This is the week the Chasers dread most, as the Nextel Cup Series heads to Talladega Superspeedway for the first restrictor-plate race under Car of Tomorrow conditions. The 2.66-mile high-banked oval is notorious for being a crapshoot – simply because the restricted engines keep everyone in a three-wide pack most of the day. In that scenario, one wrong move by even the best of drivers can trigger a multi-car incident that takes out half the field. The wreck can happen anywhere from the front to the back of the pack – and when it does, there is no sure way to avoid it.
Some drivers love the strategy involved in drafting – picking and choosing partners and lines while using airflow to their absolute advantage. Other drivers just don’t get it, and lament the loss of control over their own destiny that comes with having to rely on someone else to make moves ahead of them. And this time around, there’s an even bigger unknown; in particular, how the CoT will make its restrictor-plate debut. All of this makes for a particularly tricky race when considering your fantasy picks, and even then, this is one where simply surviving will win out over skill.
So, who will figure it out and get lucky? Because, in all honesty, it will probably take a little bit of both. Keep reading on to see who is worth the gamble and who needs to sit this one out in this week’s Fantasy Picks ‘N’ Pans…
Toni’s Race Rewind
Brian Vickers broke the curse of the Hendrick No. 25 car in most controversial fashion when he won the first race on new Talladega asphalt last fall. Vickers was riding third behind Jimmie Johnson in the closing laps when Johnson opted to make a move to get by leader Dale Earnhardt Jr. Trying to be respectful, Vickers played the dutiful teammate and followed Johnson, but made contact with his right-rear corner that instead sent Johnson spinning into Earnhardt and clearing his own path to the checkered flag.
Vickers said after the race that the contact was accidental; however, neither Johnson or Junior Nation was convinced. Kasey Kahne, Kurt Busch, Matt Kenseth and Martin Truex Jr. rounded out the top-five finishers.
Mike’s Keys to the Race
The Big One could take on a whole new meaning this week when the series heads to the fastest track on the Cup circuit. Not only will restrictor plates be involved in keeping the cars bunched together, but we will also see the CoT for the first time on a track that is longer than a mile in length. The bigger, boxier vehicles will undoubtedly result in some very tight packs up front, and hopefully, the desired effect of developing a slingshot pass will occur. Just think of the possibilities if that happens – we might actually see some passes for the lead by cars that don’t have help from behind.
Clearly, drafting ability is going to be at a premium this weekend, so your fantasy team should be focused on drivers who have proven they are good drafters. The two most obvious choices are Jeff Gordon and Earnhardt Jr. Unquestionably the two most successful plate racers of this generation, the odds are very good that they will be near the front of the pack for most of the day.
Also, the circumstances surrounding this event give traditional underdogs a chance to shine. Two drivers that might be able to get you quite a bang for very little buck are Michael Waltrip and Dale Jarrett. While it is a crapshoot as to whether they’ll qualify for the race, they certainly have the drafting ability to put in a solid effort if they are able to make the big show.
The final two darkhorses to consider this weekend are Mike Wallace (No. 88) and Sterling Marlin (No. 09). Both of these drivers should be extremely cheap in any fantasy league, and they are both very accomplished plate racers who will be in equipment that should be able to give them a chance to be near the front of the pack.
Crank ‘Em Up
Earnhardt Jr. is the unofficial mayor of Talladega, Ala. The Earnhardt family has been adopted by this community for as long as most people who follow the sport can remember; he has five victories at the 2.66-mile track and four of those were consecutive wins. While he hasn’t had the success in recent years that he once enjoyed, the CoT should bring his abilities back to the forefront this weekend. With the new car putting a greater emphasis on drafting than we have seen in years, expect to see Earnhardt once again rise to the top and finish at the front of the pack.
Stewart is due for a victory at Talladega. Stewart has shown quite a bit of prowess at running plate races in recent years, and he had a string of three consecutive second-place finishes at the track starting some five races ago. While he has had less-than-stellar finishes the last two trips to Alabama, expect him to be back at the front this weekend; coming off of a victory being taken away at Kansas, Stewart is going to be on a mission this weekend.
Sit ‘Em Down
Greg Biffle is coming off of his first victory of the season and has been running well recently. Unfortunately, he is coming to a track that doesn’t like him. Biffle has an average finish at Talladega of 26.3 and has only scored two top-15 finishes in nine career starts at the track. Although the Biff does have a plate victory to his name, that win was in a fuel mileage race at Daytona – not at the speedbowl known as Talladega. He is not known as a good plate racer, and with the additional emphasis on drafting this weekend, it is a good idea to sit him down until next week.
JJ Yeley has not had a lot of success at Talladega in his short Cup career. Although an average finishing position of 22.8 isn’t terrible, Yeley has only had one top-15 finish in his four starts at the track. He’s never shown much to get excited about when it comes to plate racing, and is a lame duck driver for Joe Gibbs… so, it is probably a good idea to leave JJ on the sidelines this weekend when the drafting ability is going to be such an all-important factor.
Roll the Dice
Wallace can drive a restrictor-plate car with the best of them. Putting him in Yates racing equipment this weekend should allow him to really show off his abilities like he never has before. Wallace also has two top-10 finishes at Talladega throughout his career… but he’s honestly never been in equipment at a plate track as good as he is going to be driving this weekend. Expect for him to put on a show and run with the big boys all day on Sunday; you should be able to make a big move in your fantasy league for a very small price by picking up Wallace this weekend.
Crank ‘Em Up
Gordon is always stout on the plate tracks, also thriving since the CoT’s induction as the new car. He also has an uncanny ability to avoid the big wrecks, and he hasn’t won since Pocono in June, so he’s starting to get itchy. With five wins at this track, tied with Earnhardt Jr. for most wins among active drivers at Talladega, along with 12 top fives and 15 top 10s over his career, Gordon is the closest you can get to a safe bet if there is any such thing at ‘Dega.
Kurt Busch doesn’t have any wins at Talladega, but he does have six top fives, 10 top 10s and an average finish of 10.2, which is even better than Gordon himself. Busch may not have figured out how to get to Victory lane at Talladega quite yet, but he’s strong and he’s solid on this track. He hasn’t been having much luck since the Chase started; but then, he wasn’t having much luck when he went on a midseason tear and got himself into the top 12 to start with… so, anything is possible here.
Sit ‘Em Down
Kyle Busch runs strong just like his big brother at Talladega, but the difference is he never survives to the end. With zero wins, zero top fives, zero top 10s and an average finish of 30.8 at the track, the idea that he is always at the front here must be some sort of optical illusion. Either that, or Busch is just a magnet for trouble here; whatever it is, I would pass on him for this weekend.
Elliott Sadler is another trouble magnet at Talladega; he knows how to play in the draft, and he’s often among the leaders. Right up to the part where he ends up on his roof, something that has happened to him twice on this track. Sadler’s average finish at Talladega is 25.3 thanks in large part to his inability to miss the wrecks here.
Roll the Dice
Jamie McMurray doesn’t have any wins at Talladega, but he does have an average finish of 15.9 there and he won the last time out on a plate track at Daytona in July. When he stays out of trouble, McMurray always runs near the front of the pack in these races. He could be a surprise spoiler in this one.
Mike: Hey Toni, thank you so much for sitting in for Cami this week. Right off the bat, I wasn’t too surprised to see you taking Gordon as one of your crankers… do you think Junior Nation can handle another win by the No. 24 in Talladega?
Toni: Well, they have one last chance to give him the beer can shower before he’s family. Or will they? I’ll be interested to see. It seems they’ve had a change of heart about Gordon lately – but then again, this time at Talladega.
Mike: Yes it is, and you know Junior is their adopted son. I am sure they are going to be torn about rooting for him in a Hendrick car next year. Meanwhile, I wonder if your boy Kurt can avoid bad luck this weekend. He is a good plate racer but he’s been on a string of bad luck lately.
Toni: He has been; but you know, Busch was on a streak of bad luck all season until he hit his stride midyear. It could happen again. But speaking of bad luck, Stewart hasn’t been doing too well at ducking that lately, either. And he’s 50/50 on plate tracks.
Mike: That is very true, but he has got to be still fuming over last weekend. I think he is going to be out to get back to the top of the points standings because of the energy he’ll get from that. And with the added emphasis on drafting with the CoT this race, I think he’ll be near the front at the end. I was surprised to see you sit Kyle, though. I know his history at Talladega isn’t much, but he was second at Daytona in July.
Toni: Kyle always runs strong on plate tracks, but he doesn’t seem to be able to finish on them. Daytona was more the exception than the rule. His luck also hasn’t been exceptional lately. Meanwhile, you are sitting as last week’s winner in Picks ‘N’ Pans. From the penthouse to the outhouse?
Mike: Yes, indeed I am. The Biff has never been a powerhouse on plate tracks. While he did win at Daytona, that was a fuel mileage deal more than a drafting deal. His average finish at Talladega is terrible, and I just don’t think he’ll be able to do anything special in the CoT there. I’m glad to see you jumped on the Picks ‘N’ Pans trend of sitting a GEM driver every week.
Toni: Really, Sadler should drive the Target car because the man has a bullseye on him on plate tracks. I don’t see this week as being any different for that. But I’m guessing you are seeing a wall in Yeley’s future again?
Mike: I don’t know about a wall, but I don’t see him doing much towards the front of the pack; he stays out of trouble, but he doesn’t run up front, so I don’t see him doing anything spectacular this weekend. And as longtime readers of the column know, I’m not a big fan of Jamie MAC. So I really hope you are wrong on that pick.
Toni: I knew you’d love that pick – I made that one just for you. But he is the last winner on a plate track and he is always near the front. I’ll leave it up for debate on his overall talent, but you have to admit McMurray is a good plate-track driver.
Mike: I will give you that, although the one time I ever picked him in a plate race, he crashed out within the first 35 laps, so that might help fuel my dislike for him.
Toni: You know, I like the Wallace pick you made a lot. He has to be one of the best plate racers in the business, and it was a smart move to put him in the No. 88. He can drive it up front even if the car does suck.
Mike: That is why I chose him. He’s got two top-10 finishes at Talladega in equipment that is less than outstanding; I feel like he could revisit the glory at the scene of the No. 88’s last victory. I guess we’ll just have to see how it pans out.
Crank ‘Em Up – 14.9
Sit ‘Em Down – 22.4
Roll the Dice – 18.6
Crank ‘Em Up – 12.8
Sit ‘Em Down – 21.9
Roll the Dice – 16.9
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