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Aaron's 499 Preview: Superspeedway Wild Card

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 2012 season. The enormous tri-oval in Talladega, Ala., is the largest track on the Sprint Cup circuit, measuring an amazing 2.66 miles and a death-defying 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. In the recent past, we've seen the two-car draft dominate the action at both Daytona and Talladega. With the old aero, cooling and handling rules package the tandem draft was the fastest way around these super speedways. Two cars coupled together nose to tail could produce much higher speeds than multiple car drafts or single cars. NASCAR made a series of changes to the super speedway package on the Sprint Cup car and that has effectively eliminated the two-car draft for the large part. What resulted in the Daytona 500 were drivers content to ride in the large, multi-car drafts and the bump drafting and two-car tandems were greatly reduced. Whenever drivers were brave enough to venture back to the two-car draft it often resulted in spins and crashes due to the greater handling sensitivity and much smaller rear spoiler. The Daytona 500 brought back the big crashes at "go time" and the riding around in the back hoping to avoid the big one. At go time drivers had to find teammates and the driver's spotters went back to the art of negotiating partnerships with other drivers. It was a big departure from what we've seen on the restrictor-plate tracks in recent seasons, 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 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 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 rejuvenated the "luck factor" thanks to the large packs of cars drafting in close quarters again. So 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 seven years or 14 races at Talladega Superspeedway.

Jeff Burton19.63,83448971,59691.3
Dale Earnhardt Jr.20.63,152622201,61890.2
Denny Hamlin17.82,567541961,20688.7
Joey Logano14.51,542192472588.6
David Ragan18.12,23024261,04787.1
Kurt Busch15.93,44045791,62186.2
Tony Stewart16.62,256582411,29384.3
Matt Kenseth19.33,345431271,31183.7
Jeff Gordon18.92,054373311,23882.6
Jimmie Johnson14.52,62640701,29081.9
Juan Pablo Montoya17.12,10939571,09181.8
Brad Keselowski15.01,175312143680.6
Jamie McMurray20.12,102461591,19180.5
Clint Bowyer16.41,645548884679.2
Kyle Busch24.92,466721391,25478.6
Kevin Harvick15.72,467561061,20778.0
Martin Truex Jr.23.22,35940441,21476.6
Aric Almirola24.042816522775.9
Ryan Newman22.42,211345799474.0

The last couple of seasons have seen Chevrolet teams prevail in a battle for control of this super speedway. Chevy teams have won the last four straight races at Talladega, and five of the last six. In particular, the teams of Richard Childress Racing have been hauling away most of the hardware. RCR drivers have won three of the last four races at the 2.666-mile tri-oval. Whether this is due to equipment, driver skill or both is debatable, however you can't argue with the victories. Kevin Harvick would appear to be in the best position to defend this stable's streak at Talladega Super Speedway. Harvick is a one-time winner at this oval, and really the only team in the RCR stable that has displayed the ability to win this season. Considering what we saw in the Daytona 500 earlier this season, a real manufacturer's battle should be shaping up for Sunday's Aaron's 499. Roush Fenway Racing Fords captured the win and third- and eighth-place at Daytona in February, with the trio leading 94 of the 202 laps run. Matt Kenseth walked away with his second Daytona 500 victory and Greg Biffle flexed some season-opener muscle. We could be in for more of the same Ford upheaval this weekend. Considering that the RCR teams finished five, six and seven in the season opener, you can almost guarantee that the Childress teams will wage a heated battle with the Roush Fords in the second superspeedway race of the 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

Dale Earnhardt Jr. -
With the No. 88 team apparently on the trail of another Chase berth in 2012, Earnhardt makes a good fantasy racing play almost every weekend. On his best tracks, we have to upgrade the NASCAR icon to contender status. Earnhardt owns five career wins at this 2.66-mile oval and he led 11 laps and finished a brilliant fourth in this race last season. The driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet was very outspoken and favorable about the rules change back to pack drafting and it showed with his runner-up finish and flirtation with victory lane in the Daytona 500 back in February. With more than 700 career laps led at this oval and his great performances in Speedweeks at Daytona earlier this season, we have to take Earnhardt very serious from a fantasy racing perspective this Sunday afternoon.

Denny Hamlin -
Hamlin sports a good driver rating of 88.7 at Talladega Superspeedway, and the Joe Gibbs Racing team almost always brings a fast car to this event each season. Only three drivers in the current Cup field have more "fastest laps" at Talladega the last seven years than Hamlin. What has been typically missing for the No. 11 Toyota team is the richly deserved finishes at this huge oval. This should be the time that the luck finally meets the equipment in this weekend's Aaron's 499. Hamlin has Top 10s in three of his last four trips to central Alabama, so the timing could be right for his first career Talladega victory.

