Can Danica threaten the Talladega field?

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After two weeks of short track racing, we get to see the NASCAR Sprint Cup series head to the biggest, baddest track on the planet at Talladega SuperSpeedway.

It’s 2.66 miles of mean and nasty speeds up to 200 mph that creates edge-of-your-seat viewing because when the “big one” happens, the wrecks are scary spectacular.

What’s most enjoyable about Talladega is that 38 of the 43 drivers have a legitimate shot to win. Last week at Richmond, you could make a case for – maybe – 13 drivers to win. Restrictor-plate racing levels the field to the point where all cars are pretty much equal, which in theory lessens the chance for the power teams to win.

Between the two road courses and the four restrictor-plate races (Daytona also), there are six opportunities for smaller teams to win and get a ticket into the Chase, like Aric Almirola (Daytona) and A. J. Allmendinger (Watkins Glen) did in 2014.

The one driver that comes to mind who could make a big splash is Danica Patrick. On a normal race scenario, Patrick is in the 500-to-1 odds to win range, but this week at Talladega she’ll be around 40-1. She has performed well in plate races – she’s better at Daytona, but she’s having a career year in what is the final year on her contract with Stewart Haas Racing. She was 25th at Richmond last week, but averaged a 10th-place finish over her previous three starts.

Patrick’s car has looked very similar to her SHR teammates Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch, who seem to lead almost every lap of every race. One race where Harvick was shown to be mortal by not leading a lap was the Daytona 500 in February.

Harvick still finished second. Patrick finished 21st and Kurt Busch was suspended, but Regan Smith brought home a 16th-place finish. The boss and teammate, Tony Stewart, was in an early accident and finished 42nd.

I’m not saying to go out and bet Danica to win, I’m merely stating you can’t count her out. And that goes for David Gilliland, Sam Hornish Jr., Casey Mears and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. Those are all drivers we don’t talk about too much when wagering, but who will be expected to run well and compete for top-10 finishes; and the time elapsed from first to 10th-place is a tenth of a second.

Last season is applicable because the plate cars are basically the same. There were no major surprises as Denny Hamlin and Brad Keselowski won from power teams. But the year before it was Jamie McMurray at 25-1 odds and David Ragan at 75-1 odds winning.

For Keselowski, he has proven to love Talladega racing as his three wins attest to. He grabbed his first ever win in 2009 for a part-time team and also won for Penske Racing in 2012.

Stenhouse Jr. has three Talladega starts and an average of 8.7 with a best of third-place in 2013. You couldn’t be faulted by taking 50-1 on him.

The team that has really stood out over the past two seasons of plate racing has been Joe Gibbs Racing. Hamlin has the one win, but they’ve been dominant. They get out to the front and lead laps and then it’s a gamble on the final few laps. Matt Kenseth, Carl Edwards, Hamlin and Ragan should all be very good on Sunday.

Jeff Gordon is a six-time winner at Talladega, but doesn’t have any since winning back-to-back events in 2007-08. His farewell season isn’t quite going as planned. Jimmie Johnson has won twice there, the last coming in 2011.

Both cars looked outstanding in the Daytona 500, combining to lead 10 times for 126 laps. Gordon started from the pole and led a race high 87 laps. The duo should be good again this week.

There are no bad picks this week until it actually loses. So best of luck throwing darts to choose the winner.

Micah Roberts is a former Las Vegas race and sports book director, one of The Linemakers on SportingNews.com , and longtime motorsports columnist and sports analyst at GamingToday. Follow Micah on Twitter @MicahRoberts7 Contact Micah at [email protected].

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