Fantasy Auto GEICO 500 RACE PREVIEW
OCT 16, 2014 6:45p ET
The change to NASCAR Sprint Cup's Chase format lends an extra level of anticipation to this week's race at Talladega Superspeedway, the GEICO 500. In past seasons the inclusion of Talladega in the Chase was controversial and dreaded, and is even more so in 2014 since it is the final race of the Contender round of eliminations. Championship contenders who stumbled in Kansas are still reeling from the hit, and now face the daunting prospect of needing to win on a restrictor-plate track. All of these factors combined to ratchet the pressure up a notch last week in Charlotte, but threaten to blow the lid completely off this week.
A typical Talladega race features a lot of uncertainties in the best of cases. The race usually has a handful of caution periods, and the accidents that take place can often affect large swaths of the field. Over time the races there have typically been won from one of the top 10 starting positions, but that has only happened once in the last five races. Chevrolet has won there more than any other manufacturer, and nearly twice as many times as closest rival Ford. However, only one winner in the last five races there was Chevrolet powered. Drivers will have to survive the mental game this Sunday, jockeying for position among a pack of 43 cars, avoiding others' mistakes, and not making any of their own.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. - Though he may be behind in the championship standings, Earnhardt is one driver that has to bring confidence to Talladega. His average finish at the track is 15th from 29 starts, and he has also won five times at the Alabama track. Earnhardt is one of the best drivers on restrictor-plate tracks, and his points tally means the only way he controls his own fate is to win on Sunday. Earnhardt's Talladega driver rating in the last 19 races is 90.3, and he won the season's opening restrictor-plate race in Daytona. Hendrick Motorsports may be behind in the Chase standings, but Earnhardt stands a very real chance of overcoming that deficit due to his ability to find Victory Lane in the type of race.
Jeff Gordon - Gordon leads the pack among active drivers for wins at Talladega. The former champion has six victories at the Alabama superspeedway. The No. 24 team also helped their cause in the points last weekend in Charlotte by finishing second after a disappointing outing in Kansas. As a result of last week's finish Gordon only needs to finish 16th or better to advance to the next round of the Chase. His Talladega driver rating is 80.6, and has three top-10 finishes there in the last seven races. With three top-5 finishes in the last five races on the 2014 schedule Gordon definitely has momentum on his side. While Talladega can throw plenty of curveballs, Gordon can avoid them.
Kurt Busch - After a nice performance in Charlotte last weekend, Busch can capitalize and turn in two good weeks back-to-back. Talladega is one of Busch's best tracks. His driver rating is 87.1, and despite never winning there he boasts six top-5 and 13 top-10 finishes from 27 starts. He may have been eliminated from the Chase already, but Busch always views restrictor-plate racetracks as an opportunity for him to outperform. He is an undervalued driver on these tracks due to his lack of victories, but he can often be seen pushing hard at the front of the train. Last week's 11th-place finish could give him and the team some optimism for this week, and fantasy players should be optimistic as well.
Greg Biffle - Though he is no longer in this season's championship hunt Biffle could be a relatively safe fantasy option at Talladega. Biffle finished second to Denny Hamlin in the spring race and earned three top-10 finishes in the last five races at Talladega. He hasn't recorded a DNF at the track since crashing out in 2008, which provides fantasy rosters some level of comfort at a very unpredictable track. Biffle has never visited Victory Lane at Talladega, but his finishes have been getting better and better with time. It took him six years to bag his first top-10 there, but then clicked off six in the following five years. Biffle should be a safe play this week.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. - There haven't been many occasions for fantasy players to pick Stenhouse this season, but this weekend provides that opportunity. The Roush Fenway Racing driver has struggled through much of the season, but has improved recently and boasts a strong record at Talladega. Stenhouse's worst finish in his three career Talladega efforts is 13th. He finished third in this race last season, and picked up a top-10 here earlier this year. Fantasy players should remember that Roush cars ran at the front of the field for much of the last Talladega race, and Stenhouse carries a driver rating of 85.0 at the track. This is a rare opportunity to use a driver that hasn't gotten many looks this season.
Carl Edwards - Among the drivers still in contention for the Chase, Edwards has one of the poorest resumes at Talladega. His average finish from 20 starts at the track is 21st. He has only led 37 laps there, and has racked up six DNFs, including one earlier this season. His driver rating is only 67.3, and he has only picked up one top-10 finish in the last six Talladega races despite starting inside the top 10 each time. Fantasy players might think of Edwards as a decent restrictor-plate racer, but the assumption simply hasn't held true at this track. The good news for the team is that they only need to finish 18th or better to advance to the next round of the Chase.
Joey Logano - Despite his current run of five consecutive top-5 finishes, Logano hasn't fared as well at Talladega. The Penske Racing driver finished 32nd there earlier this season to make it six consecutive Talladega races without a top-10 finish. Logano's best Talladega result in that span was this race in 2011 when he finished 16th. In total he has two top-5s and four top-10s at the Alabama track to give him an average finish of 20.7 from 11 starts. Logano's driver rating is 81.7, and he has four DNFs at the track. Though the championship contender continues to impress this season, this week could be one where he just looks to survive having already advanced in the Chase.
Kasey Kahne - Kahne did not want to come to Talladega needing a win to advance in the Chase, but that is the situation he finds himself in this weekend. Having stumbled in Kansas Kahne now must win in order to control his destiny. If he does not win on Sunday he will need help from some other Chase drivers in addition to a decent finish himself. In his 21 Talladega starts Kahne has only pieced together an average finish of 21.5. On the positive side, he did finish eighth there earlier this season and has three top-10 finishes in the last six races. His last DNF at the track was the spring race in 2013. Kahne has a lot of pressure on him this week, and may have lost his momentum.
Matt Kenseth - The last two Talladega races have ended poorly for Kenseth. He was able to lead just one lap there earlier this year and finished 37th. In this race last year he led significantly more laps, but still only finished 20th. His average finish at the track isn't terrible at 18.3, but trouble last week and the fact that he has yet to win a race in 2014 combine to make him a less than attractive option for fantasy rosters this late in the season. Fantasy players need to be hunting for drivers with value that offer a chance at a win. Kenseth appears overvalued at this point in the season, and doesn't look threatening, virtually needing to win to advance.
David Ragan - This week's fantasy longshot option makes a strong case for his inclusion on rosters due to his 2013 Talladega win. Ragan proved that win wasn't a fluke later in the year on the season's second visit to the track by finishing sixth. He's with the same team that pulled off those impressive results, but he crashed late in this season's spring race. Ragan has four Talladega top-5s and seven top-10s from 15 starts at the track for an average result of 15.6. His driver rating is also a good one at 82.1. He may be with an underfunded team, but their superspeedway package appears to be working as evidenced by his four consecutive top-10 Talladega finishes before crashing in the spring race this year.
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Radune was named the 2012 Racing Writer of the Year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association. Get a FREE RotoWire 10-day trial (no credit card required) at RotoWire.com.