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Good Sam Club 500 Preview: Superspeedway 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 Sprint Cup Series heads to the heartland of Talladega, Ala., this weekend for the sixth race in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, the 12 drivers in the Chase field will brace themselves for the wild action that is restrictor-plate racing at Talladega Superspeedway. This is the perfect event to throw in with the short tracks, flat tracks, and intermediate ovals that make up the final 10 races in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship. Considering that super speedway racing has morphed into a "two-car draft tango" the last couple seasons, strategy will mean more than ever in this event. NASCAR has taken some technical steps to discourage two car drafts in this race, but it remains to be seen how much impact they'll have. One thing is painfully clear in the current Sprint Cup Series car, and that is that two cars are much faster than one, and somewhat faster than three or more lined up. So we know we'll see some two-car draft action this Sunday afternoon, but just how much remains to be seen. If Jimmie Johnson hopes to engrave his name on the Sprint Cup for a sixth consecutive time, a victory here will go a long way in that end. The Hendrick Motorsports star won here in April of this year. That victory should go a long way towards boosting Johnson's confidence entering this event. The two biggest threats to Johnson's championship hopes this season, Carl Edwards and Kevin Harvick, sport some of the best finishing stats in the series at the 2.666-mile tri-oval. When the green flag drops the mayhem will ensue and championship hopes will be made or dashed after 500 miles of racing at 'Dega.

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 13 races at the famous restrictor-place track.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.20.23,075602181,58092.7
Denny Hamlin18.72,409501961,15290.9
Joey Logano12.61,382122465190.2
Jeff Burton21.03,56947711,42288.9
David Ragan17.01,993192590387.1
Kurt Busch14.43,20742781,52686.9
Brian Vickers19.52,32730671,17785.4
Jeff Gordon18.32,009353301,21384.4
Jimmie Johnson13.62,56838691,25783.8
Tony Stewart17.32,008562111,15782.5
Matt Kenseth19.43,112401061,41082.5
Juan Pablo Montoya16.41,896344199081.6
Brad Keselowski17.21,067282038780.8
Jamie McMurray19.41,943431471,11180.5
Kyle Busch24.22,284691341,18980.3
Kevin Harvick14.52,32354931,13778.9
Martin Truex Jr.24.22,27336441,15977.6
Trevor Bayne40.0148355576.5
Clint Bowyer17.81,386496367375.1
Ryan Newman21.22,056305292674.0

The loop stats from Talladega look peculiar when compared to other tracks in the series. Right away we notice a lack of drivers like Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards 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 Jimmie Johnson being pushed by teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. to nip Clint Bowyer at the finish line in what was an eight-car dash to the stripe on the final lap. Just when you thought you had seen it all at Talladega that finish was one of the most thrilling and close in the track's history. The 88 lead changes tied for a track record at Talladega Superspeedway. We're not sure what to expect this time with all the rule changes, but we're sure the drivers will quickly adapt to the conditions and the new rules. We've seen races taken in the closing laps by drivers who sandbag in the back hoping to avoid the wrecks, and that could be the case again in Sunday's Good Sam Club 500. We may see many wrecks and caution flags as a result of the new rules, so the driver who keeps a low profile may ultimately be the one to push to the front in the closing laps and make for a thrilling victory. One thing is for certain, the championship field should narrow even more after this 500-mile event. Some drivers will move on to Martinsville with their Chase for the Cup hopes intact, while others load the wrecked remains of their race cars onto the hauler and start to think towards next season. Here are the drivers who you need to focus on for fantasy racing glory at Talladega Superspeedway.

The Contenders - Drivers in the hunt for the win

Kevin Harvick -
The Richard Childress Racing veteran is without a doubt the prime contender for this week's race at Talladega. With two wins and six Top 10's in the last seven restrictor-plate races, 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 these super speedways. With the championship hanging in the balance we know Harvick will throw out all the stops at trying to visit victory lane this weekend.

Jimmie Johnson -
Johnson is in peril for defending his string of championships. He has fallen all the way to eighth overall at 35 points behind leader Carl Edwards. If the Hendrick Motorsports star hopes to keep the dream alive, he's going to need a win this Sunday at Talladega. The good news is that one of the No. 48 team's two victories this season came at Talladega this April. Johnson rode the front bumper of Earnhardt Jr. to win the Aaron's 499 by the narrowest of margins. That was his second career victory at the 2.666-mile oval. You can't count out the reigning champion any weekend the series races.

