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Mash The Gas: Talladega Preview

The field races in a tight pack during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway. [Credit: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images]

The field races in a tight pack during racing at Talladega Superspeedway. [Credit: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images]

by Dan Margetta and John Wiedemann

It’s back to restrictor plate racing for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series as the drivers tackle the Talladega SuperSpeedway for the Geico 500 on Sunday afternoon.

At 2.66 mile tri-oval with high banked turns, Talladega is considered a badass track because it’s big, it’s fast, and it’s unpredictable. Every driver in the field has a solid shot to win on Sunday as the restrictor plate pack racing is the equalizer amongst the powerhouse teams and the less funded organizations. The tight racing at speeds in excess of 200 mph also raises tension and drama as one slight bobble could and often times does result in multi-car crashes. It’s very easy to be swept up in someone else’s mistake and the driver’s nerves will be tested Sunday as well.

The Geico 500 is one of the most unpredictable races of the year and here are some drivers to watch…

Brad Keselowski (Dan Margetta)
Brad Keselowski is one of if not the best plate racer in the garage and he usually shines at Talladega. He was four victories here to go along with six top five finishes and seems to have a knack for finding the front of the field at the end of restrictor plate races. He already has two victories this season and should be one to watch on Sunday as lately as Fords have had great success at Talladega, especially the Penske contingent. One question that hovers over this weekend however is the loss of crew chief Paul Wolfe to suspension due to technical infractions earlier this season and the recent technical penalties issued to teammate Joey Logano’s team this week following Richmond. The Penske cars may be under extra scrutiny this week and that along with the loss of his crew chief will present some challenges to Keselowski in the Geico 500. He’s listed at 7-1 odds and is one of the favorites to win on Sunday.

Joey Logano (John Wiedemann)
Many veteran drivers are still looking for their first victory this season and Joey Logano has just been added back to that list. Yes, he won at Richmond, but after failing inspection at NASCAR Tech headquarters, his win has been called “encumbered”. This means that as far as the playoffs go, Logano’s benefits from Richmond will not count. So back to looking for that first un-encumbered win of the season goes the #22 team. Talladega is a track that Logano runs well at with two wins in sixteen races there. Four top five and six top ten finishes along with an average finish of 18.7 is actually pretty good at the track that can find a race leader on the flatbed just one lap later. Look for Logano to be running for redemption this weekend.

Ryan Blaney (DM)
Ryan Blaney may not have won yet but he has the respect of the Vegas odds makers this week as they list him at 15-1 in an unpredictable race. Blaney’s Wood Brothers Ford has been very strong on the plate tracks since their alliance with the Penske camp and Blaney finished second in the Daytona 500 to kick off the season. In his limited starts at Talladega, Blaney has one top five finish and two top ten results. Despite not having a lot of experience, Blaney has shown he has the instincts needed to conquer the restrictor plate races. Many drivers have scored their first victory at the Talladega speed plant and Ryan Blaney could add his name to that list on Sunday.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. (JW)
The most watched driver at any restrictor plate race is Dale Earnhardt Jr and this weekend will be no different. Most fans, especially #88 fans, will be expecting Junior to end up in victory lane to go along with the drama of him announcing his retirement from full time NASCAR competition following this season. But, it’s not that easy to win at Talladega – even for Dale. Yes, he has six wins and the second best driver rating at the track, but also an average finish of 19th which shows how easy it is to end up at the bottom of the standings even if you are one of the best at the track. That being said, look for Junior to run to the front and once again be the leader of the pack for most of the laps. Maybe that story book ending will happen this weekend.

Chase Elliott (DM)
Chase Elliott is another driver seeking his first career Cup win at the most unpredictable speedway. Elliott has run strong enough to find victory lane on the plate tracks and he should be in the mix on Sunday as well. At Daytona his car was fast but struggled a bit with handling issues but those handling issues aren’t as important at the larger Talladega SuperSpeedway where it’s all about speed. In his two starts at Talladega, Elliott has finished fifth and twelfth so he knows how to stay out of trouble and he’s listed at 15-1 odds to win this week. After cooling off a bit in the last few weeks, Chase Elliott may be ready to get back in the spot light this week at Talladega and he could end the day with his first trip to victory lane.

Kurt Busch (JW)
Since his Daytona 500 victory, Kurt Busch hasn’t been able to find victory lane again, but this weekend might allow him to get there again. Busch has always run well at restrictor plate tracks and at Talladega his driver rating is right up there behind the master, Dale Earnhardt Jr. The Fords of Stewart-Haas Racing have continued to show the speed that the team is known for and this weekend should be no different. In fact, Busch may be dealing with his own teammates at the front of the pack with Kevin Harvick having won Talladega previously and two time Talladega winner Clint Bowyer improving each week. Busch hasn’t won at Talladega yet, but prior to this season he hadn’t won the Daytona 500 before either.

Jamie McMurray (DM)
Jamie McMurray has been consistently strong just about every week through the first quarter of the season and I’m making him my long shot pick this week at 40-1 odds. McMurray is a very good plate racer as he owns two victories at Talladega to go along with seven top five finishes. While he is fast on the plate tracks, Jamie McMurray is also very aggressive and it cost him in the Daytona 500 as he triggered one of the multi-car wrecks in the event. If he can temper that aggressiveness a bit on Sunday, Jamie McMurray could break through with his first victory of 2017.

Clint Bowyer (JW)
As mentioned earlier, Clint Bowyer has two wins at Talladega and should be considered a top contender this weekend. Bowyer has been solid weekend after weekend this season and that is how he runs Talladega. In 22 races Bowyer has twelve top ten finishes with six of those ending up in the top five. Bowyer’s average finish of 14.7 shows he mostly knows how to stay out of trouble at the treacherous track. This weekend could be Bowyer’s shot at a playoff berth and solidly stamping out the memories of last season’s forgettable ride.

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Dan Margetta

Dan Margetta