The Chase heads to one of the big unknowns this weekend with restrictor-plate racing at Talladega. The tight packs that occur on the plate tracks are nothing less than a nightmare for fantasy owners, leaving them on edge for every bit of those 500 miles. It’s a situation where a single slip by a driver can take out an entire team’s roster; there is no safe place on the track, and while a driver’s history can look good on paper, there is always a chance that someone else’s mistake can ruin their day – and yours.
With so many unknowns, where do you turn? Of course, the Chase favorites have to be considered for your team, but which ones? Points leader Jimmie Johnson is peaking earlier in the playoffs than usual; but can he avoid causing the Big One this weekend and get a win? Or will it be second-place Carl Edwards overcoming the dark history of Roush at Talladega and actually running well on a plate track? And of course, there’s the Kyle Busch enigma; will he finally get the black cloud removed from over his head and back up his Talladega win from earlier this year? Read this week’s Picks ‘N’ Pans to find out, discovering what drivers should be running for you on Sunday – and which ones you should avoid at all costs.
Bryan’s Race Rewind
Last year, in the debut of the CoT at Talladega, Jeff Gordon ran in the back of the pack for well over 150 laps of the event. Nonetheless, Gordon’s charge to the front of the field went exactly according to plan, as he took the lead for the first time on the race’s final lap to score his 80th career Cup win. Gordon passed his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Johnson to score the victory, as three of Hendrick’s four teams scored top-10 finishes (Busch was involved in a wreck). A surprising three Dodges finished in the top 10 as well, with Penske teammates Ryan Newman and Kurt Busch joined by CGR’s Reed Sorenson. On the other hand, no team endured more bad luck than DEI, with Paul Menard and Dale Earnhardt Jr. both caught in wrecks and Martin Truex Jr. and Aric Almirola suffering engine failures (five Chevrolets total lost motors during the race). No Roush Fenway Fords finished in the top 10, either.
Mike’s Keys to the Race
Talladega is the biggest, fastest track on the Cup schedule. The resurfacing has made handling a non-issue, so the key to running well is getting the car to get through the air as efficiently as possible and then picking the proper line to work to the front. Success at a plate track is definitely found at an organizational level. If one car from a stable runs well, it will generally mean all of them will. During the spring race, the Joe Gibbs teams were head and shoulders above the rest of the field, and they’ll be looking for a repeat performance to offset a disappointing playoff run. Hendrick is still a force in plate racing, and the Penske teams are usually near the front – although wins tend to elude them. Talladega can certainly be a crapshoot, but it is best to do everything you can to put the odds in your favor.
Crank ‘Em Up:
Tony Stewart has four tracks on the Cup schedule where he has yet to post a win – and Talladega is one of them. The track has been a nemesis of his just like Daytona was for years, as many times Smoke has come close only to fall just short of victory lane. In all, Stewart has finished second at Talladega six times in his career and has eight top-five and 11 top-10 finishes there. In fact, his average finish at the track is 13.9, a pretty good number for being shut out of the winner’s circle. During the spring race at the 2.66-mile oval, the Gibbs cars were far and away the most powerful cars on the track, and Stewart led the most laps during that event. While they have been having a rough stretch of late, Stewart’s plate program is certainly still at the top of the charts. As a result, expect Stewart to be up front for the majority of the day with a great shot at winning.
Gordon is the king of plate racing. Dale Earnhardt fans can dispute that statement, but the stats have quietly tilted Gordon’s way – at least in the win column. Earnhardt won 11 plate races in his career, while Gordon has taken the checkered flag first a record 12 times in 63 restrictor-plate starts. His average finish at Talladega is 15.03, and he’s the defending champ of the race on Sunday – the first for the restrictor-plate version of the CoT. While the spring race was not the best for Gordon, he is without a doubt a fantastic plate racer and will have a great chance to win this weekend.
Sit ‘Em Down:
Kasey Kahne does a great job racing on intermediate tracks, but his record on plate tracks is far from stellar. He has one top five finish, and only four runs better than 23rd in nine career starts at Talladega – with an average finish of 20.7. In addition to his plate history, Kahne has not been running well. He hasn’t had a top 10 in four races and his last two runs have been outside the top 20. Clearly, the mojo is not on Kahne’s side this weekend.
Greg Biffle is about as hot as can be on the Cup circuit right now. He’s won two races and finished third to start off the Chase, becoming a surprise championship contender. There is no doubt that he’s got a ton of momentum on his side; but Talladega is a different animal for Biffle, and history does not bode well for him. The Biff has raced at Talladega 11 times and has just one finish better than 15th, with no top-10 finishes. In all, he’s compiled an average finish of just 25.3. The man also drives for Roush, whose plate success has been far from impressive over the years. While gamers may be tempted to run Biffle this weekend, it is probably best to keep him on the pine.
Roll the Dice:
Kurt Busch is not often recognized for his plate-racing prowess, but there is no denying his history at Talladega. In 15 races, he has scored 11 top-10 finishes. In fact, his average finish in Alabama is an eye-opening 11.9. While Penske has been struggling since Daytona this year, their plate program is still strong, and Busch has a knack for running well with a restricted engine. With Busch’s poor year, he should be a pretty cheap addition with great potential for fantasy rosters this weekend.
Crank ‘Em Up:
Earnhardt Jr. at Talladega. If you need more explanation… you shouldn’t be playing fantasy racing.
Behind Johnson, you’d never guess who has scored more points in the last four Talladega races. It’s none other than our Daytona 500 champion, Newman. After enduring numerous wrecks early in his career at the famed Alabama oval, Newman’s fortunes have turned around in recent seasons. Four consecutive top 15s, including top 10s in three consecutive Talladega races make Newman a compelling start, as does his performance at this track in the spring. Newman’s move to the front was timed perfectly, and his No. 12 car was a nose-length from the front before he was rammed out of the lead draft and relegated to an eighth-place finish. Penske Racing has gone from restrictor-plate pretender to powerhouse, and Newman will cash in again this weekend.
Sit ‘Em Down:
Bobby Labonte certainly knows how to race at Talladega; anyone who doubts that didn’t see his daring pass of Stewart to win the Nationwide Series event at the track in 2007. Unfortunately, that ability hasn’t translated to Labonte’s No. 43 Petty car. In the last two seasons at ‘Dega, Labonte’s best finish has been a 20th, with the other two races resulting in a DNF and a 34th-place finish, five laps down. Though Labonte ran well at Daytona this year, Talladega is more conducive to success for those with fast cars, not good-handling ones – and that doesn’t bode well for Petty Enterprises. With Penske Racing offering two stellar plate racers in Newman and Kurt Busch this weekend, there’s no need to start the No. 43.
Elliott Sadler has made as many Talladega highlight reels as any driver in the Cup field today. Unfortunately, he owes that more to his wild flips than his on-track success. In 18 career starts, Sadler has only cracked the top 10 at Talladega twice, a feat he hasn’t accomplished since 2005. More telling, since moving to Gillett Evernham Motorsports Sadler has scored only one top 15 at the track, with a lackluster average finish of 24.2. Sadler has had two consecutive rough outings on plate tracks, and look for him to make it three in a row this weekend.
Roll the Dice:
David Gilliland turned heads back in 2006, his first Cup season, when he scored the pole for the fall race at Talladega in only his ninth career start. Gilliland posted a solid top-15 run that race, and since then has continued to run well at the track. He has a top five and two top 15s to his credit at Talladega since 2007, and – even more impressively – has no career DNFs. Though Yates Racing struggled royally in the season-opening Daytona 500, their plate program has been much more competitive in 2008’s other plate races, and Gilliland has done well throughout his career in Cup to avoid attrition. This driver marks a true roll of the dice, I admit; but it’s also one that will set your fantasy roster apart this weekend.
Bryan: Well Mike, we’ve both picked winners this season, but congrats are in order after your 1-2 finish last weekend. Those “cookie cutters” are getting too predictable.
Mike: Well, picking Edwards on an intermediate track is a rather obvious choice. And Johnson has hit his stride so early in the Chase this year, it is hard to bet against him. Although I see neither of us picked him this weekend… so I’m guessing his history at Talladega gave us a little pause.
