Races with two-car breakaways should be more predictable than races with large 35-car packs, right?
Welcome to the third restrictor-plate race of 2011. Records are bound to be broken and anything can happen. The new two-car drafting system has created more passing and lead changes than ever before. Daytona featured a track-record 74 lead changes in February and Talladega featured a track-record 88 lead changes in April.
There was also a record 16 cautions at Daytona in February. When two drafting partners catch a pack of cars in front of them, there isn’t much room to maneuver and there are bound to be accidents. Talladega, being much wider, lent itself to more green-flag racing. Chances are Saturday’s race (July 2) is going to be a wreck-fest. And considering Trevor Bayne won the spring race in only his second career start and Jimmie Johnson won by .002 seconds at Talladega, predicting Saturday’s finish is impossible.
Here are some drivers to watch this weekend.
Kevin Harvick won the Coke Zero 400 last season under different conditions than we will see this year. At this time last season, restrictor-plate racing was mainly done in large packs. We didn’t get to see Harvick in the two-car tango at Daytona for very long this spring. His No. 29 lost an engine on lap 22 and he finished 42nd.
However, Harvick was impressive at Talladega. He narrowly pushed Clint Bowyer to victory on the way to a fifth-place finish. Subtract February’s Daytona race and Harvick’s last five finishes at restrictor-plate tracks are fifth, seventh, first, first and second. He is consistently at the front at the end of restrictor-plate races and should be again Saturday night.
Kurt Busch dominated Speedweeks by winning the Budweiser Shootout and one of the Gatorade Duel 150s. He was also pretty impressive in the Daytona 500, finishing fifth. Busch was a bit of a disappointment at Talladega (18th), but this team has momentum on its side once again after dominating the competition at Infineon. Busch very well could become the series’ second back-to-back winner this season (Harvick).
Bowyer has been as consistent as any other driver on the circuit at restrictor plate tracks since the start of 2009. He has the second highest average finish in that time (13.2), only trailing Carl Edwards. That is despite Bowyer having trouble last July at Daytona and getting caught up in a wreck not of his doing this spring at Daytona.
Bowyer was inches from a win this season at Talladega (second), was running in the top 10 late in the race at Daytona before being caught up in an accident (17th) and won last fall at Talladega. Chances are he will be teamed up with one of the best in the business, Harvick, on Saturday night and the Childress cars will be in the front.
After a lackluster Speedweeks at Daytona, Hendrick Motorsports silenced the doubters at Talladega with finishes of first, third, fourth and eighth. Mark Martin’s eighth-place finish shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise. He was 10th at Daytona in the spring. Martin is one of only three drivers (Edwards and David Gilliland are the others) to score top-10 finishes in both plate races this season. Martin’s patience and laid back demeanor have proven to be an asset in this new form of racing.
Much like Busch, I expected more from Regan Smith at Talladega (15th) this spring. Bayne was the surprise winner of the Daytona 500, but Smith had the most impressive Speedweeks out of the bottom-tier drivers. After getting in a wreck at the end of the Daytona 500, he fought back to finish seventh with a damaged racecar. Smith may drive for a low-budget team, but he is driving the same chassis and engines as Harvick, Bowyer and this next guy.
It’s not often that there are myriad of viable choice in the bottom-tier fantasy category. At restrictor-plate tracks it is anyone’s race as Bayne and Gilliland have shown us. Even in these conditions, Paul Menard isn’t as much of a longshot as Bayne or Gilliland. Menard was ninth at Daytona and 12th at Talladega, and if he gets hooked up with the right Richard Childress Racing teammate at the end of Saturday’s race, he could be a first-time winner.
Tony Stewart is considered one of the top restrictor-plate racers in the series by many experts, but his finishes as of late haven’t warranted it. He has just two top-10 finishes in his last 10 starts at restrictor-plate racetracks, including 13th and 17th-place finish to show for this season.
As comfortable as Marcos Ambrose was one week ago on a winding road course in Sonoma, he has seemed equally uncomfortable at restrictor-plate tracks. In his last six races on superspeedways, Ambrose was 32nd, 37th, 41st, 37th, 32nd and 34th. If there is one driver to keep out of the fantasy lineup this weekend, it is Ambrose.
Until next week, good luck my friends!
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