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. His three restrictor-plate starts this season have netted one runner-up finish and he's led 72 laps in those events. The last three trips to the mid-Alabama speedway have seen the No. 33 team finish seventh, first and second. Outside of the victory in this event one year ago, Bowyer has been in the running for the trophy in each of those starts.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. -
While the 2011 season has fallen short of expectations yet again for Earnhardt, there have been a few bright spots along the way. He won the pole for this season's Daytona 500. The driver of the No. 88 Chevy also pushed teammate Jimmie Johnson to the win and finished fourth in this season's Aaron's 499 at Talladega. The NASCAR icon will be looking to make an impression this Sunday at the huge speedway. Earnhardt should be favored by the new rules that NASCAR has implemented for this race. We could see a return to three-wide multi-car packs on the high banks of this oval. He won five races at this facility in that style of racing. Don't forget that this Sunday afternoon.

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

Jeff Gordon -
Gordon is the top restrictor-plate driver among all active drivers with a series-leading 12 victories. So it's not surprising that we've listed him in our solid plays list this week. The Hendrick Motorsports star has fallen well off the pace for this season's championship and that's what is really surprising. Although he is slumping, there's good reason to believe Gordon will rebound this Sunday afternoon at Talladega Superspeedway. The No. 24 team has been sharp in 2011 on these huge ovals. Gordon enters this event with one pole and two Top 10's this season in the three restrictor-plate races. Gordon was in the wild, eight-car dash to the finish in the earlier Talladega race and we're willing to bet he'll be in the excitement again.

Kurt Busch -
The No. 22 Penske Racing team has had just a fantastic season, but everything has gone stale for the veteran driver in the Chase for the Cup. Busch will be looking to salvage his season with a good run at Talladega on Sunday. He enters this race a distant seventh in the Chase Standings, and looking for a big boost in the Good Sam Club 500. Busch has been a reliable fantasy racing start over recent seasons on the super speedways. The veteran driver has led 44 laps in the three restrictor-plate races this season, and he raced up front at Daytona this summer. Busch's career 62 percent Top 10 rate at Talladega Superspeedway is incredible when compared to the elite drivers in the series.

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 captured two Top 10's on super speedways this season, we have to respect his ability. Busch is surging after his runner-up finish at Charlotte this past week, so he should be up to the challenge in Sunday's Good Sam Club 500.

Kasey Kahne -
The No. 4 Toyota team rides into Talladega riding a pretty good surge of momentum on the heels of Kahne's three-race Top-5 streak. The Red Bull Racing driver may be outside the Chase picture, but he is making a powerful statement of his chances for next season in a Hendrick Chevrolet. Kahne finished a brilliant fourth at Daytona this summer in the series' latest visit to a restrictor-plate track. While his last three trips to Talladega Superspeedway have been somewhat forgettable, we expect Kahne to flex his super speedway muscles this Sunday afternoon.

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

Joey Logano -
The last third of the season has been a tough go for Logano and the No. 20 Toyota team. However, evidence points to some improvement around the corner. He's fresh off a 12th-place finish at Charlotte and looking for more in this weekend's Good Sam Club 500. The restrictor-plate tracks have been good for Logano this season and for his career for that matter. His earlier visit to Dega netted a Top-10 finish, and his last effort on a super speedway at Daytona was a brilliant third-place finish. With four Top 10's in five career Talladega starts, Logano appears to be a no-brainer for this 500-mile nail-biter.

David Ragan -
The winner of our last restrictor-plate race comes to Talladega Superspeedway this weekend looking for more checkered flags and visits to victory lane. Ragan has to be looking forward to Talladega this weekend. Aside from his victory at Daytona, Ragan was in the mix earlier in the season in the Daytona 500 before making a crucial mistake late that took him out of the running for the win. He still finished a respectable 14th. The driver of the No. 6 Ford boasts three career Top 10's at this track and a respectable average finish of 17.0.

A.J. Allmendinger -
Allmendinger has really put Richard Petty Motorsports on the map this season. Week-in and week-out the No. 43 team is seen racing with the leaders and challenging the Top 10. The Dinger has also been quite proficient on the big super speedways this season. With a Top-10 finish at Daytona back in the summer and a pair of 11th-place finishes in the two earlier restrictor-plate racing events, Allmendinger has shown an ability to avoid the wrecks and be consistent in this two-car style of drafting that has evolved on the large ovals. Whatever changes come this weekend, we expect Allmendinger to be ahead of the curve when it comes to adapting.

