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 superspeedway race of the 2019 season.  The enormous tri-oval at Talladega, Ala., is the largest track on the Monster Energy Cup circuit, measuring an amazing 2.66 miles and a 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.  

This weekend's GEICO 500 will be the first race at Talladega without the restrictor plate since 1987.  NASCAR will be using a thicker, tapered spacer instead with conical tapered holes.  The restriction of air flow will be similar, but there should be better throttle response even with the lesser horsepower.  The hope is to created tighter packs, more passing and drafting better than what we saw in the season-opening Daytona 500.

What we witnessed 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, passing at the front among the leaders was much more difficult.  The 15 lead changes during the Great American Race were a seven-season low at Daytona.  That was attributable to the current aero package in combination with the restrictor plate.  This season's Daytona 500 also saw the return of the multi-car crashes.  There were five caution periods due to accidents involving five or more cars.  With the return of

Talladega Superspeedway plays host to the second superspeedway race of the 2019 season.  The enormous tri-oval at Talladega, Ala., is the largest track on the Monster Energy Cup circuit, measuring an amazing 2.66 miles and a 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.  

This weekend's GEICO 500 will be the first race at Talladega without the restrictor plate since 1987.  NASCAR will be using a thicker, tapered spacer instead with conical tapered holes.  The restriction of air flow will be similar, but there should be better throttle response even with the lesser horsepower.  The hope is to created tighter packs, more passing and drafting better than what we saw in the season-opening Daytona 500.

What we witnessed 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, passing at the front among the leaders was much more difficult.  The 15 lead changes during the Great American Race were a seven-season low at Daytona.  That was attributable to the current aero package in combination with the restrictor plate.  This season's Daytona 500 also saw the return of the multi-car crashes.  There were five 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, Denny Hamlin's late charge to the front (aided by Kyle Busch) paid off as he crossed the finish line first and captured his second-career Daytona 500 victory.  We expect to see a similar racing style prevail at Talladega Superspeedway this weekend, but with hopefully more passing for the lead throughout the 500-miles.

Speaking of the race earlier this season at Daytona, we can rely on those results to some extent 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 14 years or 28 races at Talladega Superspeedway.

DriverAvg. FinishQuality Passes# of Fastest LapsLaps LedLaps in Top 15Driver Rating
Chase Elliott      16.2         1,476               20      62        852        91.3
Kurt Busch      16.1         7,406               89     212       3,556        90.5
Joey Logano      17.1         4,822               75     266      2,349        89.0
Jimmie Johnson      15.6         6,121               74     322      3,176        88.8
Brad Keselowski      15.7         4,333               80     261      2,192        88.6
Ryan Blaney      21.4         2,127               24      51      1,117        86.4
Denny Hamlin      17.6         5,253              106     302      2,583        85.0
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.      10.6         2,352               54      41      1,041        83.1
Kevin Harvick      15.9         5,262              116     224      2,744        82.8
Kyle Busch      20.7         5,358              118     234      2,647        81.2
William Byron      24.5           205               11      19        198        79.9
Kyle Larson      20.3         2,155               32       9        919        79.3
Aric Almirola      16.3         3,058               56      16      1,438        78.5
Clint Bowyer      15.6         3,639              149     110      1,917        77.5
Martin Truex Jr.      21.3         5,556               72      52      2,538        77.4
Paul Menard      18.9         5,021              111      50      2,296        77.1
David Ragan      19.0         3,593               95      38      1,619        73.8
Daniel Suarez      15.0          772               19      12        424        73.5
Darrell Wallace Jr.      17.5          200                4       5        142        72.9
Ty Dillon      13.5          416               19       3        231        70.9

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, Roush and Stewart Haas Racing, have claimed the last seven wins at Talladega.  That's a seven-race Ford win streak at the Alabama speedway.  With the status quo being squarely on Ford, 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, with the only outlier being Aric Almirola's victory here last October.  The only Chevrolet drivers to win at Talladega since 2013 are now both retired (Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jamie McMurray), so Chevrolet needs a new contender to rise above the pack.  Considering the struggles of the bowtie brand to start 2019, this may not be the year when a Chevrolet driver rises from the heap to retake the Talladega crown.  Once again the majority of that burden will fall on Chase Elliott, Kurt Busch and Jimmie Johnson to try and resurrect Chevrolet's past Talladega glory.

Given what we saw in the Daytona 500 earlier this season, Toyota drivers should be Ford's biggest rivals this Sunday afternoon.  Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch were super strong in dominating the late stages of that event and finishing one-two in the Great American Race.  A Toyota driver hasn't won at Talladega since 2014 when Hamlin last pulled into victory lane here.  Hamlin finished fourth here last October, so he figures to likely be the biggest threat to win this weekend.  There could be a manufacturer swing in the offing for the GEICO 500.  We'll take an in-depth look at past history at Talladega and recent trends on superspeedway ovals 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

Joey Logano The Penske Racing star has elevated his superspeedway game the last couple seasons, and now he's more feared than Brad Keselowski on these ovals.  Logano is a three-time winner at Talladega Superspeedway, including this event one year ago, and he finished fifth here last October.  He 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.  Logano has only finished outside the Top 5 once in his last six combined starts between Daytona and Talladega.  When we get down to crunch time in the final laps of these races the Penske Racing star is nearly always racing for the win.  Logano will be a heavy favorite to take home fourth Talladega trophy this Sunday.

Brad Keselowski The five-time Talladega winner has a real expertise at superspeedway racing.  His victories in two of the last six Talladega events and over 200 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 12th-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.  Keselowski's luck with superspeedway racing has been a little streaky the last year, but he could rebound with a roar in the GEICO 500.

Denny Hamlin This season's Daytona 500 winner always warrants fantasy racing consideration when Talladega weekend rolls around.  The Joe Gibbs Racing star has one win and 10 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 fourth-place finish at Talladega last October and his win in this season's Daytona 500 is proof of his homerun potential when we visit these big tracks.  He should bring the same speed and tenacity to this 500-mile race at Talladega. 

Aric Almirola Almirola possesses a gift for superspeedway racing.  The Stewart Haas Racing veteran showed that skill when he won in the series' last visit to Talladega last October.  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-5 and five Top-10 finishes in his last two seasons of racing between Daytona and Talladega.  The veteran driver rides a five-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.

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

Kyle Busch Rolling into Talladega riding a nine-race Top-10 streak with three victories to start the season, it's impossible to ignore Busch this weekend.  Despite his uneven luck with superspeedway 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 two of the last three spring dates in central Alabama.  Busch is a bit of a boom-or-bust pick this week, but his great runner-up showing in the season-opening Daytona 500 gives us lots of confidence. 

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. The Roush Fenway Racing veteran has become a specialty fantasy racing play on these superspeedway ovals.  Stenhouse nabbed a pair of victories in 2017 at both Talladega and Daytona, and he added a pair of Talladega Top-5 finishes last season.  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 seven Top-10 finishes in just 11-career starts.  The miniscule average finish at Dega of 10.6 for this driver and team is impossible to ignore.   

Kurt BuschThe 2017 Daytona 500 winner has been a consistent performer on the superspeedways for his entire NASCAR career.  Busch owns 19 Top-10 finishes in 36-career Talladega starts, and that works out to an impressive 53-percent in this high stakes form of racing.  The veteran driver has never won at Talladega but he's been painfully close on many occasions over his 18-season career.  Busch sat on the outside pole for this event one year ago and finished runner-up after leading 5 laps.  He returned to Talladega last October and led a whopping 108 laps before fading to finish 14th-place.  We'll be shocked if he's not racing inside the Top 10 when crunch time arrives this Sunday afternoon.

Jimmie Johnson Despite his Daytona struggles the past two seasons, Johnson has been quite the performer in recent visits to the Alabama oval.  Two of his last four Talladega starts have netted Top-10 finishes, including his steady seventh-place finish in last October's 1000Bulbs.com 500.  Johnson's strong and steady Top-10 performance in the season-opening Daytona 500 is another good indicator to point to this weekend.  Talladega has always been the better of the two superspeedway ovals for Johnson and the No. 48 team.  The seven-time champion owns two victories here and 13 Top-10 finishes.  His eighth- and 12th-place finishes in the last two spring dates at Talladega are a reasonable mark to expect in Sunday's GEICO 500. 

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

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 13 Top-10 finishes in his 26-career starts at Talladega entering this weekend.  In his last Talladega start last October, Bowyer qualified on the outside pole and finished runner-up to Aric Almirola.  So we always expect excellence from Bowyer each time the Monster Energy Cup Series visits this track.  It's nearly impossible to overlook his strong 50-percent Top-10 rate at this huge oval.  Bowyer ranks among the elite drivers in the series in terms of average finish at this facility. 

Erik Jones Jones was one of the 1-2-3 Joe Gibbs Racing sweep of the Daytona 500 earlier this season, coming home third in the season opener.  The young driver of the No. 20 Toyota has already started to show some signs that superspeedway racing is to his liking.  Jones won the summer race at Daytona last season when he took first in the Coke Zero 400.  That was his first-career victory in NASCAR's top division and first win on a superspeedway oval.  Since then, he's strung together a three-race Daytona/Talladega Top-10 streak.  His last Talladega start saw the No. 20 Toyota come from 15th-place on the starting grid to finish eighth in the 1000Bulbs.com 500.  We could be looking at a career-best Talladega finish for Jones in this Sunday's GEICO 500.

Ryan Newman The Roush Fenway Racing veteran is proving that when it comes to superspeedway 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. 6 Ford has made 34-career starts at the Alabama oval.  He's come away with close to 100 laps led and 13 Top 10's during that time.  Two of Newman's last three starts at Talladega Superspeedway have netted Top-10 finishes.  That dovetails nicely with his recent superspeedway record.  Newman has five Top-10 and six Top-15 finishes in his last seven combined Daytona and Talladega starts.  This driver and team will be overlooked by most, but use that information to your fantasy racing advantage. 

Daniel SuarezThe recently surging Suarez is poised for a good performance this weekend.  The Stewart Haas Racing youngster has three Top 10's in his last four races leading up to Talladega, and has been quite impressive in transitioning into the No. 41 Ford at SHR.  Suarez has been a bit inconsistent on the superspeedways through two seasons of racing at them, but the bright spot seems to be that Talladega has been kinder to Suarez than Daytona.  His four-career starts at Talladega Superspeedway have netted 19th-, 15th-, 10th- and 16th-place finishes.  Those all came while driving for old boss, Joe Gibbs.  Now a driver at Stewart Haas, Suarez should have a bit more speed and consistency.  After all, it was this same car last October than led 108 circuits at Talladega with former driver Kurt Busch

Paul Menard His body of work over the years at Talladega Superspeedway is nothing to write home about (seven Top 10's in 25 starts), however, nearly all those Top 10's have come since the 2013 season.  It's like something finally clicked with this veteran driver, and now he's piling up the good finishes at this huge oval.  Menard has four Top 10 and six Top 15's in his last eight starts at the Alabama superspeedway.  That includes his Top-10 finish at Talladega last October in the 1000Bulbs.com 500.  The Wood Brothers Racing 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 Menard has over a decade of it on these ovals. 

Ty Dillon If there's one thing that Dillon seems to excel at, it would be superspeedway racing.  The Germain Racing driver has quite a five-season resume on these large ovals in his No. 13 Chevrolet.  Dillon is fresh off a Daytona personal best of sixth-place in this season's Daytona 500.  To go along with that, the young driver has two Top 10's and four Top 15's in his last four starts between Daytona and Talladega.  Dillon seems to have a nose for the draft, and who to partner with late in these races to get to the front.  He sports a respectable 18.5 average finish between these two superspeedways, and that despite not usually qualifying that well.  Dillon's four-career Talladega starts have netted finishes of 13th-, 11th-, 15th- and 13th-place.  That's pretty good for an oval that takes such a toll on the field.

Slow Down - Drivers to avoid this week

Chase Elliott The finishes just have not come for Elliott and the No. 9 team to this point in his NASCAR career.  Great qualifying speed on these superspeedway ovals has been offset by many crashes and poor finishes.  Elliott boasts four pole positions between Daytona and Talladega.  That has his average start at these two ovals at a miniscule 5.8.  However, five DNF's and six finishes outside the Top 30 have Elliott's average finish checking in at an elevated 22.0.  The Hendrick Motorsports driver wasn't particularly fast at Daytona to start the season, qualifying 18th and finishing 17th in the season-opening Daytona 500.  It's at this point the 15-percent Top-10 rate at both ovals starts to weigh heavily on our thinking.          

Ryan Blaney Unlike his Penske Racing teammates, Blaney has yet to figure out how to consistently finish these superspeedway races.  Sure, the No. 12 Ford has plenty of speed, and will likely qualify well on Saturday.  However, recent results show that trouble more often finds Blaney than not on these big ovals.  Five of his last eight starts between Talladega and Daytona have ended in crashes.  He has only one Top-10 finish in those last eight starts.  Blaney led 13 laps in the season-opening Daytona 500, but trouble would find him on lap 192 when he would get rolled up in the biggest multi-car wreck of the event.  Don't be duped by Friday/Saturday speed in the No. 12 Ford, Blaney struggles to finish these races, and that makes him a risky play.    

Martin Truex Jr. While 2019 has been a good campaign to this point for Truex, there are the odd occasions to let the Joe Gibbs Racing star take a seat on the bench.  This would be one of those instances.  Superspeedway racing is just one of those areas where Truex struggles.  The veteran driver has only one Top-10 finish in his last nine starts between Daytona and Talladega, and five 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 six Talladega starts, and that has brought his career Top-10 average at the oval down to just 29-percent.  Compared against a staggering 13 DNF's at the central Alabama oval.  Don't be tempted into deploying Truex in the GEICO 500.

Kevin Harvick In keeping with the save fantasy racing 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 36-career starts at Dega, Harvick has only netted 15 Top-10 finishes (42-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 four Talladega starts.  That's a bit of a disturbing trend for a driver that's closer to 40-percent for his career.  Harvick didn't display good drafting speed and crashed, finishing 26th in the season-opening Daytona 500.  That doesn't exactly fill us with confidence for his chances this weekend.

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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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