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Aaron's 499 Preview: Surviving the Big One

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 the second restrictor-plate race of the 2013 season. The enormous tri-oval in Talladega, Ala., is the largest track on the Sprint Cup circuit, measuring an amazing 2.66 miles with stunning 33-degree banking in 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. With the two-car draft now becoming a distant memory, we're seeing more pack and single-file racing mixed throughout these superspeedway races. The new Gen-6 race car is adding another variable into that equation. The teams are just getting a handle on the new car and how it reacts in the multi-car drafting conditions of Talladega and Daytona. What resulted in the Daytona 500 were drivers content to ride in the long, single-file lines and the bump drafting and two-car tandems were virtually eliminated. We saw some multi-pack drafting mayhem on the restarts, but that quickly settled into single-file lines in a matter of laps. This season's 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. Once again, winning on these superspeedways has been reduced to the lowest common denominator, when to make your move and who to do it with. As we saw at Daytona, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Danica Patrick's tardiness to pounce likely cost both a chance to beat Jimmie Johnson and win the Daytona 500. 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" with all the rules changes and the new Gen-6 car. 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 eight years or 16 races at Talladega Superspeedway.

Jeff Burton18.44,327521031,80791.4
Dale Earnhardt Jr.19.83,577682481,82089.6
Matt Kenseth17.13,838522331,91888.9
Brian Vickers18.32,55534701,29987.3
Kurt Busch17.63,88845891,85686.1
Brad Keselowski12.31,777373173085.6
David Ragan16.02,39735271,13085.5
Denny Hamlin17.92,756662041,29784.9
Tony Stewart17.42,572692581,46083.5
Jeff Gordon18.82,577413381,46783.1
Jamie McMurray20.42,606481971,44681.7
Kyle Busch22.13,061761461,52781.1
Jimmie Johnson15.92,86646861,39580.9
Aric Almirola21.21,01618547180.7
Joey Logano18.11,640302475179.1
Clint Bowyer16.11,99368961,00779.0
Juan Pablo Montoya20.12,50945601,25478.8
Kevin Harvick16.02,851721191,38778.7
Trevor Bayne21.01,029141036177.3
Greg Biffle18.32,33962591,10675.3

The last year has seen Chevrolet lose its grip on this superspeedway. Brad Keselowski in a Dodge and Matt Kenseth in a Ford took both Talladega races in 2012. Prior to that, Chevy teams had won four straight races at Talladega Superspeedway and five of the prior six. With this changing of the guard, we have to give it due consideration for this Sunday's Aaron's 499. Both Keselowski and Kenseth will be in new cars this weekend. Keselowski in a Ford and Kenseth in a Toyota, but we expect their high level of performance to continue. Jimmie Johnson would appear to be in the best position to reassert Chevrolet's streak of dominance at Talladega superspeedway. Johnson is a two-time winner at this oval, and he captured the victory in this season's Daytona 500. That gives him a leg up on the rest of the field since he owns the only superspeedway victory to this point in the new Gen-6 car. His Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Dale Earnhardt Jr., is likely the other candidate to best defend Chevrolet's honor at the 2.66-mile oval. He piloted the No. 88 Chevrolet to a runner-up finish in this season's Daytona 500 after his late move failed to unseat Johnson from the point during the white-flag lap. 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 and Penske Racing Fords showed some real muscle. Both Greg Biffle and Keselowski were real threats to win. We could be in for more of the same Ford upheaval this weekend. Considering that our last Talladega winner, Kenseth, will now be piloting a Toyota, we can't overlook this camp either. All-in-all it's shaping up to look like quite a battle between Ford, Toyota and Chevrolet. There should be plenty of potential Top-10 finishes for each. 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

Matt Kenseth -
Our most recent Talladega winner comes into Aaron's 499 weekend looking to continue his superspeedway dominance in 2013. It took 26 career starts to get that first victory at the Alabama superspeedway, but we're willing to bet it won't take that long to get the second. It could come as early at this Sunday afternoon. The new Joe Gibbs Racing driver had a very dominant car in the Daytona 500 earlier this season. Kenseth led 86 laps before an engine failure ruined his chances of winning the season-opener. No driver in the Sprint Cup Series has led as many laps or has as much hardware as Kenseth on these superspeedway ovals the last two seasons.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. -
With the No. 88 team apparently on the trail of another Chase berth in 2013, 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 10 laps and finished a respectable ninth in this race last season. The driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet made a late-race move and finished a brilliant second in this season's Daytona 500, which marked the first superspeedway event in the new Gen-6 car. With over 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.

