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 the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway. [Credit: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images]

by Dan Margetta and John Wiedemann

The massive 2.66 mile Talladega Superspeedway looms as the site for this weekend’s Geico 500 as the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series returns to restrictor plate racing this Sunday afternoon.

Talladega Superspeedway
500.08 miles (188 laps)
Sunday, May 1 – 1pm ET
FOX, 12:30pm ET
MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
Talladega is all about speed and less about handling as the drivers will have their throttle foot pegged to the floorboard as they steer their cars around Talladega’s steep high banks. A return to restrictor plate racing also means large packs of cars dicing around in close situations that ultimately lead to “the big one”, a large multi-car incident that sweeps up cars in its wake.

Restrictor plate racing also means every car in the field has a legitimate shot at the victory as the lesser funded teams are on equal footing with the powerhouse organizations. Predicting a winner at Talladega is nearly impossible but here are some drivers to watch Sunday in the Geico 500 …

Matt Kenseth (Dan Margetta)
While Matt Kenseth has just a single victory at Talladega, his overall stats at the track are worth noting. His six top five finishes and ten finishes in the top ten are decent but it’s the laps completed statistic that stands out. Kenseth has completed 95% of the laps in his 32 Talladega starts with just four DNF’s (Did Not Finish). That means he is good at avoiding “the big one” and seems to have a little luck on his side at Talladega. Matt Kenseth led many circuits including the white flag lap earlier this year at Daytona and has been in desperate need of a good luck charm this season. Part of that bad luck this year has given him enticing 12-1 odds this week. If his regular spotter was in place to open the year, Matt Kenseth would have won the Daytona 500 and with everyone on the team in their correct places at Talladega, I’m picking him to get off the schneid and finally win one on Sunday.

Brad Keselowski (John Wiedemann)
The driver with the series-best average finish at Talladega is Brad Keselowski. Looking to join three other drivers at the top of the Chase standings with two victories this season, Keselowski is going for his fourth win at the super speedway. Although one win will probably lock a driver into the Chase, two wins is a sure way to get locked in. Even though Keselowski found victory lane at Las Vegas, he hasn’t been as consistent this season as he has in the past. In fact, Brad has failed to finish in the top ten in the last three races, although he was close with an 11th place run last weekend. A win this weekend puts Keselowski in cruise control to prepare for the Chase.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. (DM)
While it’s hard to predict a winner at Talladega, one guy who really stands out is Dale Earnhardt Jr. who has six wins here to go along with twelve top five finishes and sixteen top ten results. Earnhardt has the best driver rating at Talladega and is listed as the heavy 9-2 favorite to win this weekend. Junior Nation will be pleased to know that “Amelia”, the car that carried Junior to four restrictor plate wins in the past year, is back after being repaired from the damage suffered in his Daytona 500 crash. Dale Earnhardt Jr. and the #88 team have enjoyed quite a few strong runs so far this year and Talladega is right in his wheelhouse as driver feedback and the car’s handling characteristics are not as critical this weekend. The Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas dominated the Daytona 500 but one guy who could break up their party is Dale Earnhardt Jr. and he should be considered a strong contender for the victory on Sunday.

Jimmie Johnson (JW)
Jimmie Johnson has put together the best start to a season in the last couple of years. In nine races, Johnson has five top four finishes including two wins. Johnson, along with crew chief Chad Knaus and the rest of the crew, is on his way towards capturing a coveted seventh championship. Right now, the championship battle looks to be between Johnson, Kevin Harvick and the Joe Gibbs Racing drivers. It still is way early, but Johnson will be a driver to watch every race of the rest of the season. Johnson is my pick to win this weekend and pick up victory number three on the season.

Martin Truex Jr. (DM)
Martin Truex Jr. came within an eyelash of winning the Daytona 500, losing out to Denny Hamlin in a photo finish so he has to be happy about returning to restrictor plate racing at Talladega. Truex finished fifth and seventh in the Talladega races last year and with new Toyota power for this year, he and the #78 team should be a force to reckon with on Sunday. He’s listed at 15-1 odds this weekend and does own multiple wins here in the Xfinity Series. Plus, he has a good record of finishing races at Talladega having only 9 DNF’s in 22 starts. Losing the Daytona 500 and a guaranteed spot in the Chase by such a small margin had to grate on both Truex and the team and they have to be looking to rebound strong at Talladega. Don’t be surprised to see them racing for the win on Sunday.

Carl Edwards (JW)
Could Carl Edwards get three wins in a row? Maybe the question should be, will Edwards get any help from his teammates after he bumped teammate Kyle Busch out of the way to win last weekend. Edwards is having a great year and proved last weekend that nothing will get in his way as he looks to capture his first championship. Edwards has not yet found victory lane at Talladega and has an average finish of 21st with six top ten finishes in 23 races. But its Talladega and Edwards is on a roll. Victory lane is possible.

Ryan Blaney (DM)
Because of the unpredictability of the Talladega races, long shots typically do not receive as high of odds as they would at other places which means that long shots have a better chance of coming through at Talladega. One of those long shots is Ryan Blaney who enters at 60-1 odds and he’s my dark horse pick this week. Blaney finished fourth in this race a year ago and he showed plenty of speed earlier this year at Daytona mainly due to the alliance his Wood Brothers team has with Penske Motorsports. Blaney also has shown great maturity as a rookie this season and he doesn’t put himself in bad situations which may come in handy when trying to avoid getting caught up in “the big one.” Expect Blaney to keep his nose clean all day and hang around until the closing laps and make a charge when it counts. Talladega has produced the most first time winners of any track on the circuit and if guys like Lennie Pond, Richard Brickhouse, Dick Brooks, Ron Bouchard, and Bobby Hillin Jr. can win here, so can Ryan Blaney.

Chase Elliott (JW)
This will be the first Sprint Cup Series start at Talladega for Chase Elliott and he is my long shot pick to get the victory this weekend. After starting on the pole for the Daytona 500, things went downhill early in the race. Lately results have been much better for the rookie as he scored two top fives in the last three races and five top ten finishes in nine races this season. Elliott will likely be one of the quickest drivers in the field again and his success this weekend will depend on harnessing the speed and not pushing the envelope and putting himself in a bad situation. Looking at how well Elliott has been running, it would not be a surprise to see him grab a victory this weekend and with his dad Bill’s success at Talladega, it would be a great place for Chase to capture his first Cup win.

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