Will an underdog strike again in a NASCAR plate race?
David Ragan with an underdog team. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. with his NASCAR future in question. Brad Keselowski before he drove the Cup Series full-time.
Talladega Superspeedway was always famous for giving underdog drivers a second lease on life. Or perhaps it’s their only lease on life: Ron Bouchard, Bobby Hillin Jr. and Phil Parsons are some of the more recent wheelmen whose only career Cup win came at this track.
More than ever, the parity of restrictor-plate racing, paired with drafting takes better horsepower, engineering and chassis design out of the equation. Even a 40th-place team most weeks suddenly finds themselves with a shot to win this race. That’s why the fans love it and the plates stay despite a multitude of complaints to remove a “temporary” solution that’s lasted since 1988.
Plate racing also equals pack racing, the type of white-knuckle competition where Lady Luck plays a large role. If you’re three-wide on the backstretch and someone two cars ahead of you spins out? Forget it. You’re in the middle of the mess and simply hoping not to flip over, part of a scary wreck like Jamie McMurray’s Friday barrel roll in Talladega practice.
Some look at those outside factors and conclude this race is a game of survival: you just have to hope your winning lotto numbers get called. But I don’t think that’s true. You can’t be so dismissive of driver skill in any race, let alone one of the fastest events on the circuit.
I look at ‘Dega almost like someone playing a hand of poker. In the end, do you need a little luck in order to draw the best hand? Of course. But the best players use their skills of bluffing, intimidation and intelligence to edge out rivals even when they hold the wrong cards. It doesn’t always work, but it works enough that they’re the experts winning millions while us amateur Friday night card players are sitting at home.
Drivers like Keselowski have mastered the mix of smarts and skill to succeed at this track. One more win gives him six at Talladega, tying Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. for second best. In a world where fans will be looking for a replacement in Earnhardt country (this race won’t have an Earnhardt after Dale Jr.’s retirement) Kes certainly tops the list on paper.
But there’s a sentimental favorite, too connected to NASCAR’s southern roots. Neighboring Georgia is where the Elliotts make their home and young Chase watched his father, Awesome Bill from Dawsonville, master the superspeedways. The NASCAR Hall of Famer is on record for the fastest lap in NASCAR qualifying here before restrictor plates came along; the popularity of his wins three decades earlier have passed from father to son.
You could see a changing of the guard last fall here, palpable when Chase took the lead late. For a moment, it looked like the Talladega grandstand was going to collapse under the weight of a man-made earthquake. Even Dale Jr.’s cheering section couldn’t match Chase’s devoted fans, an effort on both sides that ultimately came up short.
Will this Sunday be Chase’s time to shine? He’s coming off a surprise second-place finish at Richmond, seemingly the millionth time he’s been the bridesmaid at the Cup level. Plate racing is a chance for ailing Hendrick Motorsports to right itself and steal one against the formidable Fords.
Or will Darrell Wallace Jr., this year’s second-place runner at Daytona, find his way back to the front? The famed No. 43 has run top 5 at Talladega as recently as last year. Fellow rookie William Byron has also shown some signs of adapting to these Cup cars; can he pull a fast one? There’s a lot of names in the Talladega bingo machine hoping their number gets called.
As Austin Dillon showed us at Daytona, all it takes is one half-lap out front and suddenly, your name is etched on a trophy forever. Can one of these young names do what it takes to get over the hump?
49th GEICO 500
Time: 2 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Track: Talladega Superspeedway (Lincoln, Ala.)
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who’s at the Front: Joey Logano
Yes, Kyle Busch has won three straight races; he’s dominated this column space for the better part of 2018. So let’s take a moment and give Logano a shout. Sure, he’s a step behind the speed of not only Busch but also two other Championship 4 participants from last year: Martin Truex Jr. (the reigning champ) and Kevin Harvick.
But the No. 22 Ford is gaining on that trio. Logano won a stage for the first time in over a year at Richmond; his fourth-place finish tied a season best. One year after an embarrassing playoff miss the Team Penske talent looks to be in solid shape to rejoin the 16-driver field. And now, we’re heading to ‘Dega, a track where Penske Fords have won four of the last five times out. Expect him to rejoin Victory Lane sooner rather than later.
Who’s at the Back: Jamie McMurray
It’s been a rough time for McMurray, flipping during Friday practice at Talladega despite having the fastest speed in Happy Hour. He’s coming off a rough wreck at Richmond that also included a bizarre on-track confrontation with Chip Ganassi Racing teammate (and NASCAR 20-something star) Kyle Larson. That’s the type of conflict where McMurray comes out a loser; his “nice guy” attitude has, in some cases, made up for B-level on-track results. A disappointing season thus far (24th in points, one lap led) has some thinking his time in the No. 1 car may soon be reaching an end.
Matt Kenseth is coming out of retirement a mere five months after being forced into it. The 2003 Cup Series champ, left without a ride when Joe Gibbs Racing turned to Erik Jones this season, was ready to ride into the NASCAR sunset with good friend Dale Earnhardt Jr. But then Jack Roush called the 46-year-old with sponsorship from Wyndham Rewards and a long-term opportunity to climb back in the series.
