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GEICO 500 at Talladega Preview and Fantasy NASCAR Predictions

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Richard Brickhouse. Dick Brooks. Lennie Pond. Bobby Hillin Jr.

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These names are just some of the one-hit wonders the largest, at-times scariest, oval on the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series circuit has produced. In the past, Talladega’s speeds made for danger at every turn; the test of man and machine gave an opportunity for upset winners to peer through the smoke.

Now? Restrictor plates, slapped on the engines in the name of safety provide parity for all 40 cars in the field. It could have cost $40,000 or $4 million to bring your team to the track this weekend but everyone starts the race with roughly the same amount of horsepower. Talladega’s snake-like draft leaves everyone virtually connected by a magnet; the right chess moves in a sea of traffic can get any car headed toward the front. It’s 188 laps of 40 cars in a too-close-for-comfort environment, creating bumper-to-bumper action that provides little room for error.

And when that mistake comes? The “Big One” is in full effect, a frightening wreck that typically wipes out half the field and changes the complexion of what’s typically a photo finish anyway. Talladega: the one-hit wonder on the NASCAR schedule that provides enough scary moments to make us wonder why we race there yet enough heart-stopping unpredictability to keep everyone coming back for more.

2016 GEICO 500

Time: 1 p.m. ET (Sunday)

Track: Talladega Superspeedway (Talladega, Ala.)

TV: FOX

Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90

Who’s at the Front: Carl Edwards

The story of the week has been Edwards’ bump-and-run of Kyle Busch, teammates sparring on the last lap for victory at Richmond. Edwards kept control, moving the No. 18 out of the way and earning a win that left Busch privately fuming. Joe Gibbs Racing had itself a tense team meeting this week although all sides are saying publicly the incident has been put behind them.

Lost in that shuffle has been the success of Edwards, the new Sprint Cup points leader, who now has back-to-back victories for the first time since November 2010. So much of NASCAR’s early-season storyline has been the trio of Busch, Kevin Harvick, and Jimmie Johnson battling up front that Edwards’ consistency behind them had been forgotten.

Not anymore. New crew chief Dave Rogers, formerly Busch and Denny Hamlin’s head wrench, has paid major dividends and given the 36-year-old Edwards a boost of confidence. Is this No. 19 car the final piece in a quartet of early favorites to make November’s final four?

Who’s at the Back: Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

I mention Stenhouse here because a solid start has faded in the midst of a contract year for him at Roush Fenway Racing. He had a fifth-place finish at Fontana and another top 10 within his first five starts; ever since, he’s done no better than 16th place and looked rather pedestrian. Bristol, one of the few tracks Stenhouse has run consistently strong over the year, left him fighting to simply finish on the lead lap.

The slump has left him 19th in points, just 12 out of a Chase spot and easily in a position to recover. But now is the time of year where Stenhouse really digs himself a hole, never to be heard from during the race, aside from when a wrecker comes to pick up the pieces of his car. That type of poor performance won’t fly anymore with others waiting in the wings at RFR. This weekend, the unpredictability of ‘Dega offers a chance for the No. 17 team to pick things back up.

News Briefs

Say what you want about the way Tony Stewart chooses to criticize NASCAR. But Stewart’s concern over safety regarding lug nuts, comments that caused a $35,000 fine, have paid major dividends. On Monday, NASCAR announced new rules claiming every team must have all five lug nuts on and tightened for each tire after a pit stop; intentionally leaving off lug nuts could result in a suspension if discovered after the race is completed.

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Autism Delaware also couldn’t be happier about Stewart’s fine. The Driver’s Council had offered to pay the $35K but Stewart chose to donate to charity instead, supporting one of the key non-profit organizations that partners with NASCAR and will help sponsor the race at Dover next month.

