The Cup series heads to Alabama this Sunday for a run on the newly paved 2.66-mile tri-oval that is Talladega Superspeedway. With new asphalt and restrictor plate engines, every team is going to be holding their breath for 500 miles, hoping they can be in the right place at the right time and avoid the “Big One.” That wreck, a Talladega staple that takes out 10-20 cars and jumbles the points standings faster than the blender, is almost a certainty with the new pavement… so be prepared to see some of your own fantasy drivers caught in the crossfire! To be honest, this week is the equivalent of Fantasy Russian Roulette: spin the chamber, make your picks, and hope the bullet misses you. Simply put, this is the week where it is better to be lucky than good.
Mike’s Keys to the Race
Talladega is the biggest wild card in the Chase. With restrictor plates in place on the cars, the competition is sure to be in one big pack. The track has also been resurfaced: the jury is still out as to whether it could be good or could be bad. No matter what that outcome is, though, the car is going to be more important than ever in this plate race. Handling is pretty much a non-factor at ‘Dega… the cars that have the engines to cut through the air, suck up, and pass are going to quickly get to the front and stay there. Because of that, look for the big teams to have an advantage. Perennial powers Hendrick and Childress will most likely be the teams to beat, and you can never count out former restrictor plate power DEI. The smart money will be on drivers from these three teams this weekend.
Cami’s Instant Replay
Jarrett outlasted Tony Stewart and Matt Kenseth in a green-white-checkered finish to break his winless streak of 98 races in last year’s UAW-Ford 500. Kenseth had been leading when Ken Schrader spun to set up the overtime period, but it was Jarrett, who restarted fourth, that charged through the field to take the lead from Stewart in the final laps. Of course, it wouldn’t be Talladega without a few multi-car pileups. The “Big One” happened at lap 67 when Ryan Newman got into Casey Mears, setting off a chain reaction that ended up with Scott Riggs getting airborne. The wreck also collected Chase drivers Greg Biffle and Jimmie Johnson, both who had to spend time behind the wall making repairs. It was a tough day for a number of other Chasers, with Rusty Wallace among those also having their share of troubles. Despite setting off a major wreck, Newman came back to finish the day fourth by the checkered flag; Carl Edwards rounded out the top five.
Crank ‘Em Up
Dale Earnhardt Jr. is the current king of Talladega. He has the most active wins at the track, and is third all-time in restrictor plate victories with seven, behind only his Daddy and Jeff Gordon. With Tony Eury Jr. back on the box this year and new pavement on the track, the No. 8 will be at the front again this weekend.
Gordon is second all-time in restrictor plate wins. The team has been running quite well since the start of the Chase, in line for another strong finish last weekend at Kansas before the fuel pump unexpectedly laid down on them. I expect the Hendrick organization to be strong this weekend with the new pavement… and when it comes to these types of tracks, Gordon is easily the best of the bunch.
Sit ‘Em Down
Kasey Kahne and Talladega simply do not mix well. Kahne has run five races at the biggest track on the circuit and only has one finish better than 24th. The No. 9 Evernham Motorsports team has had a rough start to the Chase, and Talladega is no place for them to try and retrieve their lost momentum. Sit Kasey until we get to Charlotte next week.
Edwards has had a true roller coaster of a season. The No. 99 Roush Racing team has looked like last year’s juggernaut on some occasions… and looked like a rookie team on others. This Sunday’s performance will likely fall into the second category. Roush has never been stellar at plate racing, and Edwards hasn’t bucked the trend in his few efforts on these types of tracks. Although his last two trips to Talladega have produced top-10 finishes, this just doesn’t seem like the week that the team will put it together again. Look for Edwards luck at avoiding the “Big One” to run out this week.
Roll the Dice
Schrader has struggled this season, but he can still wheel it in two types of places: short tracks and plate tracks. This is a plate track, so expect him to run towards the lower portion of the top 10 most of the day. Also expect Schrader to have a little extra motivation after hearing this week he might not run a full schedule next season. Fatback and Schrader will look to put an exclamation point on this year, and Talladega is a great place to do it.
Crank ‘Em Up
In 15 starts, Stewart has yet to find victory lane at Talladega… but it hasn’t been because he’s not running up front. Smoke has finished second in the last three Talladega races and has been runner-up a total of six times. With six top 10s at Talladega and coming off a win at Kansas last week, Stewart looks like a good bet for this weekend.
It’s been a rough couple of weeks for Kevin Harvick, but he could get back into the thick of the championship hunt with a strong finish this weekend at Talladega. He has a total of five top 10s there, and RCR has always been known for having a strong restrictor plate program. With two other teammates out there to help him out, look for Harvick to be in the mix for a good finish on Sunday.
Sit ‘Em Down
When Mark Martin predicts a poor performance, I usually don’t pay much attention because he is the eternal pessimist. But looking at his record at Talladega, he does have a point about not finishing well this weekend. His average finish of 23.9 leaves a lot to be desired, and he’s finished in the top 10 just once in the last nine races at the track. He may prove us all wrong, but looking at how he’s run here in the past, it’s not worth the gamble to have him on your team.
Biffle is another Roush driver who hasn’t fared well at Talladega in his career. In seven starts at the Alabama behemoth, he hasn’t managed to find the top 10 and has five finishes outside the top 20. He’s been running well as of late as he tries to catch Stewart for 11th place in the final standings, but just like this race last year hurt his chances at catching Stewart for the championship, it could do him in once again, as the Biff has a tendency for finding the wreck at these restrictor plate tracks.
Roll the Dice
Talk about going out on a limb; I’m rolling the dice with Jarrett this week. Fresh off his first top five of the year, Jarrett heads to Talladega as the defending winner of this race, and his average finish of 10th is tops among active drivers at the track. In fact, you’d have to go back five years to find a Talladega race where he hasn’t finished in the top 20, and in those nine races, he has five top 10s. Can Jarrett pull of the upset again this year? He’s worth the gamble to find out.
Mike: Thanks for letting me have Junior this week.
Cami: No problem. Those sure bets don’t always pay off though.
Mike: I was surprised you didn’t take Gordon. He has been pretty strong on plate tracks the last few years.
Cami: I’m a bit gunshy on Gordon after last week. I still think my picks are pretty solid.
Mike: Well, Stewart should bring home another second place for you, and Harvick is always near the front on plate tracks. I see you drank some strange Kool-Aid on the Jarrett pick though. One good result does not a strong team make.
Cami: No, but DJ has the best record at Talladega among any active driver. That says a lot; you don’t have to have a great car to win there, but Jarrett’s always in contention.
Mike: True, but you do have to have some momentum on your side. One race’s worth of momentum just doesn’t seem to do it for me… so good luck to you on that one.
Cami: Hopefully Jeff Meyer doesn’t jinx me on that pick.
Mike: I see you are on the same page with me on poo pooing the Roush chances.
Cami: Well, Martin is already predicting disaster. Given his results there, I see why. I did contemplate rolling the dice with Jamie McMurray for a while… but then I came to my senses.
Mike: I thought about him as well. McMurray shows flashes of brilliance on plate tracks, and he was strong last fall at Talladega. It wouldn’t surprise me if he runs well. I guess we’ll just have to see how it pans out.
Standings after Week 3
|Crank Em Up-||Biffle-12th||3||Gordon- 39th||-5|
|Edwards- 6th||5||Stewart- 1st||15|
|Sit Em Down-||Ku. Busch- 25th||0||Harvick- 15th||-3|
|Mears- 2nd||-10||Labonte- 17th||-1|
|Roll the Dice-||Vickers- 8th||10||Biffle- 12th||5|