Nine races in the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup season and each team in approaching Sunday's Aaron's 499 with varying goals in mind. Often viewed as a “wild card” race, teams will be working on different agendas as the field jockeys for position inches away from each other — and the “Big One” — lap after lap.
The entire course of a race, not to mention fantasy weekend, can change in one instant, so choose carefully and look for those drivers that are good at avoiding trouble.
Roush Fenway Racing’s Greg Biffle continues to lead the series standings, with teammates Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards sitting fourth and ninth, respectively.
Many expect Sunday’s race to play out similarly to February’s Daytona 500, given the rules package NASCAR has in place. Don't expect to hear a lot of complaining out of the Roush camp there. Kenseth scored the win in the 500, while Biffle finished third and Edwards came home eighth.
The Roush organization has been on its game in the early stages of the 2012 season, but none of its three drivers have ever been to Victory Lane at Talladega. In fact, between Biffle, Edwards and Kenseth, the Roush Fenway camp has 13 DNFs on the 2.66-mile superspeedway.
With all three cars in the top 10 in points, the Roush Fenway teams have a lot on the line at a critical part of the season. A solid finish for all three would mean an early-season bullet was dodged.
However, for the man second in points, there is really only one thing on his mind: winning.
There are really only two words that are synonymous in NASCAR: Earnhardt and Talladega. And this weekend, the NASCAR fantasy season rolls into Earnhardt Country — otherwise known as Talladega, Ala.
Despite a 138-race winless streak hanging over his head, Dale Earnhardt Jr. heads to his so-called home away from home second in the Cup standings, just five points behind Biffle.
Throughout the season, the No. 88 team has proven to be the lead Hendrick car, scoring four top 5s and seven top 10s in nine races. Yet last time the series was in Talladega, Earnhardt and his Hendrick teammates took the calculated and cautious approach, finishing 25th, 26th and 27th.
Following the race, Earnhardt admitted the tandem racing did not fit his style of driving.
This season, NASCAR made changes to the superspeedway package in advance of the Daytona 500, and as a result, created more traditional pack racing — you know, the style of driving that led to five Talladega victories for Earnhardt and a second-place finish in this year’s Daytona 500.
The other Hendrick cars have all been snake-bit thus far in 2012, despite a promising preseason. Kasey Kahne and Jeff Gordon have had strong cars, but poor luck throughout the year, while Jimmie Johnson and Earnhardt continue to search for Victory Lane and that historic 200th Sprint Cup Series win for team owner Rick Hendrick.
While that milestone is a big deal for the Hendrick orginization, it would certainly take a backseat if Earnhardt could end his winless streak dating back to 2008 in front of his most loyal crowd on the schedule.
Carrying momentum and confidence, which builds more and more each week, Earnhardt Jr. is this week's fantasy favorite.
While Earnhardt may be the overwhelming fantasy favorite, Michael Waltrip Racing’s Clint Bowyer is also a solid pick. Entering the weekend 12th in points, Bowyer has won two of the last three Talladega races, while finishing second in the third.
This weekend, Bowyer is not only rolling for his third win in four starts, he's rolling for the Crimson Tide of Alabama with a special paint scheme honoring the 2011 National Championship football team. His car will carry the colors of the Crimson Tide and display each of its 14 titles, and he will also have an image of legendary coach Paul “Bear” Bryant riding along on the back of his helmet.
Winning is a tradition in Alabama and they will expect Bowyer to deliver as such. Look for him to be a contender throughout the day.
Five Favorites: Dale Earnhardt Jr., Clint Bowyer, Brad Keselowski, Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin
The Earnhardt name may be synonymous with Talladega, but the driver with the best average finish is none other than Joey Logano. In just six starts, the soon-to-be 22-year-old has two top 5s, four top 10s and only one DNF, leading to an average finish of 14.5.
This season, however, Logano has struggled to find consistency. After back-to-back top 10s to open the season in Daytona and Phoenix, Logano and the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing team have yet to score another top-10 finish. Logano had a solid Speedweeks in Daytona, and I expect him to have a strong fantasy day on Sunday.
Also consider Phoenix Racing’s Kurt Busch as an undervalued pick. Busch and Phoenix Racing started the season with high hopes and realistic expectations, but after four finishes of 28th or worse, the organization sits 26th in points and in search of wins.
Heading into the year, the team knew the superspeedway races were among its best opportunities to compete with the larger teams for wins. Phoenix Racing has one win at Talladega, when Brad Keselowski took it to Victory Lane in the dramatic 2009 finish with Edwards.
Busch currently holds the second-best average finish (14.9) amongst active drivers at Talladega, but has never been to Victory Lane. In fact, Busch only has two top-10 finishes in his last eight starts here.
The self-proclaimed “old-school” team could be an undervalued pick this weekend, just be cautious when making that final lineup decision.
Back in the car this weekend will be team owner and former Talladega winner Michael Waltrip. Mikey makes no secret of his love for plate racing, and MWR has been putting out fast racecars week-in and week-out. Waltrip could get up there and shock the world — as pack racing is more his forte than tandam drafting — so consider the No. 55 as an undervalued pick, as well.
Five Undervalued Picks: Joey Logano, Kurt Busch, Michael Waltrip, Kevin Harvick, Ryan Newman
Talladega has been known to produce darkhorse winners in the past, and Sunday's race could do the same. This week's darkhorse pick comes in the form of Landon Cassill. Driving for BK Racing this season, Cassill has demonstrated his talent behind the wheel, working with veteran crew chief Doug Richert.
Although the team's best finish came last week with a 20th in Richmond, the potential for a solid fantasy day at Talladega is certainly there. Keep in mind, Cassill finished 16th at Talladega last October driving for Phoenix Racing.
Tommy Baldwin Racing's Dave Blaney is another darkhorse driver to consider for this weekend's race. Blaney has two top 5s at the 2.66-mile superspeedway, including a third-place finish last October.
Five Darkhorse Picks: Landon Cassill, Dave Blaney, Paul Menard, Regan Smith, Jamie McMurray
Keep in mind while you are setting your fantasy lineup that anything can happen at Talladega. The “Big One” is always lurking, and some of the biggest contenders could be eliminated in a single incident. With drivers and teams approaching this race with varying agendas, make sure to pick wisely and hope to make it through the day unscathed.
Best Average Finish at Talladega (Wins)
1. Joey Logano — 14.5 (0)
2. Kurt Busch — 14.9 (0)
3. Dale Earnhardt Jr. — 15.0 (5)
4. Brad Keselowski — 15.0 (1)
5. Kevin Harvick — 15.1 (1)
6. Tony Stewart — 15.2 (1)
7. Jeff Gordon — 16.3 (6)
8. Clint Bowyer — 16.4 (2)
9. Jimmie Johnson — 16.8 (2)
10. Juan Pablo Montoya — 17.1 (0)
by Jay Pennell
Follow Jay on Twitter:@JayWPennell