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Aaron's 499 Preview: Who's Your Dance Partner?

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.

Talladega Superspeedway plays host to the second restrictor-plate race of the 2011 season. The enormous tri-oval in Talladega, Ala., is the largest track on the Sprint Cup circuit, measuring an amazing 2.66 miles, and boasting 33-degree banking in the turns. The track's size and banking make it a wide-open, four-wide racing experience where speeds are high and margin for error is small. The restrictor-plates are important from the standpoint of keeping the horsepower down, and top speeds limited. Otherwise, the speeds would go well over 200 mph. In the past, we've seen multiple car drafts form and mad shuffling to find the right partner to push to the front of the field. Those days seem to be well behind us now. As we saw at Daytona earlier this season, the new nose and car configuration lends itself immensely to the two-car draft. It seems that two cars of the right combination are not only faster, but much faster than multi-car packs. What resulted in the Daytona 500 were drivers with multiple driver frequencies on their in-car radios, and lots of communication to get the right two-car combination in the draft. What the fans got to see was like a 200-mph version of leap frog. At times three or more pairs of two-car drafts would break away from the field with a "pusher" and a "leader." The pairs would duel for many laps with several "teams" swapping the lead. It's a big departure from what we've historically seen on the restrictor-plate tracks, but no less entertaining. 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 the Daytona 500.

Speaking of the race earlier this season at Daytona, we can rely on those results to some degree in looking at the Aaron's 499 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. NASCAR has reduced the holes in the restrictor plates by a 64th of an inch due to the extremely high speeds we saw in many two-car breakaways at Daytona. The reduced plate should trim the horsepower enough to keep speeds high but not off the charts like we saw at Daytona. 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 six years or 12 races at Talladega Superspeedway.

Denny Hamlin18.32,209461961,07493.0
Dale Earnhardt Jr.21.62,886562071,49692.7
Brian Vickers17.62,26830671,15989.6
Joey Logano13.31,03792251689.1
Jeff Burton21.43,20241651,25987.8
David Ragan14.31,774162382487.7
Juan Pablo Montoya14.81,808294194485.9
Kurt Busch14.12,80038591,36985.4
Jeff Gordon19.61,937293211,17384.8
Tony Stewart17.31951512111,13684.7
Jimmie Johnson14.72,38136551,15882.5
Jamie McMurray19.31,860381461,06582.5
Matt Kenseth18.02,87337981,31182.2
Brad Keselowski13.3925221833881.0
Kyle Busch23.32,037661311,07379.3
Kevin Harvick15.32,16350841,05078.6
Martin Truex Jr.25.22,04130381,05676.3
Ryan Newman20.91,872224683774.2
Casey Mears21.21,733303770573.9
Travis Kvapil17.3687341235271.5

The last couple of seasons have seen Chevrolet and Toyota wage a huge battle for control of this monster speedway. Last season we saw the Richard Childress Racing teams of Kevin Harvick and Clint Bowyer take the hardware in both Talladega races. The duo dethroned Toyota and Ford's short reign at the Alabama oval. Considering what we saw in the Daytona 500 earlier this season, it will be a real manufacturer crap shoot for Sunday's Aaron's 499. Fords captured the win and Top 3 spots at Daytona in February, with the highest finishing Chevrolet being only sixth (Juan Pablo Montoya). We could be in for more of the same Ford upheaval this weekend. Considering how poorly the RCR teams performed in the season opener, you can almost guarantee that the Childress teams will rebound solidly in the second superspeedway race of this season this weekend. 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

Jamie McMurray The Earnhardt Ganassi Racing driver is heating up. After good runs at Martinsville and Texas, McMurray comes to Talladega riding the top of the wave. The one-time Talladega winner has great restrictor-plate racing numbers the last few years, and a couple of Daytona wins to go along with his Talladega victory. In this event one year ago, McMurray led 27 laps and finished runner-up in that Aaron's 499.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.
With the No. 88 team apparently on the upswing in 2011, Earnhardt makes a good fantasy racing play at his best tracks. He owns five career wins at this 2.66-mile oval and he finished runner-up to Brad Keselowski in this race in 2009. With close to 700 career laps led at this oval and his good performance in Speedweeks at Daytona earlier this season, we have to take Earnhardt very serious from a fantasy racing perspective this Sunday afternoon.

Kevin Harvick
One team that has really impressed us the last few seasons on the super speedways is the No. 29 team of Richard Childress Racing. Harvick made a last-lap pass of Jamie McMurray in this event one year ago to win the last installment of the Aaron's 499. When the Sprint Cup Series returned to Talladega Superspeedway in the fall of last year, it was Harvick battling with teammate Clint Bowyer to the line on the last lap before finishing runner-up. We have to give Harvick top consideration for the Aaron's 499 this weekend.

Clint Bowyer
The other half of the Richard Childress Racing assault on Talladega is driver Bowyer. The No. 33 Chevrolet team has been solid the last few races, and Bowyer has been dependable on the series' restrictor-plate tracks in recent seasons. He led 19 laps and battled teammate Kevin Harvick to the win here last October. Bowyer led 31 laps in the Daytona 500 earlier this season, and served notice that he has graduated from super speedway "solid play" to a contender for wins in these events.

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

Juan Pablo Montoya
Montoya is off to a great start this season. Riding high in the championship standings, he comes to one of his most consistent ovals this weekend. The driver of the No. 42 Chevrolet has a nose for restrictor-plate racing. Montoya is a two-time pole winner at Talladega Superspeedway and he collected a pair of third-place finishes at the huge oval last season. He now has three Top 10's in his last four restrictor-plate races.