Jimmie Johnson -
Johnson is probably the boom-or-bust pick of the contenders group this week. The five-time champion has two career Talladega victories to his credit, but also has had a tendency to fade to irrelevance at this huge Alabama oval. Johnson erases a few of those concerns with what he did in this season's Daytona 500. He led 17 laps and walked away with the trophy at Daytona in February. Given that the No. 48 Chevrolet team hoisted the Aaron's 499 trophy as recently as in this event in 2011, it's easy to see why we've included Johnson in the contenders list this week.

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 Roush Fenway Racing veteran has well over 100 laps led in the last five trips to the restrictor-plate tracks. That includes his impressive third-row starting spot and sixth-place finish in this February's Daytona 500 to kick off the 2013 season. In four of his last five Talladega and Daytona starts, the driver of the No. 16 Ford has brought home Top-6 finishes. Last season it was Matt Kenseth collecting the long overdue Talladega win, and this year it may be Biffle in that same position.

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

Kevin Harvick -
One team that has really impressed us the last few seasons on the superspeedways is the No. 29 team of Richard Childress Racing. Harvick has three career victories between the restrictor-plate tracks of Daytona and Talladega. When we couple that with the momentum of his Richmond victory this past weekend, we get good vibes for the RCR star at Talladega. Harvick had a dynamite car during Speedweeks, where he captured victories in both the Sprint Unlimited and Bud Duel. Unfortunately, he crashed and DNFs in the Daytona 500. However, this team's speed in the new Gen-6 car is unquestionable, and Harvick's superspeedway experience is as deep as they come.

Brad Keselowski -
The winner of this event one-year ago returns to defend his Aaron's 499 crown. That victory made two Talladega trophies in the young Keselowski's trophy case. We're quite sure there's room for more. The reigning Sprint Cup Series champion enters this event with a string of four Top 10s in the last four superspeedway races. That places Keselowski in a very elite group due to the luck and skill necessary to put together such a streak on the restrictor-plate tracks. His debut in the new Gen-6 car at Daytona was no less impressive as the driver of the No. 2 Ford was one of the fastest drivers on the speedway in the last 100 miles of the Daytona 500. He led 13 laps and finished a brilliant fourth.

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 five races at this facility, and Bowyer has five Top 10s in his last six trips to Talladega Superspeedway. He raced with the leaders and finished a respectable 11th in the Daytona 500 in February, so we expect the high level of performance to be in order. It all adds up to a career 50 percent Top 10 rate for Bowyer at Talladega and that places the driver of the No. 15 Toyota in some pretty elite company.

Jeff Gordon -
Luck has been anything but good or plentiful for the Hendrick Motorsports star this season. After nine races Gordon finds himself a subpar 14th in the series driver standings with only two Top-10 finishes to his credit. The No. 24 team's cars have been much better than this. Regarding the luck factor, that's exactly what the Hendrick star had last October at Talladega. Gordon evaded the big one on the last lap and finished a brilliant runner-up at the Alabama oval. Gordon qualified on the outside pole and led 31 laps at Daytona earlier this season, so there's little doubt that the No. 24 team will have a fast car this weekend.

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

Dania Patrick -
Patrick is our top sleeper this weekend who has struggled for the most-part in 2013. However, we can't forget the big splash that she made at Daytona to start the season. The driver of the No. 10 Chevrolet won her first career pole position and went on to collect her first Top 10 in the Great American Race. Some ill-timed movement during the final laps was all that kept her from finishing in the Top 5 or higher. The Stewart Haas Racing team will bring the same horsepower to Talladega this weekend, so Patrick gets a fantasy racing upgrade. If anything, she proved she can run laps in the Top 10 for 500 miles on these superspeedways during this season's Daytona 500.

Kyle Busch -
The Joe Gibbs Racing star has had it rough the last couple weeks. He's also had a very up-and-down history with superspeedway racing. However, if you're looking for a swing for the fences, the No. 18 Toyota team is it. Busch avoided the crashes last season and picked up second- and third-place finishes at Talladega in 2012. He's a one-time winner at the 2.66-mile oval and has led close to 150 career laps at the facility. If Busch can keep the fenders on the No. 18 Toyota this Sunday afternoon, there's no reason to believe he can't challenge for the win. At the very least, he'll crack the Top 10 if he can make it through the big one.

Ryan Newman -
The driver of the No. 39 Chevrolet has had an up-and-down history on the plate tracks, but that has swung more to the positive side of the ledger the last year or so. Newman enters this event on a three-race Top 10 streak between Daytona and Talladega. He sports a pair of fifth-place efforts in his last two Daytona events and he finished a respectable ninth at Talladega last fall. The streak has effectively ended a slump at both superspeedways and has Newman poised for more success in Sunday's Aaron's 499. We expect the veteran driver to be a Top 10 threat this weekend at the central Alabama oval.