Matt Kenseth -
Our Daytona 500 winner comes to Talladega Superspeedway this weekend looking to continue his super speedway dominance in 2012 and to get that Dega monkey off his back. In 24 career starts at the famous restrictor-plate race track the Roush Fenway Racing star has never broken into the win column. Despite being a two-time Daytona 500 winner, Kenseth hasn't been able to carry that success to the sister track in Alabama. This could be the weekend for change. The driver of the No. 17 Ford has led close to 200 laps at this facility over the years despite not taking any trophies home. That imbalance has to correct itself at some point. The superiority of the Roush teams at Daytona earlier this season has us more than optimistic.

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 has three career victories between the restrictor-plate tracks of Daytona and Talladega. His last four trips to the central Alabama tri-oval have yielded one victory and three Top-5 finishes. While it seems Harvick may have been more of a master of the tandem draft than the pack drafting, he still excels at this form of stock car racing. His seventh-place finish in this February's Daytona 500 underscores the point. If the RCR team brings a fast car to this Sunday's Aaron's 499 there are few doubts about what Harvick can do with it.

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

Greg Biffle -
Despite being winless on the superspeedways of the Sprint Cup Series, you won't find a more consistent recent performer on these huge ovals than Biffle. The championship standings leader has a pair of Top 10s in his last four trips to the restrictor-plate tracks. That includes his brilliant outside pole starting spot, 44 laps led and third-place finish in this February's Daytona 500 to kick off the 2012 season. Biffle posted an outstanding seventh-place finish in this event one year ago, and that was in a less-than-impressive campaign for the No. 16 team in 2011.

Jeff Burton -
The season started in grand style for Burton and the No. 31 team. The veteran driver of over 18 Sprint Cup Series seasons led 24 laps and finished a brilliant fifth in this season's Daytona 500. That great performance came virtually on the heels of last October's 26 laps led and runner-up finish in the series' last visit to Talladega Superspeedway. Things have not gone so smooth for Burton since the Daytona 500, but that's no reason to be pessimistic about the Richard Childress Racing veteran this weekend. Burton's fantastic loop stats at the Talladega oval bear this optimism out. No one in the series has more quality passes at this super speedway than Burton, and only two drivers in the entire series have spent more laps racing in the Top 15 here.

Clint Bowyer -
On a track that takes a lot of luck and skill to win, Bowyer has been excelling in both categories recently at Talladega Superspeedway. The driver of the MWR No. 15 Toyota has won two of the last three races at this facility, and Bowyer has been dependable on the series' restrictor-plate tracks in recent seasons. He led 25 laps and battled former teammate Jeff Burton to the win here last October. The move to Michael Waltrip Racing is a bit of a downgrade, but as Bowyer showed in the Daytona 500 by finishing 11th, there's still a very big driver component to success in racing on these huge ovals.

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 past few 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. In the 2011 edition of the Aaron's 499, Edwards got the finish he deserved by leading 8 laps and finishing sixth. The Roush Fenway Racing star's pole position and eighth-place finish in the Daytona 500 earlier this season have us feeling very confident of his chances this Sunday afternoon.

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

Tony Stewart -
Our reigning champion ended his brief slump with a dominant performance this past weekend at Richmond. That should firmly place the No. 14 Chevrolet team in our sites for this visit to Talladega. Smoke has led the second-most laps of any driver in the series the last seven years at this facility. He has led 300 career laps at this huge oval and is a one-time Talladega winner. Stewart led a hefty 30 laps in the last race at Talladega Superspeedway and he finished a respectable seventh after 500-miles of action. It shouldn't be too difficult to replicate that effort this weekend in the Aaron's 499.

Martin Truex Jr. -
One of the hottest drivers in the series right now is Truex, and despite coming off the poor finish at Richmond we hold high hopes for the No. 56 Toyota team this weekend at Talladega. Truex has led 55 laps in his last six restrictor-plate races. In addition to running at the front, the Michael Waltrip Racing star has been a finisher as well. Truex brought home a 10th-place finish in the last Talladega event in October of last year. He also led 7 laps and finished 12th at Daytona earlier this season. The No. 56 team has somehow found a lot of speed this season and we don't expect that to change in Sunday afternoon's Aaron's 499.

