Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Aaron's 499 Preview: Earnhardt Jr. Should Contend For His Sixth Talladega Win

By Micah Roberts

Two-car tandems will be on display again this week at Talladega (Getty)
This weeks race at the monster 2.66-mile high banked track of Talladega Superspeedway will be quite different from what we have seen in the last six weeks of NASCAR races. Even though we’ve had a few surprises like Jeff Gordon and Kevin Harvick winning while the likes of Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin haven’t, restrictor-plate racing levels the playing field for everyone, especially the modern 2011 type of restrictor-plate racing.

The Daytona 500 was the last plate race run and was won by Trevor Bayne who was driving an underfunded Wood Brothers car. In the last six races, there has been no better example of just how underfunded the car Bayne drives is, but all of sudden, this week he’s a contender again, as are the 42 other drivers who start Sunday’s race.

Bayne wasn’t the only surprise finisher at Daytona. We also saw David Gilliland finish third, Bobby Labonte fourth and Regan Smith seventh; all drivers who don’t fit into many betting strategies.

The new style of plate racing that featured two-car tandems is likely to be the quickest way around the track again, meaning that although many of the drivers don't like that type of racing, they also want to win and have to play the game. I may get worn out with this type of racing as a fan after this week, but at Daytona I kind of liked it just because it was different and unique. After having a nice mixture of differing tracks the last six races, I'm very eager to jump back into tag-team tandem racing.

The top contenders to win this week all have the ECR engines and won every plate race in 2010. They also combined to have some of the best practice sessions during Daytona speed weeks. Jeff Burton, Clint Bowyer, Harvick, Juan Montoya and Jamie McMurray will all be good once again this week.

The next wave of contenders begins with Kurt Busch who won the Bud Shootout and one of the Gatorade Duel races at Daytona. He finished fifth in the Daytona 500 and will be looking for his first plate win in a NASCAR points race. He’s come so close at both Talladega and Daytona and I think I have bet on him in each and every one of those losses, so there’s no point in stopping now.

Maybe Junior's turn this week?
The driver that could surprise everyone is Dale Earnhardt Jr. who comes in on his best stretch while driving for Hendrick Motorsports. In his last six starts, Junior’s worst finish position was 11th. He came a few laps from winning at Martinsville and now has gone 100 straight races without a win after finishing ninth at Texas. He is a five-time winner at Talladega who has been runner-up three times. Based on the way his season is going, there may be no better time to bet on Earnhardt Jr. to win than this week.

Jeff Gordon is a six-time winner at Talladega who should find himself in the mix of things late in the race. The Roush Ford’s are also on the rise in plate races the last three years. The little guy of the group, David Ragan, has had some of his best career finishes at Talladega with a fourth, third and sixth place finish.

I’m going with the epic return of Junior to the winners circle. It's pretty stupid betting on a driver who hasn't won in 100 races, let alone the fact that his odds are 12-to-1, which is even more rediculous. But I guess I'm stubborn that way in the same sense that I keep betting on Kurt Busch in these races. However, my stupidity and stubbornness does pay off once in a while. I had Kevin Harvick for eight straight races at Bristol -- regardless of how he practiced -- until he finally won in 2005.

I can actually visualize Kurt Busch or Junior winning this week, which is scary, because that means I'm actually living too much in fantasy-land, which of course doesn't have sports books that pay out real cash.

I'm also going to take a small poke at a driver like David Gilliland or Trevor Bayne at odds of 100-to-1 or higher, which isn't as crazy or far-fetched as maybe Junior winning. In eight plate races dating back to 2009 we have had two drivers pay out odds higher than 100-to-1; Bayne this year and Brad Keselowski at Talladega in 2009. Gilliland's team is actually bringing their same third-place car from Daytona and are talking like contenders this week. Bayne's car, unfortunately, is in the Daytona USA museum.

With this type of racing, anything can happen. Even your wildest dream can come true where no bet is a bad bet until it loses.

Top-5 Finish Prediction:
1) #88 Dale Earnhardt Jr. (12/1)
2) #22 Kurt Busch (14/1)
3) #29 Kevin Harvick (8/1)
4) #1 Jamie McMurray (12/1)
5) #33 Clint Bowyer (14/1)

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