Bryan: Johnson almost literally wins or wrecks at Talladega… I can’t help but see a Big One whenever I see the No. 48 on track. That doesn’t carry over to all of HMS though, as you’re cranking Gordon this weekend. Gordon was far from his sharp drafting self in the spring race… what’s changed to get him contending again?
Mike: It is probably more of an emotional pick than a logical one. But Gordon knows how to get it done on plate tracks. I’d feel better if he was running a Pepsi paint scheme, though, because that always bodes very well for him at Talladega. Gordon’s team has been coming around more of late, and I think this weekend is one of his best chances to keep his whole “seasons with a win streak” thing alive. What about your picks? Junior is an obvious one at ‘Dega, but I’m surprised you’re going with Newman after you just admitted during Mirror Driving that his cars have been crap this year.
Bryan: Penske Racing cars have been crap this year… except for plate tracks. Newman won the Daytona 500, was in position to win the spring race at Talladega and managed to come from the back to the front of the field not once, not twice, but three times at Daytona in the summer before being wrecked. Newman has scored four consecutive top 15s at ‘Dega, and this is the last time this season I’ll have confidence in his equipment. I’ve also had lots of confidence in Biffle in recent weeks… but you’re not feeling that this weekend. Why bench arguably the hottest driver on the circuit?
Mike: Oh, I agree that it seems like a crazy idea, and it very well bite me in the rear, but Talladega is a horrible track for Biffle. He’s never had a top-10 finish there. I know he’s won a plate race, but Roush is certainly not known for their plate program. His luck may carry over and cost me but the odds are, based on his history, that he’s going to lose some ground this weekend with a subpar finish. Meanwhile, I know Sadler has been frequently snakebitten in Alabama… but Labonte has had some pretty good finishes there. What’s making you think he can’t stay out of trouble and come home with a decent finish this weekend?
Bryan: Labonte’s had bad luck in Alabama in the No. 43 recently. His average finish in the last three races at the track is 29.67, with a DNF and a distant run this spring that saw him finish five laps down. In his entire time with Petty Enterprises, Labonte’s got only one top 15 at ‘Dega, and there’s nothing to suggest this is the weekend that PE steps from the doldrums. Besides, the Dodge team to watch this weekend is none other than Penske Racing, and I think you’re wise to roll the dice on Kurt Busch.
Mike: Yeah, I think that will probably be a good choice. Busch doesn’t always get recognized for his plate abilities, but he had the car to beat at Daytona last year and, if he had another lap this year, he probably would have passed his teammate for the win in the 500. Busch hasn’t had a great year, so a good run this weekend would be a welcome change. Meanwhile, I know Yates is known for their horsepower, but Gilliland has not been very good at all this year. What makes you think he’s going to have a good run this weekend – and why didn’t you go with his teammate Travis Kvapil, who has a better average finish at the track?
Bryan: Kvapil may have a better average finish, but Gilliland has had more impressive runs with plates in his career. Plus, most importantly, Gilliland has never failed to finish a race at Talladega. I very well may regret going with Gilliland over Kvapil, but for some odd reason I see a good run coming for the No. 38.
Mike: That’s why it’s called a roll of the dice. You know, we may catch some flack for not taking a Childress driver this weekend, not to mention ignoring Johnson. Childress cars are usually pretty competitive on plate tracks, and Kevin Harvick is in the top 10 in average finish. He may put us both to shame.
Bryan: RCR may well put us to shame, or they may fall to another rash of engine failures – like the one last season that saw four Chevrolets from DEI and RCR lose motors in the fall Talladega race. We’ll have to see how it pans out.
The following are the guidelines that Bryan and Mike follow in making their picks each week: Crank ‘Em Up drivers can be in any position in the driver standings, Sit ‘Em Down drivers must be in the current top 25 of the driver standings, and Roll the Dice drivers cannot be in the top 12 of the current week’s driver standings.
Crank – 12.6
Sit – 21.7
Roll – 20.3
Crank – 10.4
Sit – 20.7
Roll – 18.4