Talladega's new handling package makes Sunday's event a total wild card
For years, Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series races at Talladega Superspeedway (2019 GEICO 500, Sunday, April 28 at 2 p.m. ET on FOX) have been the most unpredictable on the circuit. First-time winners have mixed with unimaginable wrecks, snarling packs separated by inches at the finish line. Talladega Nights was based in part on the outright insanity this type of racing produces on an annual basis.
But for the first time in 30 years, whether we'll see a repeat in this year’s GEICO 500 is a total mystery.
That's because restrictor plates are off the cars here for the first time in 30 years. Developed as a "temporary" way to slow speeds after a ferocious 1987 wreck nearly sent Bobby Allison's car into the stands, NASCAR’s solution stood for a generation. The plates kept speeds under 200 miles an hour and had the added benefit of sticking the entire field together like superglue.
The end result was a series of heart-stopping races that led to endless debate amongst fans, drivers and NASCAR officials. The lead changes, constant three-abreast racing and chess moves needed to pass produced great drama. These events are consistently some of the highest-rated, made-for-television events we'll see all season.
But is keeping every car at the same speed, running stuck together the best way to race? Passing can prove difficult and you almost never can do it yourself; teamwork is needed in a sport where there’s an individual winner. Close quarters also led to the development of the Big One, unavoidable high-speed wrecks that can wipe out half the field at any given moment. Drivers often feel trapped in a roller coaster they can’t get off of.
The plates were also never 100 percent safe (let me mention here racing is inherently a risky sport). They were on when legendary drivers such as Neil Bonnett (1994) and Dale Earnhardt Sr. (2001) passed away at Daytona International Speedway. A major wreck in the sport’s NASCAR Xfinity Series in 2013 sent parts into the stands and injured two dozen. Carl Edwards pulled a Bobby Allison Jr. in 2009 and injured eight when he slammed into the catchfence in a Cup race.
Over time, drivers also wised up to the formula. Why fight early in a plate race when everyone will still be stuck together almost automatically at the end? The first half of these events became increasingly single-file affairs, even during the stage racing era as people simply waited until the last 20 laps to get aggressive. Last fall saw a snooze-inducer most of the day as four-car Stewart-Haas Racing became like one big conga line and pulled away.
So new NASCAR leadership was willing to try new solutions. This weekend's race, then, features tapered spacers, a 9-inch rear spoiler and a 1-inch, bolt-on track bar mount. These forces combine to lower speeds and increase the ability of the cars to have throttle response inside the draft.
But we also have no idea how they’re going to play out under race conditions. Early feedback indicates they drive like the sport's NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series package, which is a promising sign; that division is universally praised for its high-quality competition.
At the same time, one day into practice NASCAR already made a change and added a one-inch wicker to the spoiler in reaction to concerns about speed and handling. It only helped so much; averages were well over the 200 mph boundary the sport uses as a guide for safety concerns. More changes could happen before the start of Sunday’s race as drivers felt, more than ever, the air of the draft had their cars bouncing around.
It sounds like a recipe for unpredictability. But that’s just the way Talladega has always been. From the first race back in 1969, when Richard Brickhouse earned his lone Cup victory after drivers protested the event, the speedway has a way of pulling off surprises.
Sunday could produce yet another one. Conditions are ripe for the unexpected and even a first-time winner as we all find out if the next chapter of racing here is, indeed, a permanent solution to the high-speed issues caused decades earlier.
Time: 2 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Track: Talladega Superspeedway (Lincoln, Ala.)
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who's at the Front: Joe Gibbs Racing and Team Penske
They’ve shared this space for most of the season so who better to feature coming off NASCAR’s Easter break? These organizations have combined to win 100 percent of all Cup races run this season (nine races). Five total winners tie the lowest for NASCAR’s current postseason era.
Right now, JGR and Penske combine for five of the top six drivers in Cup Series points. Only Kevin Harvick of Stewart-Haas Racing breaks their stranglehold. And of the seven drivers in the Penske-JGR fold, only Erik Jones is on the postseason bubble.
Who's at the Back: Kyle Larson
Larson felt the need to vocally back crew chief Chad Johnston Friday after an ugly start to the first nine races. He sits just 19th in the standings without a top-5 finish and hasn’t led since the second race of the year at Atlanta. Two crashes in the last three weeks left him plummeting and well behind teammate Kurt Busch at Chip Ganassi Racing.
