Thursday, October 20, 2011

Talladega Preview

By Micah Roberts

As if last weeks race at Charlotte didn’t shuffle things up enough in NASCAR’s Chase for the Championship, we get the ultimate wild card race at Talladega this week. Every driver has a chance to win and each has also the same chance at finishing 30th or worse. Only five races are left and after Sunday’s race, things should be a lot clearer.

One of the greatest things I like about this years restrictor-plate racing, beyond cars going close to 200 mph, is the tandem racing. I like seeing teammates working together, or drivers who don’t really like each other learning to trust one another as they create an impromptu alliance because they have to in the moment. It’s a nice change of pace and adds some spice to the 36 race season.

What we have seen for the most part is teammates finding each other regardless if it means losing a few positions while waiting for their partner to catch up. The Hendrick drivers all figure to pair-up, as will Roush and RCR. Where it gets fun is when a driver’s partner has fallen out of the race and now they have to see who finds them attractive and is willing to give up on their current alliance.

It’s all about who is fastest paired up. Some drivers are better as pushers than pullers in the draft and after three races in this type of format, most teams have their plan B and C options knowing who will be the best option for them when plan A goes crashing, and it usually does.

The restrictor-plates for this weeks race will be a little larger than what we have seen in the first three plate races which will makes the speeds be a little bit higher, but most drivers still expect tandem racing to be the fastest way around the track.

The big story last week was Jimmie Johnson crashing late in the Charlotte race giving him a 34th-place finish and dropping him five positions to eighth in points, 35 points behind Carl Edwards. We can never count him out, but he’s in a position unlike any we’ve seen him in over the last five years of winning championships. He comes to Talladega this week hoping to match his victory from the first race there in April and is using the same car from that race this week.

For Edwards, he can probably taste the victory champagne already as he continues to have excellent finishes week after week. He has Las Vegas as his only victory on the season, but his consistency is what has gotten him to the top. He currently leads all drivers in top-five (16) and Top-10 finishes (22).

Roush drivers have proven to be better in the restrictor-plate races over the last two seasons, but Edwards looks to have a slim chance at finishing well. In 14 career races at Talladega he has only one to-five finish there, fifth-place in 2005. If he can duplicate his sixth-place finish from April, he will consider it a victory and be in prime position to capture the championship with four races to go.

The driver currently five points back in second-place that no one seems to be talking about is Kevin Harvick. He’s tied with Kyle Busch for the most wins on the season with four, but hasn’t garnered the attention deserved for such an outstanding season. This week at Talladega, he’ll be one of the favorites because he’s shown to be one of the more consistent drivers over his last three races there. He won and finished runner-up in 2010 and then finished fifth in this years race.

“Restrictor plate stuff has been great for us, you never know how it is going to go at Talladega, but we have been pretty good there in the past," Harvick said earlier this week. "I don’t anticipate the restrictor plate change doing anything. I think the speeds will be a little bit higher. I think the pop-off valve will probably be a bigger change than the restrictor plate for sure. I don’t think it’s going to change the two-car tandem other than you’re going to have to switch spots a lot more to keep the engine cool. For whatever reason, we’ve just always had a good plate program at RCR and when you have good cars, it makes it a lot easier to have success. We’ll stick with our teammates and see where we fall at the end.

Jeff Gordon is a six-time Talladega winner and finished third in the April race as three cars came to the finish line simulataneously. He knows he's got good stuff, but he's still not quite sure what his strategy will be for Sunday.

“My strategy is to race whatever way gives us the best chance to win," said Gordon. "I think the bonus ($100k to the driver who leads the most laps, provided there are 100 or more lead changes during the race) is a cool thing that the track is doing, and 100 might be reachable. Our plan is to be there at the end battling for the win. That could mean battling lap-after-lap for the lead, or it could mean staying a safe distance back and watching the race unfold. It could also be a mixture of the two. We’ll just have to wait and see once the green flag is waved."

The driver sneaking up on everyone is 2003 NASCAR Champion Matt Kenseth who won last week’s race, his third of the season. He’s only seven points behind and has put together four straight races coming in that has seen him finish sixth or better. He’s in the same boat as his teammate, Edwards, in that he hasn’t had a lot of success at Talladega, but if he could muster a top-10 finish it would go along way for the stretch run. His last top-10 at Talladega came in 2006. This week he'll be using the same chassis that finished runner-up at Daytona in July, the car that pushed David Ragan to victory.

“It’s kind of different doing a team-style race because you can’t do it by yourself at these superspeedway tracks anymore, you need a partner in order to have a good race," said Kenseth. "If you win or finish second, you know the other guy was just as responsible for your finish as you were in a way, so it’s definitely different. We had a great finish last weekend so we’ll take the momentum and just try to keep getting the best finishes we can in these final five weekends of the season for our No. 17 team.”

Just a side note on Kenseth's teammate David Ragan: He'll be using that same winning car that Kenseth pushed to victory at Daytona this week at Talladega. Of all the types of tracks on the circuit, Ragan has always looked his most comfortable in plate races.

Dale Earnhardt Jr, becomes a player this week because of the plates, even though he says he hates them, especially with having the tendem racing. But nevertheless, he's a five-time winner at Talladega and can run with the best of them. Despite not winning at Talladega since 2004, he has shown some consistency. This type of racing is in his blood. He finished fourth in the April race and was runner-up in 2009. This could be the ideal situation for him to end several winless streaks all at once.

As is the case for any restrictor-plate race, be careful of laying too much in any driver match-up no matter who the driver is. By the same token, you can almost take any driver at plus-money because anything can, and usually does happen. A long shot probably has a better chance of hitting at any one of the plate race tracks than any other type. There aren't many odds-to-win bets that anyone could say, "that driver has no shot this week."

Top 5 Finish Prediction:
1) #88 Dale Earnhardt Jr (10/1)
2) #29 Kevin Harvick (8/1)
3) #33 Clint Bowyer (10/1)
4) #24 Jeff Gordon (10/1)
5) #2 Kurt Busch (12/1)

No comments: