The Cup stars head to northern Alabama this weekend to the longest and fastest track on the schedule, the Talladega Superspeedway. It’s the first time that the series comes back to a plate track, having run at Talladega last fall in the new CoT configuration. That car, along with a newly-paved track, resulted in a very long single-file run last year; but expect to see a more competitive race this time around now that the drivers have a better idea of how the car will react in the packs that result from plate racing.
Aerodynamics become the most paramount factor this weekend; handling has almost no bearing at all in this weekend’s race, as it all comes down to making the car move efficiently through the air and developing as much horsepower as possible with the restricted engines.
Of course, that leads to close quarters, big pack racing, and the threat of the big wreck – a crapshoot that could lead to disaster for your fantasy team. Read on to see what the experts have to say in order for you to navigate the waters of tricky Talladega.
Cami’s Race Rewind
Talladega has long been associated with the name Earnhardt, and while it was Jeff Gordon in victory lane last year, Dale Earnhardt Sr. was still part of the storyline. Gordon’s sixth win at Talladega broke his tie with the Intimidator on the all-time win list on what would have been the legend’s 56th birthday. Gordon turned his spot from the pole into his second straight victory, holding off teammate Jimmie Johnson in a green/white/checkered finish after a multi-car wreck broke out in turn 2.
But while the victory was a restrictor-plate masterpiece, it was something that obviously didn’t sit well with many of the Earnhardt fans in the stands, who showered the track with debris and boos as Gordon took his victory lap.
Mike’s Keys to the Race
Talladega is a lot like your first few months away at college. It is all about the body. You don’t care about personality, you don’t care about intelligence – you only care about how well that body fits. Talladega is the fastest track on the circuit, and was just repaved last year. Those two factors make it all about getting the car through the air as smoothly and effortlessly as possible; handling doesn’t matter at all for this weekend’s race.
So, look for the teams that spend huge dollars on plate programs and who know how to build a restrictor-plate car to be effective. Hendrick Motorsports has owned the track in recent history, and they now have the best plate driver in the business on their roster in Dale Earnhard Jr. Expect to see him, Gordon, and Johnson all near the front during this race as a result. Richard Childress also invests a large amount of money and effort into their plate program, so don’t be surprised to see Kevin Harvick, Jeff Burton and possibly even Clint Bowyer running well, too.
Lastly, don’t discount Busch this weekend. He is on the team with the Daytona 500 winner, and has been outstanding at Talladega in recent years.
Crank ‘Em Up
Earnhardt Jr. could be the mayor of Talladega at the drop of a hat. For whatever reason, ‘Dega has adopted the Earnhardts as their own, and that crowd Karma seems to be able to push Junior even further than his car is capable. Add to that the fact his new team is HMS – who has notched the last four wins at the 2.66-mile course – and you know that Earnhardt is going to be very close to the front all day on Sunday.
The veteran has the fifth-best average finish at the track among active drivers and won five of the seven races from the fall of 2001 through the fall of 2004. Where’d he finish in the other two? Second place. With that type of track record, expect Junior to end his winless streak this weekend.
Johnson has not made too many friends over the years at Talladega. Whether his fault or not, he has been accused of starting many a melee in his Cup career on the fastest track the series visits. However, that has not prevented him from winning there, and running top two in three of the last four races. Seeing as Hendrick was first, second, and sixth last fall, you can anticipate another strong showing from Johnson this weekend.
Sit ‘Em Down
Bowyer does not have the greatest of luck on restrictor-plate tracks. He’s ended up on his roof, he’s been spun out, and he’s blown up. He’s ticked off his teammates, and he’s just plain made bad guesses on which lane would move. But whatever the case may be, Bowyer does not normally run well at Talladega. Four races with finishes of 40th, 35th, 35th and 11th leave him with a paltry average finish of just 30.3; clearly, that’s not something to write home about. Bowyer could turn the corner and have a great weekend, but it is best to let him sit on the sidelines until he develops a little more consistent finishing patterns at Talladega.
Elliott Sadler has logged more air time at Talladega than Tony Hawk; he’s flipped on the backstretch, and across the start/finish line. But outside of those headlines, Sadler’s runs haven’t been much to talk about. He has two top 10s in 17 career races at the big Alabama track; and with the luck the No. 19 has been having this year, don’t look for it to turn around much this coming weekend. Sadler will hopefully get off of the snide sometime soon, as GEM seems to be turning the corner a little with their cars; but, this weekend is probably not a good time to expect him to.
Roll the Dice
Casey Mears has not done much of anything at Talladega over his career. His average finish is 24th, with three top-10 finishes and five of 30th or worse in ten career starts. However, one of those top 10s was a sixth-place finish last fall in Talladega, and he also ran very strongly at Daytona before he was taken out at the end of the event. Mears could certainly bust out this weekend, or he could have another typical ‘Dega finish… but that’s why we call it rolling the dice.
Crank ‘Em Up
Needless to say, Gordon has had his fair share of bad luck and struggles this year. But even with three finishes of 35th or worse, he is just eight points outside of the top 12 as the series heads back to Talladega, a track that should erase some of those woes. Last year, Gordon swept both events, once in the old car and once in the CoT. That proved the style of car doesn’t matter when it comes to his success on restrictor-plate tracks. In fact, in Gordon’s last 20 Talladega starts, he has five wins, tying him for first among active drivers; and Gordon has an average finish of 13.3.
Look for Gordon to use this weekend’s race as a springboard to getting back on track and back into Chase contention.
In the season opener, it was Busch who pushed teammate Ryan Newman to the victory; but this week, Busch has got to hope that the roles are reversed as he goes for his eighth top 10 in a row at Talladega. In 14 career starts at the Alabama superspeedway, Busch has an amazing average finish of 10th; but even with all that success, the ’04 Cup champ is still looking for his first victory there. Given his record and the strength of the Penske cars at Daytona, Busch is a strong play for this coming weekend.
Sit ‘Em Down
Sometimes, I step out and make some pretty bold picks in this category, and this one might have a few people scratching their heads; but I stand by the choice of not putting Carl Edwards on your team this weekend. Yes, he leads the series with three victories this year, but those have all come on the 1.5-milers. Plate racing isn’t something that Edwards has found a knack for yet in his career, either. In seven career starts at Talladega, he has finished 32nd or worse three times, and was 14th here in the fall (CoT) race. Normally a good play most times, this is the one time to let Edwards cool off and ride the pine.
Rounding out this week’s Sit ‘Em picks is another Roush Fenway driver, Greg Biffle. While he did manage to eke out a 10th-place finish at Daytona this year, Biffle is a big 0-for-10 when it comes to scoring a top 10 at Talladega. In fact, he’s only scored a top 15 on two occasions, which explains his poor average finish of only 26th. Biffle has been on top of his game for most of the 2008 season, but look for this weekend to be a big stumbling block.
Roll the Dice
When it comes to picking race favorites, the name Gilliland usually isn’t one that rolls quickly off the tongue. But when it comes to plate races, you have to give this young driver a look. He was fourth in this race last year, and by far has had his most Cup success on the larger tracks. That’s not to say he can’t run well other places; in fact, he scored his first top 10 of the year at Bristol, and has posted back-to-back 15th-place finishes at Texas and Phoenix. So, if you need a pick for a solid run on Sunday that isn’t going to break the bank, take a second look at adding Gilliland to your roster.
Cami: Congrats on your win at Phoenix with Johnson. How lucky for you that you’ve had an extra week to bask in the glow of victory.
Mike: It is always enjoyable when you get a win; it’s just too bad my Harvick pick went sour on me right at the end when he ran out of gas. If he’d have kept the engine running, it could have been a very impressive week. You didn’t do too badly with your Burton pick, though. Fuel mileage races are tough; they can play heck on fantasy teams.
Cami: No kidding; you would have been hard to handle this off week if you had two strong finishes. But I was pretty pleased with a sixth and 14th; it wasn’t spectacular, but it was solid. I was hoping my Roll the Dice pick Mark Martin could have pulled out the win for me, that would have been awesome. But I’ll take a fifth.
Mike: Oh yeah, that ended up quite nicely for you, although he should have probably stayed out and let the crew chief yell at him if it didn’t work out. He knew how much fuel he’d saved. Oh well, on to this week. I see you are hoping Gordon’s luck with Pepsi paint schemes is going to continue at Talladega this weekend.
Cami: I didn’t really think about the paint scheme when I made the pick, but hey, I’ll take whatever extra bit of luck I can get. But Gordon swept here last season, so it’s not all about luck and the paint schemes. Plus, he’s always strong at Talladega – see his six career wins there. It just seems you’re falling prey to the group of people who think Junior will finally break that winless drought this week.
Mike: It’s pretty hard not to feel like this is Junior’s best chance to break the streak. He’s pretty well regarded as the best plate racer on the circuit right now, and he’s in equipment from the team that has won the last four races at the track. I’d say Junior’s going to be really close to the front if he doesn’t win it.
Cami: I can’t really argue with you there; I think he will be up there, too, when it’s all said and done. But I just don’t know if he’ll pull off the big W. Anyways, I was a bit surprised to see you completed the Hendrick Picks ‘N ‘Pans sweep by putting in Mears. You have to look pretty far down the list of averages to find his name.
Mike: Oh yeah, his average finish at ‘Dega is terrible; but he was sixth there last fall and he was really good at the end of Daytona before he was taken out. That’s why they call it rolling the dice. As it is, I see you’re doing a serious roll with Gilliland.
Cami: Perhaps; but Gilliland has been really solid lately, and has shown some major improvement. He was fourth here last year and has been outside the top 15 at Talladega just once in his young career. I don’t think it’s going out on a limb like your Sit ‘Em picks.
Mike: I think Bowyer is a bit of a stretch. He was strong at Daytona, and if he can stay out of other peoples’ messes, he’ll come home with a good finish. Unfortunately, he isn’t too good at doing that. Sadler, on the other hand, is terrible at Talladega and his luck in general has been pretty piss poor. So, that standard pick for me isn’t much of a stretch; but I must admit, you made some rather gutsy calls with your Sit ‘Em picks.
Cami: I guess I’m in a gambling mood, since I’m heading to Vegas this weekend. Edwards has been good this year, no doubt; but he hasn’t shown that at Talladega. I think enough other drivers will be running well to negate his momentum this year… and Biffle is just about as bad as you can get at a track.
Mike: Very true. Biffle has some terrible results on plate tracks, but on occasion, he can bust off a good run. Who knows, he may just push your man Busch to the win. I guess we’ll just have to see how it pans out.
The following are the guidelines that Cami 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 can not be in the top 12 of the current week’s driver standings.
Crank – 11.9
Sit – 20.7
Roll – 14.3
Crank – 11.8
Sit – 23.1
Roll – 16.8
About the author
The Frontstretch Staff is made up of a group of talented men and women spread out all over the United States and Canada. Residing in 15 states throughout the country, plus Ontario, and widely ranging in age, the staff showcases a wide variety of diverse opinions that will keep you coming back for more week in and week out.