Matt Kenseth -
While Kenseth's super speedway racing record, specifically at Talladega isn't the best, we have to sort of throw that out the window this weekend. The Roush Fenway Racing star enters this event thick in the hunt for the championship. The urgency to perform at Talladega Superspeedway will be at an all-time high for the No. 17 team. Kenseth showed in his last restrictor-plate race at Daytona that he was capable of big things on these huge ovals. That evening in July the veteran driver cruised home to a runner-up finish in the Coke Zero 400. We wouldn't rule out some more surprises for this driver and team on Sunday afternoon.

Paul Menard -
Menard and the No. 27 team will join their teammates Kevin Harvick and Clint Bowyer in racing with the leaders this weekend at Talladega. Menard has shown some ability on the plate tracks in 2011. He had a pair of Top 10's this season at Daytona and a good 12th-place finish the last time we visited Talladega Superspeedway. The yellow Menards Chevy has been seen racing up front on these huge ovals all season long. The RCR Chevrolets are typically fast on these super speedways, so it doesn't hurt at all to gamble on Menard this weekend.

Regan Smith -
In the deep sleeper category, we can't overlook Smith this Sunday. He's made a comfortable nest in the Furniture Row Racing No. 78 Chevrolet this season, and he has put up good results on the super speedways. Smith has the experience to take this small race team to a good finish in the Good Sam Club 500. He's led 17 laps in restrictor-plate events this season. Smith also had a Top 10 in the Daytona 500 and a Top 15 the last time the series visited Talladega. He should crack the Top 20 in this event and possibly exceed expectations for a lower tier driver.

David Gilliland -
With finishes of third-, ninth- and 16th-place this season in restrictor-plate racing events, the surprising Gilliland has been one of the more consistent performers on the super speedways in 2011. The Front Row Motorsports veteran has been seen racing with the leaders in the closing laps of all the Daytona and Talladega races this season. For those playing in weekly lineup leagues, Gilliland is not only a consideration for this Sunday's Good Sam Club 500 he's nearly a mandatory start.

Flops - Drivers to avoid at all costs

Marcos Ambrose -
The No. 47 team have been quite productive this season from a fantasy racing standpoint, so it's hard to place them in the flops list this week. Ambrose is riding a three-race Top 10 streak into this event. However, we believe the buck stops here for the Richard Petty Motorsports driver. Ambrose has been as tough luck as they come on the restrictor-plate tracks during his brief Sprint Cup Series career. He's only cracked the Top 20 once in his last eight trips to Talladega and Daytona. Those are some very stark statistics heading into Sunday's Good Sam Club 500.

Ryan Newman -
We usually lean on Newman on a weekly basis for fantasy racing consistency, but he's fallen on hard times the last few weeks. Outside of his Top 10 at Charlotte this past week, the Chase has been quite forgettable for the No. 39 team. Newman posted a bunch of Top 10's at Talladega in the middle part of this past decade, but he has struggled in recent outings. The SHR veteran has four DNF's and no Top-20 finishes in his last eight restrictor-plate events. Newman 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.

David Reutimann -
Slumping driver meet bad venue. That's the best way to sum up the No. 00 team and Reutimann this week. The Michael Waltrip Racing veteran has been in a season-long slump and his subpar 26th-place finish at Charlotte Motor Speedway this past week is very illustrative of that fact. The restrictor-plate race tracks have been a house of horrors for Reutimann this season, so it's fitting that Halloween is just around the corner. Finishes of 30th-, 14th- and 25th-place have been the super speedway tale of the tape for this driver in 2011.

Brian Vickers -
Since his seventh-place finish in the summer of 2009 at Daytona, it's been tough sledding for the Red Bull Racing star on the super speedways. Vickers is a one-time Talladega winner, but his recent history at this huge oval has been nothing to write home about. Since that 2006 victory he's only cracked the Top 10 twice in the seven starts since. That includes a disastrous 38th-place finish in this spring's Aaron's 499. His Red Bull Racing teammate Kasey Kahne will likely be up front Sunday afternoon, but don't expect the same for Vickers and company.