Juan Pablo Montoya -
The last time we saw Montoya in action on a super speedway, he crashed into and burned down the jet dryer in the Daytona 500. Put that incident completely out of your mind. Aside from being one of the strangest things we've ever seen in a NASCAR race, it was the most improbable thing that could happen to a driver who normally competes at a high level on these style tracks. The Earnhardt Ganassi Racing star has three Top 10s in his last six super speedway races. Montoya shows a tendency to perform better at the Talladega oval as opposed to the huge track at Daytona. He has one pole position, 37 laps led and a pair of Top 5s in his last four trips to Talladega Superspeedway.

Joey Logano -
Another person who has been an underperform driver this season, but gets an upgrade this weekend is Joe Gibbs Racing driver Logano. The young pilot of the No. 20 Toyota has very strong loop stats and a good finishing average at this 2.66-mile oval. Logano has been able to collect four Top-10 finishes in six career starts at this track where luck often outweighs skill. Those stats include his 10th-place finish in this event one year ago. Logano also finished ninth in this season's Daytona 500. It is often said a driver has to have a "nose" for racing in the draft and it appears that Logano has this skill in spades.

Trevor Bayne -
The 2011 Daytona 500 winner always pops up on our radar screen each time we visit the restrictor-plate tracks. This time around is no different. The Wood Brothers Racing team will field the usual No. 21 Ford for Bayne this Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway. The last time we saw this part-time team in action Bayne was caught up in someone else's mess and finished poorly at Daytona. If we roll the clock back to last October, we saw Bayne qualify a solid fourth and finish a respectable 15th in the last Talladega race. There's little doubt that the young driver will have a fast race car this weekend, but he just needs the luck to finish it deservingly.

Michael Waltrip -
The owner of the No. 55 Toyota will slip behind the wheel for the first time this season in this weekend's Talladega race. It will be a shot at redemption after failing to qualify another team's car in the Daytona 500 this past February. Waltrip's super speedway racing skills need no introduction. With three career Daytona wins and one career Talladega win, Waltrip has been one of the most successful restrictor-plate competitors of the last decade. In last October's Good Sam Club 500, we witnessed Waltrip finish ninth in his own race car at Talladega. We should be in for a sequel this Sunday afternoon.

Paul Menard -
In going with the Daytona 500/Richard Childress Racing 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 raced among the leaders for most of the event, led 2 laps and finished sixth. Despite his Daytona success being better documented than his Talladega success, we are still quite optimistic for Menard this weekend. Three of his last six super speedway starts have yielded Top-10 finishes and none of those efforts have failed to crack the Top 15. That the kind of consistency you simply can't find on these style ovals.

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 five-time Sprint Cup Series champion is his lack of performance in recent restrictor-plate track outings. Johnson has finishes of 20th-, 26th- and 42nd- in his last three super speedway races. His crash and DNF in February's Daytona 500 is just the most recent in a series of letdowns at these big ovals. The No. 48 team has the goods to prove us wrong, but history and stats are not in Johnson's corner this weekend.

Ryan Newman -
Given his recent poor restrictor-plate track performances, we enter this week's race very pessimistic towards the Stewart Haas Racing veteran. Newman finished on the lead lap of the Daytona 500, but he was Mr. Invisible in that race coming home a disappointing 21st. That was actually a pretty good outing for Newman in light of his recent slump on these big super speedways. The driver of the No. 39 Chevrolet has failed to crack the Top 20 in his last five Talladega outings and with two DNF's during that span. Newman's car has a nose for trouble at these speedways, so it's best to stay away for Sunday's Aaron's 499.

Kyle Busch -
Coming off the win at Richmond we have to do a 180 this weekend and deposit Busch in the flops list this week. The Joe Gibbs Racing star doesn't have the best career stats at Talladega Superspeedway, despite being a one-time winner here. The No. 18 Toyota team tends to perform better at the Daytona oval than Talladega and the numbers bear this out. Busch has only two Top 10s in 14 career visits to the central Alabama speedway. His last three trips here have been particularly poor with three finishes outside the Top 20 and one DNF. Keep Busch on the bench this week and redeploy him the following week at Darlington.

Jeff Gordon -
Luck has been anything but good or plentiful for the Hendrick Motorsports star this season. After nine races Gordon finds himself a miserable 17th in the series driver standings. That's based on only two Top-10 finishes thus far this season. Gordon is a six-time winner at the Talladega oval, but his recent outings have been less than impressive. He finished a lowly 27th last October at Talladega Superspeedway and he finished a terrible 40th in the Daytona 500 after an engine failure. There are much safer plays in the fantasy racing field for this weekend.