It’s a race that real NASCAR teams and fantasy NASCAR owners as well have been anticipating and dreading at the same time. The restrictor plate race at Talladega Sunday could likely be the best of times and worst of times for teams.
With such significant drivers like Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski most likely needing a win to advance into the next round of the Chase, you know anything is possible. Now, that is generally the case at each of the four plate races in a season, but with this being the elimination race in this round of the Chase, which will be reduced from 12 drivers to eight, it means just a little more desperation could take place at the 2.66-mile track in those final 25 or 30 laps.
The other factor to consider as well is that those drivers who are out the Chase, or near the Chase bubble, will want to play it safe. But the safest place to be in this race may well be up front out there ahead of the pack. That’s really the only way to ensure that you won’t get caught up in the Big One, which is almost inevitable to happen in a race that means so much.
Wouldn’t it be interesting, considering their post-race scuffle at Charlotte, that if Matt Kenseth and Keselowski were 1-2 going into the final lap and needing a win to advance, that Kenseth could well get booted. Actually, it would be no surprise at all.
While there will no doubt be some innocent bystanders who will get caught up in one of the accidents, there are some guys who do have a knack for being at the right place at the right time in these types of races.
So, really, that’s the only thing to keep in mind in a race where everyone knows, both in real and fantasy racing, that nothing is a sure thing.
LOOKING FOR SOME ACES
You would think of the drivers needing a win at Talladega that Dale Earnhardt Jr. would be the odds on favorite. But in his last five races there he has just two top 10 finishes, though one of them was a second place finish. In those races, Junior has led just 92 laps, which is also a bit unusual for a driver who for much of his career, has liked to run out front in the plate races.
In somewhat of a contrast, Junior’s career numbers at Talladega are quite good. He has five wins in 29 races and has led 801 laps, the second most among active drivers. So, the real question will be if we see the rejuvenated version of Earnhardt Jr. who will be at or near the front of the pack all day, or the more recent version, who finds himself somewhere in the middle. My guess is that with so much on the line here, and with this being his best shot at championship in quite a few years, and with crew chief Steve Letarte being in his final year, that Junior will be at the point most of the day. The real question is will he be there at the end of the day? I think so.
Though a less popular choice, another top-tier driver desperate to fight their way inside the top 8 is Kenseth. The Gibbs Racing plate program has been solid in recent years and Kenseth does have one win in the last five races. But he’s also led 281 laps in those races and with him not being afraid to show his aggressive side, it would also not be a big surprise to see him up front for much of the day.
A driver who has been consistent in the Chase so far and has had at least some consistency in recent races at Talladega is Kyle Busch. He has had three top 10 finishes in his last five trips, including a second-place finish. What was sort of interesting about all the Chase drama after the Charlotte race is that Kyle Busch had nothing to do with it. That may be a good sign in that it shows he is developing some patience, which could well be a key factor in having success at Talladega.
If you’re wondering what Johnson has done at ‘Dega, he does have two career wins there, but he has pretty much had nothing but bad luck there in recent races. In his last five trips to Daytona, he has just one top 10 finish and an average finish of 18.6. So, much like Earnhardt Jr., Johnson will be looking for rejuvenation and a spot in the Chase as well Sunday.
MIDDLE OF THE ROADSTERS
In keeping with the Joe Gibbs theme here, Denny Hamlin has to be considered simply because he did win the spring race at Talladega. Now, to be fair, Hamlin’s history there had been pretty much unspectacular. In the last five races, that win is his only top 10 finish. Just another example of the unpredictability that can take place at Talladega.
A driver who does have a win one of the last five races there though is Keselowski. So, you know, to see The K Brothers (Keselowski and Kenseth) up front late in the race wouldn’t be a surprise at all. The Penske restrictor plate package has also been good in recent years as Keselowski does have six top 10 finishes in 11 career races there.
There are also a couple of wild-card non-Chasers too look at here, too.
First, there is Tony Stewart (yes, that Tony Stewart), who has won at least one race in each of his previous 14 years on the NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit. That streak is definitely in jeopardy, but Talladega is definitely one place he can win. Stewart is an adept plate racer and while he does not have a top 10 finish in his last four trips there, I wouldn’t count him out in this one.
Another x-factor at Talladega will be Jamie McMurray. While he has been strong since the Chase began, McMurray also has a good knack for being in the right place at the right time on these tracks, and he does have a win in one of the last five races there. McMurray does have two career wins at the track and has led 239 laps in his 24 career races, so he does know how to get to and stay at the front of the pack.
For once, there are all kinds of possibilities among the C list drivers in Yahoo! leagues.
First, you’ve got the two standbys for the season in rookies Kyle Larson and Austin Dillon. Larson did finish ninth in his first Sprint Cup race at Talladega in the spring, so he showed he has some idea at how to race on this type of track. Dillon had two career starts at the track and has finished 15th and 26th.
Then, making his first Sprint Cup start at Talladega will be Ryan Blaney in the No. 12 car. Now, plate racing can be quite an education, but if you think the young and talented Blaney is a quick learner and you’re out of options in this spot, then he’s certainly a possibility here.
Another possibility is Danica Patrick, who has shown she can run at or near the front in plate races. Her results at Talladega though, haven’t been great as she has finished between 22nd and 33rd in three career races.
Then, too, there is Trevor Bayne who has had success by winning at Daytona, but it hasn’t happened for him at Talladega, where he has an average finish of 27.7 in the last five races, and that includes an eighth place finish.
Then lastly, there is that tall dancing guy, Michael Waltrip, who will be in the No. 66 car this week. He does have a fourth-place finish to his credit in his last five starts there. And for his career, he does have one win and 16 top-10 finishes in 56 Talladega races. So, maybe that experience will mean something this week.
The overall standings in the Frontstretch League on Yahoo! remained the same with NoBarNASCAR keeping the lead with 8,293 points. Next are Mojothemonkey with 8,180 and LeftTurnOnly with 8,110. The biggest mover of the week was Geneva Convention, jumping up 13 spots into 15th.
The top score for the week went to Geneva Convention with 370 points from the team of race winner Kevin Harvick, fourth-place Joey Logano, sixth-place Kyle Larson and eighth-place Carl Edwards.