Down - Drivers to avoid this week

Martin Truex Jr. -
While 2018 has been a good campaign to this point for Truex, there are the odd occasions to let the reigning champion take a seat on the bench. This would be one of those instances. Superspeedway racing is just one of those areas where Truex and his Furniture Row Racing team struggle. The veteran driver has only one Top-10 finish in his last nine starts between Daytona and Talladega, and four DNF's during that span. It seems to start with poor qualifying, starting back in the field, and getting rolled up in other drivers' troubles. Truex has failed to crack the Top 10 in his last four Talladega starts, and that has brought his career Top-10 average at the oval down to just 31-percent. Compared against a staggering 12 DNF's at the central Alabama oval. Don't be tempted into deploying Truex in the Geico 500.

Kyle Larson -
Drivers like Larson and Truex should be started when they have a good chance of winning. That is optimizing their impact in weekly lineup games and salary cap games. Talladega takes that off the table for both drivers. To be fair, Larson has been more bust than boom in his brief NASCAR career on these huge tracks. Eight-career starts at Talladega have only netted the Chip Ganassi Racing driver two Top-10 finishes. Sure, there have been a handful of Top 20s in that mix, but that's not why we deploy Larson. His 19th-place finish in the season-opening Daytona 500 is a good example of this point. Use Larson at Kansas or Kentucky where he can crack the Top 5 and possibly challenge for the win, but don't waste a start on him at Talladega.

Kevin Harvick -
In keeping with the save starts theme, we offer Harvick to continue that line of thinking. Despite being a one-time Talladega winner, he just doesn't crack the Top 10 frequently enough here to justify a fantasy racing start. In 34-career starts at Dega, Harvick has only netted 14 Top-10 finishes (41-percent). That's better than the series average, but still low among the elite tier drivers. The driver of the No. 4 Ford has only cracked the Top 10 once in his last five Talladega starts. That's a bit of a disturbing trend for a driver that's closer to 40-percent for his career. Harvick crashed and finished 31st in the season-opening Daytona 500, and that doesn't exactly fill us with confidence for his chances this weekend.

Jimmie Johnson -
Despite his two-race Top-10 streak entering the weekend, Johnson is easily the biggest bust pick of any in 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 five 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 that would make him an attractive fantasy racing play. Johnson crashed out and finished 38th 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.

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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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