Kurt Busch
Despite being winless on the superspeedways of the Sprint Cup Series, you won't find a more consistent performer on these huge ovals that Busch. His 25 career Top 10's in 41 starts at both Daytona and Talladega are an excellent reminder. Busch sports an unheard of 65 percent Top 10 rate at Talladega Superspeedway alone. That is by far the best in the series. Busch has a nose for avoiding the wrecks, and that's a very special skill at this oval.

Carl Edwards
The driver of the No. 99 Ford may not have the best career Talladega stats, but he's really come on at the huge oval in the last couple years. He was in the running for the win in this event in 2009 on the last lap when a spectacular crash took him out just yards before the start/finish line. Edwards' runner-up finish in this season's Daytona 500 served notice to the ranks that this driver and team's restrictor-plate racing program is finally reaching the top.

Trevor Bayne
Considering the young driver has struggled immensely since his Daytona 500 win in February of this year, it was a hard choice to put Bayne in the solid plays list this week. However, we've had to overlook his struggles on the other ovals and look back on just how strong the No. 21 Ford was at the Florida super speedway. Bayne had the ability to push anyone to the front and be in the running for the victory at the end. He played the strategy brilliantly in the Daytona 500 and should again this week. Oh, and the Wood Brothers Racing team should give him yet another strong restrictor-plate race car.

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

David Ragan
After his second straight Top 10 this past weekend at Texas, the No. 6 team has arrived on fantasy racing radar screens everywhere. As most fans will recall, Ragan came one mental error away from winning this season's Daytona 500 on the last restart. The Roush Fenway Racing driver had run a brilliant race to that point, and the No. 6 Ford was very fast. We expect Ragan to keep the beat rolling in the Aaron's 499 at Talladega.

Kyle Busch
The Joe Gibbs Racing star is making an impression this season in the Sprint Cup Series. He enters this race second in the overall standings and running well at all types of ovals. Busch doesn't have the best career stats at Talladega Superspeedway, but he does own one career win at the Alabama oval. The No. 18 Toyota looked good at Daytona earlier this season en route to an eighth-place finish. Busch also finished ninth in this event one year ago. We expect similar results this Sunday afternoon.

Matt Kenseth
Coming off the big win at Texas Motor Speedway, the No. 17 Ford team comes to Talladega on the crest of the wave of huge momentum. Kenseth has been solid in almost every race this season. His restrictor-plate racing numbers are spotty at best, but he has been a consistent performer on these super speedways at times in his career. In his last race at Talladega Superspeedway, Kenseth led 13 laps and finished 16th in last fall's Amp Energy Juice 500. He'll outdo that performance this weekend.

Brad Keselowski
The Penske Racing youngster is a bit of a boom or bust pick this week at Talladega. He burst onto the Sprint Cup Series scene with his victory in this event two years ago for car owner James Finch. Since then, Keselowski has picked up two more Top-10 finishes in three starts. The driver of the No. 2 Dodge led his first laps of the season at Fort Worth this past week, so we sense that Keselowski could be heating up heading to one of his favorite tracks.

A.J. Allmendinger
Allmendinger had a fast car earlier this season in the Daytona 500 and he used it to lead 4 laps and finish a respectable 11th in the Great American race. The Richard Petty Motorsports driver has suspect restrictor-plate racing statistics, but a fast race car goes along way to negating that in this style of racing. Allmendinger finished a Talladega career-best 19th in this event one year ago, and we believe he'll be much better in this weekend's Aaron's 499.

Paul Menard
In going with the Daytona theme for this race, we have one more driver to add to the list. Menard was very impressive in the Daytona 500 back in February. He ran among the leaders for most of the race, led 11 laps and finished ninth. Despite Menard's spotty past record at Talladega, which includes 4 DNF's, the Richard Childress Racing driver is surging right now. This should all add up to another Top 15 effort for Menard this Sunday afternoon.

Flops - Drivers to avoid at all costs

Jimmie Johnson Johnson's only real weakness is super speedway racing. Still, the No. 48 team is good enough to be better than most of the drivers in the series on these style tracks. The one thing that forces us to lower our expectations this weekend for the reigning Sprint Cup Series champion is his lack of performance to this point in the season. Johnson has yet to really hit his stride coming to Talladega, and it will show in the Aaron's 499. Only a paltry three of his last eight super speedway starts have resulted in Top 10's vs. four DNF's during that span.

Ryan Newman
Despite leading 37 laps in the Daytona 500 earlier this season, we enter this week's race with a very pessimistic attitude toward the Stewart Haas Racing veteran. Newman failed to crack the Top 10 after leading all those laps at Daytona, and his Talladega fortunes have been just as tough in recent seasons. Newman has only cracked the Top 20 once in his last five trips to central Alabama, with three DNF's during that span. That spells major risk for fantasy racing players everywhere.

Jeff Burton
As we approach the final seasons of Burton's NASCAR racing career, the reliability of his performances is becoming an issue. Burton enters this event a lowly 25th in the driver standings after his season-best 11th-place finish at Fort Worth this past weekend. Burton has been struggling to get any traction to this point in the season. The No. 31 team's last four trips to the plate tracks have been pretty disappointing. Burton has one Top-10 finish in those four starts and two DNF's, including the engine failure in the Daytona 500 this February.

Jeff Gordon
Over the last few seasons, Gordon has gone from restrictor-plate racing ace to super speedway has been. The six-time Talladega winner has only cracked the Top 10 once in his last six trips to the huge oval. Considering that Gordon is limping into this event after only one Top 10 in his last five races, we have to be very reserved about the No. 24 team's chances in the Aaron's 499. Keep Gordon on the fantasy bench until he heats up later this season.