Every fantasy owner has question marks heading into a race weekend. Last Saturday night at Texas, the question I was floating around in my head was, which Denny Hamlin was going to show up? Would it be the driver that won eight races last season, including two in Texas? Or would it be the guy whose confidence seems down after not recording a top-5 finish in the first six races of the season?
It turned out to be the latter, and luckily I went with Matt Kenseth as my top driver. On most weekends, fantasy owners will ask themselves one or two basic questions like this one. But now, we head into a weekend with a multitude of them, culminating in Sunday’s roulette-wheel style race at Talladega.
As a restrictor-plate track, ‘Dega is always a wild card on the schedule. Add in what has happened there in the past two years (wins by Jamie McMurray and Clint Bowyer, Brad Keselowski flipping Carl Edwards into the stands to win in a James Finch-owned car in 2009, and a record 88 lead changes in the spring of 2010) and it becomes even more unpredictable. Now, let’s also add in one of the craziest Daytona 500s in recent memory (74 lead changes) resulting in a 20-year-old winning in his second career start to the mix. By the way, David Gilliland, Bobby Labonte and Regan Smith all finished in the top 10.
Getting dizzy with confusion yet? Now, let’s just add one more variable to the equation. In March, NASCAR reduced the size of the restrictor plate 1/64th of an inch. The plate size is also 4/64th of an inch smaller than what was used in last season’s races at Talladega. So will we see more two-car hookups like we did at Daytona or will we be back to pack racing once again this weekend? As usual, with Talladega there are more questions than answers.
No matter the circumstance, here are some drivers that seem to find their way to the head of the class often at restrictor plate tracks. Whether it is in a two-car draft or a 37-car pack, these guys should be towards the front when it matters.
Kurt Busch was the class of the field during Daytona Speedweeks. He mastered the art of the two-car draft early on and had lots of success because of it. Busch won the Budweiser Shootout, one of the Gatorade Duel races and led ten different times in the Daytona 500 on his way to a fifth-place finish.
Busch was also one of a few drivers that didn’t experience any overheating issues during the Great American Race, even without clean air on long runs. He has to be the favorite this weekend at Talladega for those reasons.
On the opposing side was Kevin Harvick. The Richard Childress cars and the Chevrolet teams in general seemed to have more issues with overheating than the other teams and makes at Daytona. Harvick paid the price in the 500 when his engine let go on Lap 3. Barring any engine issues this weekend, Harvick will be strong again. Subtract Daytona from the equation and the No. 29 has top-2 finishes in three of the last four restrictor-plate races.
It may be difficult to fathom, but Juan Pablo Montoya has a better average finish (11.25) in the last two seasons at restrictor-plate tracks than any other driver. He also finished sixth in the Daytona 500, so you know he can master the art of the two-car draft. Montoya wants to prove he is not just a road-course ace by winning at an oval and his best chance may be this weekend. He was third in both races last season, losing out to the Childress teammates of Harvick and Bowyer.
Bowyer, the most recent Talladega winner, should be a top fantasy pick on Sunday. He had finishes of fourth, seventh and first at the superspeedways in 2010, and along with Busch had one of the strongest cars in the Daytona 500. He led the race 11 different times for a total of 31 laps before getting caught up in an accident not of his doing in the final laps.
Bayne was the story after Daytona, but it just as easily could have been Regan Smith in the same position. Smith and drafting partner Busch proved to be a force throughout Daytona Speedweeks and should be again at Talladega. Smith was so good that even after receiving heavy cosmetic damage in a wreck during the final laps, he still battled back to finish seventh. While Bayne’s win was impressive, Smith had one of the three strongest cars and that is why I am picking him as a bottom-tier driver at Talladega.
It’s really difficult to tab a driver who doesn’t have a shot at winning on Sunday. Much like I did at Daytona, I’m going to put Jimmie Johnson on the Fantasy Insider bench at Talladega. Johnson has finished 27th or worse in four of the last five superspeedway races.
Marcos Ambrose has momentum in his corner after a sixth-place finish last week at Texas, but it may not carry over to plate racing. In Daytona, Ambrose struggled to master the two-car draft. He finished a lap down in 21st in the first Gatorade Duel race and was 37th in the Daytona 500. In his last four restrictor-plate races before that he was 41st, 37th, 32nd and 34th. Unlike fellow road course ringer Montoya, Ambrose hasn’t excelled on the superspeedways.
Until next week, good luck my friends!
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