That led to a bombshell announcement this week first reported by SBNation where Kenseth is returning to the sport on a part-time basis. He’ll drive the No. 6 car at Roush Fenway Racing made famous by mentor Mark Martin while struggling Trevor Bayne is reduced to a part-time schedule. In a press conference announcing the move, all parties made reference to a long-term partnership with potential off-track roles for Kenseth down the road.
Bayne is none too happy by the move, so surprising it led to some speculation about his health (Bayne was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis over four years ago). However, sources after the announcement indicated this move was based on performance. Bayne made a short statement Friday claiming his “health is 100 percent. I am as fit physically, mentally, spiritually as I’ve ever been to do my job well. My desire is, as it always has been since I was five years old, to come to the racetrack and contend for wins, championships, and be a driver at the top level in the Cup Series. Nothing in that has changed.”
Bayne will finish the season running at least 10 of the final 27 races in the No. 6 while Kenseth will debut with the car at Kansas May 12.
ARCA announced Friday it had been acquired by longtime ally/rival NASCAR in a press conference headed by Jim France. The merger keeps the short-track focused stock car series intact through 2019; the 2020 schedule and beyond will be announced at a later date. Murmurs through the garage Friday were that ARCA was going to merge with the sport’s K&N East Series while acquiring coveted short track dates in Salem, Virginia; Elko, Minnesota; and Toledo, Ohio, to add to their schedule. But all that was early speculation shot down by NASCAR. Instead, both sides trumpeted how the move could benefit the struggling ARCA series both in marketing and TV money over the short term.
NASCAR announced after a scary Friday wreck it would introduce smaller restrictor-plate holes in time for Sunday’s GEICO 500. The smaller plates should cut 12-14 horsepower from engines that were producing average speeds of well over 203 mph in practice. Typically, it’s the 200 mph barrier at Daytona and Talladega that causes NASCAR officials to take action and make a change out of safety concerns.
The new plates will have their holes reduced from 56/64ths of an inch to 55/64ths of an inch. It seems like a miniscule, untraceable amount but the hope is it shaves average speeds to under 200 mph even in drafting conditions.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Average finish by Kyle Busch this season, a number that leads the Cup Series. Joey Logano is second at a distant 7.3.
Laps led for seven-time Cup champ Jimmie Johnson in the first nine races this season.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
Can Team Penske keep it together at Talladega? They’ve won four of the last five and Brad Keselowski’s track record, discussed above, speaks for itself. The problem, as is the case with any Talladega race in fantasy is whether Lady Luck will intervene. Even in Keselowski’s case, where he’s got a 40 percent win rate in his last five starts an ugly 38th-place DNF is in there as well. Joey Logano is slightly worse; two wins but two runs of 25th or worse in his last five starts. Pick your winner... or your poison.
Kyle Busch is aiming to be the first Cup driver to win four straight since Jimmie Johnson’s historic playoff run in 2007. It’s a tough track to do it but Busch does have some positive vibes (and history here). His last win at the track was 2008 but Busch does have two top-5 runs here since 2015.
Richard Childress Racing showed some speed in Friday practice and is always strong at the plate races. Ryan Newman and Daytona 500 winner Austin Dillon could be joined at the front by their pseudo-teammate Darrell Wallace Jr. from the No. 43 of Richard Petty Motorsports.
Don’t forget about Roush Fenway Racing, too whose driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr. rolled to victory here in a thriller last year. What better place for RFR to fix their awkward start to 2018 than with a victory at a plate track? It would lock them into playoff position and give the No. 17 team months to fix their chassis problems elsewhere.
The back of the pack is where Dega fantasy games will be won or lost. There’s a solid number of quality options here, drivers you want to pick especially if you’re in a league with limited starts. Take a chance on an underdog here, a backmarker team without the horsepower to contend anywhere else.
Part-timer Brendan Gaughan was a top-10 contender in the final laps of the Daytona 500. Heck, it looked like he could even win the whole thing at points. Matt DiBenedetto was in a similar boat and is driving the type of car (Ford) that has outperformed the other manufacturers this season. And don’t count out Timothy Peters, driving in his first Cup race for the part-time No. 92. That car ran top 15 at Daytona with David Gilliland and could easily play the survival card again. Sometimes, cars like those who just barely hang on to the rear of the draft dodge the big wrecks and are in position to move up when it matters.
What Vegas Thinks
Brad Keselowski leads the pack with 5/1 odds to win Talladega followed by a bit of a surprise (at least in my book). Denny Hamlin has 15/2 odds while Joey Logano sits third at 8/1.
What I Think
I’m going out on a limb this week. How crazy would it be just days after losing his ride full-time for Trevor Bayne to go out and win this race? He’s a great plate racer (see: 2011 Daytona 500) and RFR won last year with Ricky Stenhouse Jr. I think Bayne wins and complicates an already awkward scenario over at RFR.
(Top photo courtesy of ASP, Inc.)