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Camping World 500 Preview: Talladega - 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.

This weekend the luck factor comes into play like no other race in the 10 events that makeup the Chase for the Sprint Cup. NASCAR comes to Talladega Superspeedway for the Camping World RV Sales 500 and for the wild restrictor-plate racing action that Talladega provides. 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 we've spent the last two weeks racing on intermediate ovals with few cautions and few crashes, we're in for some major changes as the "big one" comes back into play. The multi-car, multi-line drafts and side-by-side racing at near 200 mph is nothing short of chaotic. Five hundred miles of racing in these tight conditions almost always leads to disaster, and that's where the luck comes in this weekend. If Matt Kenseth hopes to engrave his name on the Sprint Cup for the second time, a victory here will go a long way in that end. The Joe Gibbs star dominated here in May of this year, but did not come away with the win. The No. 20 Toyota team has been dominant on the super speedways this season, so that should go a long way towards boosting Kenseth's confidence entering this event. The two biggest threats to Kenseth's championship hopes this season, Kevin Harvick and Jimmie Johnson, 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 17 races at the famous restrictor-place track.

Matt Kenseth16.63,952593752,11091.5
Dale Earnhardt Jr.19.63,732732481,91989.9
Jeff Burton19.04,380531041,83389.3
Brian Vickers18.32,55534701,29987.3
Kurt Busch18.44,11749912,00586.8
Brad Keselowski12.61,942393282485.7
David Ragan14.82,43948311,16785.0
Aric Almirola 19.61,20421659683.9
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.13.02065210883.9
Jimmie Johnson15.33,006471021,58683.1
Jeff Gordon18.32,666443391,51481.8
Denny Hamlin19.02,781662041,30381.6
Jamie McMurray20.52,796541991,54081.5
Tony Stewart17.92,573702581,46180.8
Kyle Busch22.93,146781461,56179.9
Joey Logano20.01,840382484579.0
Clint Bowyer16.32,12075961,09578.9
Juan Pablo Montoya20.52,58651601,29577.0
Kevin Harvick17.42,930731201,41277.0
Martin Truex Jr.21.92,85750491,45176.9

The loop stats from Talladega look a bit odd when compared to other tracks in the series. Right away we notice a lack of drivers like Jimmie Johnson, 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. The second thing we notice is the lower overall driver ratings. Wrecks play a big part in Talladega racing, and everyone eventually gets caught up in a big one, putting a dent in their statistical performance. In this season's race at Talladega in May we saw David Ragan being pushed by teammate David Gilliland to rocket past leader Carl Edwards on the last lap for the win. The one-two finish for Furniture Row Racing was a best-ever finish for the Ford stable. Yes indeed, anything can happen at Talladega. The 30 lead changes and handful of late cautions led to a thrilling green-white-checkered finish. We're certain that we're in for more of the same in this Sunday's Camping World RV Sales 500. We should see some big multi-car crashes and some late cautions as the urgency gets the best of the drivers in the closing laps. With the big wrecks and caution flags as a result of the pack racing, we could see a return to the "sand-bagging" drivers who hang out in the back of the field. The driver who keeps a low profile most of the race may ultimately be the one to push to the front in the closing laps and make for a thrilling victory. Just like Ragan did in May. One thing is for certain, the championship field should narrow even more after this 500-mile event. From that standpoint this truly is separation Sunday. Some drivers will move on to Martinsville with their Chase for the Cup hopes intact, while others will load the wrecked remains of their race cars onto the hauler and start to think about 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

Matt Kenseth -
This veteran driver is a classic example of finding your groove at a particular oval later in your career. The Joe Gibbs Racing star enters this event leading in the championship chase after a good finish at Charlotte. The urgency to perform at Talladega Superspeedway will be at an all-time high for the No. 20 Toyota team. Kenseth has two wins and five Top-5 finishes in his last seven restrictor-plate races. He has carried this excellence forward from Roush Fenway Racing to Joe Gibbs Racing. Kenseth won this event one year ago in a Ford and he led 142 laps and finished eighth in a Toyota in May's Aaron's 499 at Talladega.

Brad Keselowski -
The two-time Talladega winner comes to Central Alabama this weekend looking for more checkered flags and visits to victory lane. Keselowski has to be looking forward to Talladega Superspeedway this Sunday afternoon. Aside from his two career victories at this huge oval, the Penske Racing star is fresh off his first win of the season at Charlotte Motor Speedway this past weekend. Keselowski is hitting his stride at the right time and racing at one of his favorite tracks will only boost his confidence in the Camping World RV Sales 500. With two victories and six Top 10s in nine career starts at Talladega, Keselowski is among the tops in the series statistically here.