David Ragan -
Coming off his first Top-20 finish of the season, Ragan is riding high coming to Alabama this week. The Front Row Motorsports veteran has always shown the gift of superspeedway racing, and his victory in the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona in 2011 underscores this fact. Ragan may not be up to the task of victory lane, but he has a nose for the draft and he'll get to the front in the late stages of the Aaron's 499. His two Talladega starts in 2012 netted finishes of seventh- and fourth-place in his No. 34 Ford. Often times racing can be as much psychology as it is physical. Ragan should be very optimistic and confident heading into this event, so the results should show on the track at Talladega.

Jeff Burton -
Burton has struggled to remain relevant in his last couple Sprint Cup Series seasons, but one facet of his performance has remained at a very high level. The superspeedways have been kind to this Richard Childress Racing veteran. As you can see from the prior loop stats table, Burton has more quality passes than any other driver in the series at this speedway and he also is among the leaders in laps inside the Top 15. It's this easily recognizable consistency that makes him a good play at a track where luck tends to be the overriding factor. Burton enters the weekend with Top 10s in five of his last six restrictor-plate races.

Michael Waltrip -
The owner of the No. 55 Toyota will slip behind the wheel for the first time since the season-opening Daytona 500. It will be a shot at redemption after his subpar 22nd-place finish in the Great American Race. Waltrip's superspeedway 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 July's Coke Zero 400, we witnessed Waltrip finish ninth in his own race car at Daytona. In this event one-year ago, the veteran driver led 21 laps in the Aaron's 499 and looked like a contender for the win before the massive, 20+ car crash on the last lap ended his chances to win.

Regan Smith -
The Phoenix Racing team always deserves scrutiny when we visit Talladega superspeedway. Owner James Finch has put good speedway cars under drivers like Mike Wallace, Sterling Marlin, Brad Keselowski, Mike Bliss, Landon Cassill and Kurt Busch over the years. In fact, it was Keselowski in a Finch car that won here in 2009. Continuing that strong tradition for this small race team will be Smith this weekend. He finished a brilliant seventh-place in the season-opening Daytona 500 for the No. 51 team. He returns to the seat this Sunday to attempt to follow up that effort. A Top-10 finish is probably a bit of a stretch, but we certainly expect to see Smith racing in around the Top 15 this Sunday afternoon.

Flops - Drivers to avoid at all costs

Denny Hamlin -
Hamlin normally warrants fantasy racing consideration most Talladega weekends, but not this time around. The ailing Joe Gibbs Racing star has a game plan for this weekend that doesn't play well to most fantasy racing formats. Hamlin plans to start the Aaron's 499 in the No. 11 Toyota but he also plans to exit the car on the first caution flag. That will put a replacement driver in the car for much of the race and potentially put the team back in traffic due to the lengthy time on pit road to switch drivers. It all adds up to some valuable points for Hamlin's quest to stay alive in the race for the Chase, but it also adds up to a poor finish that no one wants on his fantasy racing squad.

Carl Edwards -
When your most memorable performance at a particular track is flying into the fence airborne at 190 mph, then it's probably not a good indicator for fantasy racing success. Edwards' last-lap crash with Brad Keselowski in 2009 is easily the most memorable or forgettable moment, if you're Edwards, in his Talladega dossier. With a scant four Top 10s in 17 starts at the 2.66-mile oval, the stats are not on this Roush Fenway Racing star's side going into the Aaron's 499. Last season he picked up 31st and 36th-place finishes at this superspeedway, so luck at Talladega has been hard to come by of late for the No. 99 Ford team.

Tony Stewart -
Coming off the 18th-place finish at Richmond and subsequent cool down lap dust-up with Kurt Busch, Stewart comes to Talladega this weekend with only one Top-10 finish through the season's first nine races. He's ranked a lowly 21st in the driver standings, and his weekly tirades and tantrums clearly show that the driver of the No. 14 Chevrolet is not happy. Smoke has some great Talladega performances in his resume, but the indicators all point down for this weekend's Aaron's 499. This driver and team finished a disappointing 41st in the season-opening Daytona 500 and not much has gone right since.

Kurt Busch -
We saw the driver of the No. 78 Chevrolet pick up his third Top-10 finish of the season this past weekend at Richmond. That makes it difficult to put Busch in the flops list this week, but the data is significant enough to override any emotional high from seeing the veteran perform at a high level at Richmond. Busch has really struggled at the Alabama superspeedway over the last four seasons. Once a top performer here, the veteran has been mired in a big Talladega slump. Four of his last eight trips to the speedway have resulted in finishes outside the Top 30, with only one Top-10 finish during this span. Three of those last eight Talladega starts have resulted in DNFs.