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 We’ve rolled into Talladega which can be  cantankerous and mysterious since NASCAR began using restrictor plates to slow the speeds of the cars. Multi-car drafts encouraged pack racing and as the teams built stronger engines with more horsepower, NASCAR was forced to take increasingly drastic measures to keep them south of the 200 mph mark. That meant the packs got bigger and the risk of the Big One increased.

Finally, NASCAR hit on something truly unique to some fans; by reshaping the bumpers and bringing in the car of tomorrow they eliminated three-car drafts and any number greater than that. For the past several plate races, drivers have been forced into two-car tandems. Because of its novelty, this style of racing was no more predictable than one in which multi-car accidents were frequent, but slowly a pattern has begun to emerge. With the reduction of multi-car accidents, the cream can rise to the top with greater frequency. The middles stages of the race might be totally incomprehensible as tandems surge and fade, but as drivers figure out where they want to be with 10, five, and one lap remaining, the faces up front are starting to look familiar. And with the two-car tandems it got a lot harder finding our picks for this weekend’s race; but somehow I have them!

Favorites

Going into Talladega the points have been the closest we have seen since the start of the Chase. And fate’s intervention, the odds are good that the points battle will be just as tight leaving Talladega as it is entering the track. Harvick, Edwards got off to a slow start on this track type and Edwards either suffered crash damage or engine failure in 13 of his first 19 attempts at Talladega and Daytona combined. On the heels of those disappointments, he logged eight consecutive incident-free races that produced a pair of top-fives, five top-10s, and a worst finish of only 17th. This summer, he crashed again at Daytona, but the preponderance of his recent record recommends starting the No. 99.

Kevin Harvick is another driver who gets our nod as another favorite for this weekend. At the start of his career, he was not particularly strong on the plate tracks, but that all changed in 2010. Streaks on this track type are incredibly hard to maintain, but Harvick swept throught the first three plate races with a seventh in the Daytona 500 and back-to-back victories in the spring Talladega and summer Daytona races. The two-car tandems that began in earnest last fall in this race could have derailed him, but he finished second to teammate Clint Bowyer in a photo-finish when the field was frozen because of a last-lap crash. A blown engine in this year’s Great American Race has kept him from being perfect, but he snapped back to finish fifth and seventh in the two most recent plate races.

These two drivers are not only fighting for the win; but they are fighting for the points lead. Talladega will either make it or break it for both these Chase drivers.

Dark Horses

Trevor Bayne and Joey Logano - 2011 NASCAR Daytona Speedweek - Day 2A couple drivers that we haven’t talked about in a while would be Joey Logano and Trevor Bayne. Young and full of fight these two drives are our picks for the dark horses this weekend at Talladega.

The plate tracks play by their own rules, so the struggles of the No. 20 team this season cannot be held against it at Talladega. Young Guns are not supposed to be good values on this track because veterans don’t want to draft with them, but Logano proved his worth in his first outing at Talladega. He finished ninth in the 2009 spring race and has failed to crack the top 10 only once during his career there. An equally strong record at Charlotte last week produced another top-15, so Logano appears to be capable on tracks that he likes.

And what makes this interesting is that the #20 and the #21 has a little tussle at Charlotte so why not add they to the mix of things? No one forgets what happened in February do they? If so, Trevor Bayne won his first ever Daytona 500 in the debut of the 2 car tandem and the kid loves pushing the veterans. He did just that the majority of the Daytona 500 and then a caution changed his life forever putting him to the lead and winning. Trevor Bayne knows how to work the two car tandem beautifully and we look to see him do just that again this weekend.

Underdogs

When you think of Hendricks Motor Sports no one thinks underdogs, unless talking about Dale Jr. But they are just that this weekend. In order to keep their Chase hopes alive, Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon need to find a way to stay out of the “Big One” , avoid the troubles on pit road, and manage a Top 5 finish at least.

Jimmie Johnson got thrown through a loop last weekend and  he dropped to eighth after wrecking at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Despite tumbling down the points list, Johnson is 35 points behind. Jimmie does know what it takes to tame the wild ride at Talladega, though.

Jeff Gordon is one of the best at winning…12 Cup victories combined at Daytona and Talladega — not including numerous exhibition and qualification wins — he stands head and shoulders above anyone entered in this week’s race. His last plate win came in the fall 2007 race at Talladega, but on the heels of that he went 10 races without earning another top-10 and only one top-15. Most of the reason for his misfortune in those years was a proclivity for crashing. Recently, he’s improved with four of his past five races on the restrictor-plate superspeedways ending in top-10s, but so long as there are restarts in the coming races, he has to be considered a wild card at best. Double-file restarts have been his Achilles’ heel and last week’s accident in heavy traffic underscores how inadequate he has been immediately following a green flag.

Does the “Big One” collect half the Chase field or will they play it “safe” and ride around in the back all day? Will a non-Chase driver spoil the hopes and take the win at ‘Dega? All this questions and more will be answered very soon! Remember to pull on those belts real tight because this will be one wild ride not to miss!

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