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Weekly Preview: Super Speedway Luck

Mark Taylor

Taylor is RotoWire's senior NASCAR writer. A four-time FSWA award winner, Taylor was named the 2016 Racing Writer of the Year. He is also a military historian, specifically the World War II U.S. Navy in the Pacific.

As the Chase for the Cup heads to the heartland of Talladega, Ala., this weekend for the seventh race in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, the 12 drivers in the Chase field will brace themselves for the wreck-fest that is racing at Talladega Superspeedway. This is the perfect event to intermingle with the short tracks, flat tracks, and intermediate ovals that make up the final 10 races in the Chase for the Sprint Cup. Finishing this race with the car intact is almost as big an accomplishment as winning the race itself. Therefore luck will come into play for the eventual champion, and heart-break will be long suffering for those contenders who get caught up in the “big one”. Just when we were ready to engrave Jimmie Johnson's name on the Cup for a fifth consecutive time, all bets are off this weekend. In fact, once you examine the historical numbers you'll find that our defending champion is anything but stellar at this 2.66-mile launching pad. While the two biggest threats to Johnson's championship hopes this season, Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick, sport some of the best Talladega numbers among the elite drivers. It's a combination and scenario that could sit the 2010 championship picture on its ear after this event.

Talladega Superspeedway may be unlike any of the other tracks in the Chase, but history still plays a big part. The drivers that tend to run up front and win at this large oval are usually the same drivers each and every time we visit Talladega. As you'll see in the table below, some of the drivers who are vying for the championship are also very proficient at Talladega Superspeedway. Here are the loop stats for the last 11 races at the famous restrictor-place track.

Denny Hamlin19.32,135401921,03895.9
Dale Earnhardt Jr.20.02,655521831,38693.3
David Ragan13.31,707162379292.5
Tony Stewart16.11,939492111,13689.0
Jeff Burton19.62,97033541,02285.8
Jeff Gordon20.61,830263201,13886.0
Joey Logano16.077461435585.3
Kurt Busch12.62,54035571,21285.0
Jamie McMurray17.71,6923514298784.4
Jimmie Johnson15.42,31031531,12783.6
Juan Pablo Montoya16.41,588242380282.5
Brad Keselowski14.3738181123681.8
Matt Kenseth18.22,59532851,19181.7
Elliott Sadler20.42,33144941,21180.1
Kyle Busch23.21,8775511199379.7
Ryan Newman20.71,849184683176.6
Kevin Harvick16.51,873467290075.3
Martin Truex Jr.26.91,811292992474.5
Casey Mears20.91,594303765773.6
Travis Kvapil17.3687341235271.5

The loop stats from Talladega look peculiar when compared to other tracks in the series. Right away we notice a lack of drivers like Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch and Mark Martin in the Top 10 of this list. Luck plays a large part in winning Talladega. Some times it's all in the timing and when to make your move at this oval. In this season's race at Talladega in April we saw Richard Childress Racing star Kevin Harvick lead two laps and one of those two was the most important lap of the race, the last one. Harvick set up Jamie McMurray for the last-lap pass brilliantly and executed the move to perfection to capture his first win of the season. Fortunes can change just that quickly at this restrictor-plate track, and in the opposite sense you're luck can turn bad just that quickly too. We've seen drivers lead virtually the whole race at Talladega only to be shuffled out of the lead late in the race and fail to finish in the Top 10. This fact doesn't bode well for championship contenders this weekend. Drafting alliances will prove tricky with everyone out to watch their own back. It will be dog-eat-dog in the closing laps of this event. One thing is for sure this weekend at Talladega Superspeedway, dreams will be realized, and hearts will be broken.

The Contenders - Drivers in the hunt for the win

Denny Hamlin –
In recent restrictor-plate races the No. 11 Toyota team has shown up with dominant cars on almost every occasion, but the results have not always followed. This time things will hopefully be different for Hamlin. He's led significant laps in each of his last seven Talladega starts and he has three Top 5's during that span. Hamlin led 17 laps and finished fourth here in April, so this team has what it takes to run up front and compete for the win this weekend.

Kyle Busch –
Busch has struggled with consistency at times this season, and he's looked absolutely brilliant at times as well. Not the ideal fantasy racing scenario. Normally, we would highlight the upside, but caution of the downside with the driver of the No. 18 JGR Toyota. In this case, Busch is a one-time winner at Talladega (2008) and he's shown powerfully strong cars in recent trips to these huge speedways. The fact that he's led almost 50 laps combined in his three restrictor-plate track starts this season, we have to respect his ability. Busch will need some luck and a good drafting partner, but he's quite capable of winning the AMP Energy Juice 500.

Jamie McMurray –
The No. 1 team rides into Talladega riding a pretty good surge of momentum after McMurray's big win at Charlotte a couple weeks ago. The Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing driver may be outside the Chase picture, but he is making a powerful statement of this team's chances for next season. McMurray has shown some ability on the plate tracks the last few seasons. He has won two of the last four restrictor-plate races, and finished runner-up at Talladega earlier this season. We expect McMurray to flex his super speedway muscles again this Sunday afternoon.

Kevin Harvick –
The Richard Childress Racing veteran is without a doubt the prime contender for this week's race at Talladega. Winner of the last two restrictor-plate events, this No. 29 Chevrolet just seems to find another gear when it's crunch time at Talladega and Daytona. Harvick understands the complexities of drafting and drafting partners and when to make your move. Those are key elements to winning on this big ovals. With the championship hanging in the balance we know Harvick will throw out all the stops at taking the checkers.

Solid Plays - Drivers who are a near lock for a Top 10 and have an outside shot at winning

Jeff Burton –
While the No. 31 team has been in a bit of a funk of late, we have to respect Burton's super speedway racing skill entering this week's event at Talladega Superspeedway. The veteran driver has cracked the Top 10 in three of his last six restrictor-plate races, and even better Burton has forged three Top 10's in his last four Talladega efforts. The slump is concerning entering this race, but the driving style and equipment for super speedway racing help offset this a bit. Burton should post his usual Top 10 in the AMP Energy Juice 500.

Joey Logano –
The rising star in the Joe Gibbs Racing stable had a car the equal of his teammates when the series last visited here in April. One that was capable of grabbing virtually any drafting partner and plowing their way to the front in just a couple laps. Logano should use his past experience and that equipment advantage to his gain this weekend. The driver of the No. 20 Toyota sports two Top-10 finishes in three career starts at Talladega Superspeedway, so we suspect he'll be grinning widely when the team's hauler pulls into the garage area this weekend.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. –
While 2010 has been yet another throw-away year for Earnhardt, there have been few, very few bright spots along the way. His fourth-place finish at Daytona in July qualifies. Earnhardt owns five career victories and 11 Top 10's at Talladega alone, so it's clear that he knows something about racing in the draft on super speedways. His last six starts on the plate tracks have yielded three Top-5 finishes, so we have to respect his tremendous upside for this event.

Jimmie Johnson –
Johnson is running downhill towards yet another championship. He is leading the Chase standings entering this race and has a lot on the line this Sunday. Johnson has been hit-or-miss at Talladega recently. Two of his last five starts at the super speedways have netted Top 10 results, however those other three starts have resulted in DNF's. Johnson usually qualifies well and races with the leaders in these events, so all he needs is a little luck to swing his way this weekend to materialize a stellar finish.

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

Clint Bowyer –
Bowyer has always been pretty good on super speedways. Although he doesn't have the trophies to show it, he has led many laps and finished well at both Daytona and Talladega over his career. Two of his three restrictor-plate starts this season have netted Top 10 results and he's led 56 laps in those events. When the series visited here in April, Bowyer avoided all the wrecks and navigated the No. 33 Chevrolet to a solid seventh-place finish in the Aaron's 499.

Kurt Busch –
The No. 2 Penske Racing team has had just a fantastic season, but everything has fallen apart for the veteran driver in the Chase. Busch will be looking to salvage his season with a good run at Talladega on Sunday. He has been a reliable fantasy racing start over recent seasons on the super speedways. Busch is the only driver in the Sprint Cup Series to post four Top 10's in the last six plate races. His career 68 percent Top 10 rate at Talladega Superspeedway is incredible when compared to the elite drivers in the series.

Juan Pablo Montoya –
The No. 42 team will join their teammate Jamie McMurray in racing with the leaders this weekend at Talladega. Montoya has shown some ability on the plate tracks in recent seasons. He has three Top 10's in his last five super speedway events, and his last visit to Talladega netted a brilliant third-place finish. The EGR Chevrolets are typically fast on these large ovals, so it doesn't hurt at all to gamble on Montoya this weekend.

Casey Mears –
In the deep sleeper category, we can't overlook Mears this Sunday. He's made a comfortable nest in the Germain Racing No. 13 Toyota in recent weeks, and he has only DNQ'd once in his time in the ride. Mears has the super speedway pedigree to take this small race team to a good finish in the AMP Energy Juice 500. He's cracked the Top 25 in two of his last three restrictor-plate starts, and Mears led 20 laps in this event one year ago for former boss Richard Childress. He should crack the Top 25 in this event and possibly exceed expectations for a lower tier driver.

Brad Keselowski –
The one-time Talladega winner and Penske Racing hotshot is definitely on our radar screen going into this weekend. While that wild, last lap Talladega finish in last season's Aaron's 499 may not play itself out again for Keselowski, he and this Penske Racing team have what it takes to be excellent at Talladega Superspeedway this Sunday afternoon. Luck on the plate tracks has been lacking for Keselowski of late, but it's clear that he knows how to race in the draft.

David Ragan –
2010 hasn't been very productive for Roush Fenway Racing driver Ragan. However, there are some glimmers of hope as the season finishes out. Ragan has to be looking forward to Talladega this weekend. He's been strong at this track throughout his brief Sprint Cup career. Ragan has three Top 10's in his last five trips to the large speedway in central Alabama. He led eight laps and finished a brilliant sixth here in April, so a good run should be in store.

Scott Speed –
Consider Speed as a driver auditioning for a Sprint Cup Series ride in 2011. So the pressure to put up a good number at Talladega this weekend will be in full effect. The Red Bull Racing driver is facing the prospect of losing his ride at the end of this season, so we expect him to take full advantage of the remaining races. Speed finished fifth in his first career start at Talladega Superspeedway last year. He also finished 10th in this July's Coke Zero 400 at Daytona. His three plate starts this season have all been Top-20 finishes, so we expect results from the No. 82 team this weekend.

Flops - Drivers to avoid at all costs

Jeff Gordon –
Gordon is the top restrictor-plate driver among all active drivers with a series-leading 12 victories. So it's almost improbable that we've listed him in our flops this week. The Hendrick Motorsports star has fallen well off his former dominance at this huge oval. The last of his Talladega victories came in 2007, and Gordon hasn't been inside the Top 10, let alone winner's circle at Talladega since. This is a week to stash the No. 24 Chevrolet on your bench in the weekly lineup leagues.

Ryan Newman –
We usually lean on Newman when it came to restrictor-plate tracks, but he's fallen on hard times the last couple seasons. He posted a bunch of Top 10's at Talladega in the middle part of this past decade, but Newman has struggled in recent outings. The driver of the No. 39 Chevrolet has three DNF's in his last four Talladega starts and he has DNF's in his last four straight restrictor-plate races. The veteran driver will likely have a decent car this Sunday, but odds are good it will take a ride back to the garage area on a flat bed truck before 500 miles of racing are complete.

Martin Truex Jr. –
Truex is in much the same shape as Newman entering this weekend. DNF's have had a way of jumping up and biting the Michael Waltrip Racing star on these large ovals. Two of his last six starts on plate tracks have resulted in DNF's. With only two Top-10 finishes compared to eight career DNF's at Talladega Superspeedway, we have to cross the No. 56 team off our lists for this weekend.

David Reutimann –
Michael Waltrip Racing has given Reutimann decent cars at the restrictor-plate tracks in the past couple seasons, but the results haven't followed. In his last six plate track starts, Reutimann has only two Top-20 finishes and three DNF's. While we love to spot start the No. 00 team on intermediate ovals this season, the super speedways just don't pass the critical examination test.