Jimmie Johnson -
Johnson is in the mix for his sixth Sprint Cup Series championship. He comes out of Charlotte week second in the overall standings within arm's reach of Matt Kenseth. If the Hendrick Motorsports star hopes to keep his championship dreams alive, he's going to need a good performance this Sunday at Talladega. The good news is that even though Talladega isn't one of the No. 48 team's best ovals on the circuit, Johnson is still a two-time winner at the huge track. The five-time champion is a two-time winner on the restrictor-plate tracks (Daytona) this season. You can't count out Johnson when the stakes are this high.

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 contenders list this week. The Hendrick Motorsports star is still in the hunt for this season's championship and that's what is really surprising considering he started the Chase in dead last. There's good reason to believe that Gordon will be one of the top drivers at Talladega this weekend. He has been one of the top three or four drivers on the track since the Chase began. The No. 24 team has had fast cars in 2013 on these huge ovals. Gordon led 7 laps and finished runner-up in this event one year ago

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

Clint Bowyer -
Bowyer has always been very good on super speedways. Although he established all his stats and wins as a Chevrolet driver for Richard Childress Racing, it's clear that he has the knowledge of pack racing in the draft to succeed. His three restrictor-plate starts this season have netted 11th-, 18th- and fourth-place finishes. Bowyer has two wins and seven career Top 10s at Talladega Superspeedway, and that ranks him among the leaders at this facility. Considering the numbers, we expect Bowyer to be on his game in Sunday's 500-mile melee at Talladega.

Kevin Harvick -
The Richard Childress Racing veteran used to be one of our prime contenders on these super speedway tracks. Although Harvick's numbers cooled in the last couple seasons, he's on the upswing as we visit the 2.66-mile tri-oval again. Having one career win and 10 Top-10 finishes at Talladega Superspeedway, the driver of the No. 29 Chevrolet has steady stats at this track and a steady 40 percent Top-10 rate. Harvick has performed similarly at Daytona as well. His third-place finish in July's Coke Zero 400 has us optimistic about his capability in the Camping World RV Sales 500.

Kurt Busch -
We look forward to the Furniture Row Racing star's start at Talladega this weekend. Once again, he'll slug it out with the best in the Sprint Cup Series with this small race team. The veteran driver has an impressive sixth-place finish in his last start with this team at a super speedway (Daytona) in July. So there's plenty of reason to be optimistic about his chances at Talladega. Busch's plate-track stats speak for themselves with 13 Top 10s in 25 Talladega starts. That's a sterling 52 percent Top 10 rate on a track that requires as much luck as skill to succeed. The No. 78 Chevrolet should be very fast, and Busch will know what to do with it in this race.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. -
While the 2013 season has cooled a bit for Earnhardt and the No. 88 team entering the Chase, he still makes a steady start on his favorite tracks. Earnhardt's restrictor-plate resume this season holds finishes of second-, 17th- and eighth-place on these big ovals. The NASCAR icon will be looking to make an impression this Sunday at the huge speedway in Central Alabama. Earnhardt likes the move back to pack-style racing at Daytona and Talladega and he's been quite outspoken about that fact. He won five races at this facility in that style of racing years ago. Don't forget that fact when setting your fantasy racing lineups this weekend.

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

Michael Waltrip -
He just missed the cut for the solid plays list, so we'll put him atop the sleepers list for Talladega Superspeedway. The embattled owner/driver of the Michael Waltrip Racing team will look to escape the headlines of every racing publication and get back to his roots, which is restrictor-plate racing. Waltrip has been among the best in the series this season with a pair of Top-5 finishes in the three super speedway races to-date. The last time we were in Talladega the veteran driver rode the No. 55 Toyota to a brilliant fourth-place finish. With one win and 16 career Top 10s at the historic super speedway, you'll not find a more experienced driver at this oval.

David Ragan -
Our spring winner at Talladega wasn't just a flash in the pan. In fact, he's been a very consistent and impressive restrictor-plate driver the last few seasons. Ragan owns two victories and four Top-10 finishes in his last nine starts between Daytona and Talladega. The Front Row Motorsports driver put the team on the map with his big victory here in May, and he'll be looking to follow up that win in style. Ragan has the tools to do it. He's one of the better super speedway drivers in the Sprint Cup Series. When the laps are winding down, don't be surprised to see that No. 34 Ford come charging to the front.