Over in NASCAR’s XFINITY Series, David Starr has been released from his No. 44 ride at TriStar Motorsports after failing to earn a top-15 finish all season. J.J. Yeley, a former full-time Cup driver who was once aligned with Joe Gibbs Racing, has been tapped to replace the 48-year-old Starr. Yeley, who started the year start-and-parking with the program, was 12th at Richmond in a one-race “audition” of sorts running the car for Starr.

NASCAR by the Numbers

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The points deficit Tony Stewart, who returned to the series at Richmond faces, to reach 30th place in the Sprint Cup standings. Stewart was a solid 19th on Sunday and faces a series of tracks coming up (Kansas, Charlotte, Dover) where he’s got a total of six career victories. A potential playoff opportunity is still well within reach.

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Laps completed out of 400 by Reed Sorenson of Premium Motorsports Sunday. That still left him dead last in the 40-car field as NASCAR’s tendency for all teams to finish races without mechanical failure continues throughout the 2016 season.

Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)

Top Tier

How can you talk Talladega without mentioning Dale Earnhardt Jr.? Earnhardt is the defending champion of this race and won for the first time here in over a decade last spring. People said his father, Dale Sr., could “see” the draft and the son certainly isn’t far off that pace. Earnhardt loves the strategy of plate racing, always circles this date on the calendar and arrives with one of the most prepared cars in the field provided by Hendrick Motorsports. Wrecks always leave any fantasy play a risk in its own right but without some sort of unforeseen problem Earnhardt is an automatic top-5 finish here.

Denny Hamlin, who won the Daytona 500 to start the season, has a streak of five top-10 finishes going at Talladega’s sister track – a nearly impossible feat considering how quickly the “Big One” can gobble anyone up. He hasn’t had the same luck at Talladega but is first and ninth in his last two spring races here. Potentially that type of good mojo can carry over?

The other three Joe Gibbs Racing drivers (Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth) flexed their muscle in the first restrictor plate race of the year and remain the prohibitive favorites going into any weekend. The parity of ‘Dega evens things out but if you have a laps led bonus in your league know these guys will spend the majority of their time in front of the pack.

Middle Tier

Martin Truex Jr. hasn’t had the best restrictor plate luck throughout his career. But he was fifth and seventh at Talladega last year and the No. 78 team benefitted from Joe Gibbs Racing dominating the Daytona 500. Furniture Row Racing gets their engines and chassis from TRD and Truex will likely be connected to their four-car freight train the entire day. Expect a strong performance.

Lower Tier

The current restrictor plate rules package, while still leaving room for underdogs has made it just a little bit harder for them to break through. The last unexpected ‘Dega win was David Ragan for Front Row Motorsports back in the spring of 2013; last spring, we only saw one true “underdog” sneak inside the top 10 (Josh Wise driving for what became Premium Motorsports).

With that in mind, though there are two guys I want you to watch out for concerning your roster: Regan Smith and Michael McDowell. Smith had a strong showing in February’s Daytona 500, looking like a potential top-5 finisher with his Tommy Baldwin Racing outfit before getting shuffled back. McDowell, meanwhile was a top-15 runner back at Daytona, drives for a team in Leavine Family Racing that has restrictor plate success under their belt and always has a knack for avoiding wrecks. That duo, considering they’re hard to pick anywhere else, would be perfect if you’re rooting for a top-10 finish or better from this tier heading to the finish line.

What Vegas Thinks

Dale Earnhardt Jr. currently leads the pack with 9-2 odds heading into the GEICO 500. Jimmie Johnson is next with 8-1 odds followed by Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick.

What I Think

In a sea of photo finishes that has been the 2016 season this one won’t disappoint. It’ll be a barnburner down the stretch and I’m going to go with a surprise winner (at least for him): Martin Truex Jr. Truex has seen tough luck on plate tracks at times but with the Joe Gibbs Racing/Toyota connection the No. 78 team should have what it takes to find its way to the front. 

— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and the Majority Owner of NASCAR Web site Frontstretch.com. He can be reached at tom.bowles@frontstretch.com or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.

(Photos by ASP Inc.)