Keep in mind Busch is running with a team, the No. 1, that didn’t make the postseason. The 40-year-old shouldn’t be running circles around Larson, marketed as Chevy’s 20-something powerhouse star alongside Chase Elliott. The next stretch of races could prove crucial to both Johnston’s job and Larson’s place in the sport’s Silly Season conversation if business doesn’t pick up.
Marcus Smith and his family have made an offer to buy out Speedway Motorsports, Inc. and turn it back into a private company. SMI owns a third of the dates on the NASCAR Cup circuit including the racetracks of Atlanta Motor Speedway, Bristol Motor Speedway, Charlotte Motor Speedway, Kentucky Speedway, Las Vegas Motor Speedway, New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Sonoma Raceway and Texas Motor Speedway. The move follows a bid for NASCAR to buy out International Speedway Corporation and take that company private, making it easier to restructure the sport or divest assets in a potential sale. Stay tuned.
NASCAR Xfinity Series talent Justin Haley will be making his Cup Series debut at Talladega. He’ll be running the new No. 77 for Spire Motorsports that has run a variety of drivers who bring sponsorship to the table. However, the parity of Talladega makes Haley a possible dark horse; he had a NXS win stripped at Daytona in 2018 for passing below the double yellow line.
Condolences to the Earnhardt family. Brenda Jackson, the mother of Dale Earnhardt Jr., passed away this week at the age of 65. Jackson was close to both Earnhardt and sister Kelley and a visible presence with the JR Motorsports NASCAR Xfinity Series race team.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Average lead changes this year under the new NASCAR package designed to produce closer competition. That’s just a tick better than 2018 and far lower than the average nine races into 2005, the sport's peak year of growth. Find out more here as I take a deeper look into how this year has played out by the numbers.
Average finish for points leader Kyle Busch through nine Cup Series events this season. Busch is also the only driver to go nine-for-nine on top-10 finishes in 2019.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
For once, this tier shouldn’t be your focus as middle and lower-tier drivers offer the most upside at Talladega. But you can’t go wrong with Aric Almirola, Kevin Harvick and Clint Bowyer from Stewart-Haas Racing.
Almirola won his first ‘Dega race last fall, has five straight top-10 finishes and is typically at his best on plate tracks. Harvick and Bowyer enter the race with momentum and led the charge last fall in a four-car, teamwork-style draft that whipped the field all the way through – a rarity at a place designed for parity.
Brad Keselowski is also a solid pick here as he owns five career Cup wins at this track to lead active drivers.
So many options here. I’d go with Austin Dillon who has quietly started putting a season together at Richard Childress Racing. He was sixth at Richmond, a season high before Easter break and traditionally does well at Talladega’s sister track, Daytona. No top-10 finishes in the past four starts here, to me, simply means he’s overdue to cash in.
The focus will be on Ricky Stenhouse Jr. at Roush Fenway Racing this weekend and rightfully so – he’s won at Talladega before. But Ryan Newman has more mojo entering this race, led one of Friday’s practices and quietly got a sagging superspeedway record together last year. Two top-10 finishes in the last three races here, including a second-place finish, have me optimistic the No. 6 car could be the one reaching Victory Lane.
There’s no question in my mind Matt DiBenedetto could have won the 2019 Daytona 500. But the driver of the No. 95 Leavine Family Racing Toyota got caught up in a late wreck not of his making after leading a career-high 49 laps. A new package shouldn’t slow down this organization that focuses on maximizing their opportunities on plate tracks.
You know another team who does exactly that? Front Row Motorsports and their drivers David Ragan, Michael McDowell and Matt Tifft. McDowell was one of the last ones standing in a wreck-filled Daytona 500, coming home inside the top 5. But Ragan has won here with FRM in 2013 and owns top-10 finishes in three of the last four races here. You know what though? With the type of unpredictability expected Sunday, why not try Tifft? The rookie could easily weave through the wreckage and has the speed to stay inside the lead draft.
Another long shot to watch is Brendan Gaughan. Gaughan only runs the plate races with his Beard Motorsports No. 62 team but is competitive every time out. He owns an average finish of 17.8 with the Beard Motorsports team in nine starts with them, including a 12th at Talladega last fall.
What Vegas Thinks
It’s a Ford Fiesta on top of the ‘Dega odds list. Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano are on top of the board with 8/1 odds to win the GEICO 500. Clint Bowyer and Kevin Harvick are right behind at 10/1.
What I Think
I’ll say Matt DiBenedetto finishes what he started at Daytona and surprises with his first career Cup Series win. Expect a lot of wrecks and a wild ride with the new 2019 NASCAR package on plate tracks.