Carl Edwards -
Edwards has been getting back on track of late. Fresh off a Top-10 performance at Charlotte, it's hard to put the No. 99 Ford team out of mind this week. Edwards has never enjoyed the success at the Talladega that he has at Daytona over the years, but that's starting to change. The Roush Fenway Racing star won the pole position and finished third in this May's Aaron's 499. That brush with victory lane should be a confidence booster coming into the Camping World RV Sales 500. Edwards is all but finished in the championship chase, but that shouldn't have any bearing on his situation at Talladega. The talented driver will be shooting for victory lane once more.

Ryan Newman -
We can usually lean on Newman when we visit the super speedways. The Stewart Haas Racing veteran has been strong on these big ovals in 2013. With one Top 5 and two Top 10s in the three races to-date, you'll not find many drivers with more success. Newman posted a bunch of Top 10s at Talladega in the middle part of this past decade, and he's been reviving that success of late. The SHR veteran qualified on the outside pole and finished ninth in this event one year ago. Newman will likely have a decent car this Sunday, and he'll know just exactly what to do with it.

David Gilliland -
One of the biggest reasons why Ragan won at Talladega earlier this year was his teammate Gilliland. The driver of the No. 38 Ford pushed his counterpart through the traffic on that last lap and past race leader Carl Edwards to the win. Gilliland stuck with Ragan the whole way. That's impressive given how truly mad conditions are at the end of these races. He has two Top 10s and five Top 15s in his last 10 restrictor-plate races. That works out to a respectable 18.4 average finish over that span. Gilliland makes an excellent choice in weekly lineup or salary cap leagues this weekend.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. -
The Roush Fenway Racing rookie doesn't have a Top 10 to his credit on the super speedways this year, but he's stayed out of the trouble and collected solid Top 15s at both Daytona and Talladega. Stenhouse has finishes of 12th-, 13th- and 11th-place on these ovals, and that's good fantasy racing points when you get down to the end of your lineup. The driver of the No. 17 Ford will only be making his second career Cup start at Talladega Superspeedway this Sunday, but that should be of little concern with his current level of performance and his skills on these huge ovals.

Flops - Drivers to avoid at all costs

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. For this weekend, we're going to focus on the negative for the No. 18 Toyota team. In this case, Busch has no Top 10s in his three restrictor-plate track starts this season, and that's despite 29 laps led and one pole position. For some reason the luck hasn't equaled the speed of the No. 18 Toyota at these tracks. Busch's career 24 percent Top 10 rate at this oval hangs like a cloud over any success he's had here. The Joe Gibbs Racing star has tremendous upside, but he's also a tremendous risk for this event.

Denny Hamlin -
The Joe Gibbs Racing star snapped a 16-race Top 10 drought with his finish at Charlotte Motor Speedway this past weekend. Before we're willing to say he's back, we need to take a firm look at the numbers. Talladega Superspeedway hasn't been kind to the driver of the No. 11 Toyota over the years. Hamlin has only five Top-10 finishes in 15 starts. Not exactly the stats that would endorse a follow-up start to his Charlotte Top 10. Hamlin's two Top 10s in his last 10 Daytona and Talladega starts is well below the series average.

Joey Logano -
The driver of the No. 22 Penske Racing Ford has had a great season. The only exception has been the super speedways for this talented driver. The luck factor just hasn't been there for Logano. In his three starts the finishes have been 19th-, 35th- and 40th-place at Daytona and Talladega. Logano's success at this 2.66-mile oval came earlier in his career and the last three seasons have been pretty rough at the Alabama speedway. With DNF's in two of his last three Talladega starts, Logano is certainly a driver to skip over when making out your fantasy racing lineups for this weekend.

Trevor Bayne -
The 2011 Daytona 500 winner is normally one of our favorite drivers when we visit Daytona and Talladega. However, things have been difficult for this part-time driver and team in 2013. Bayne has no Top-10 finishes in 9 starts this season. He's also been disappointing on the super speedways, with 27th-, 43rd- and 20th-place finishes at the plate tracks this season. The driver of the No. 21 Ford is slumping right now, and that's not a good way to come to the nation's largest speedway. Bayne is a high risk driver for Sunday's Camping World RV Sales 500.