Sunday’s Geico 500 will mark the 50th year of racing at Talladega Superspeedway’s monstrous 2.66-mile high banked layout and it will also mark the first time in over 30 years that drivers in the NASCAR Cup Series won’t be using restrictor-plates.
We’re in for quite a show with the completely unknown effect of how this new package will perform. Which is why NASCAR officials will be closely watching Friday and Saturday’s practices to see if there needs to be more altering to slow the cars down.
What’s new about this week’s tapered spacer package compared to the past restrictor-plate packages? Both restrict the passage of airflow to the engines to reduce horsepower and increase safety. The cars using plates, as they used in February’s Daytona 500, was producing only 410 horsepower while this weekend’s cars will produce anywhere from 510 to 550 horsepower and offer a lot better throttle response.
The new package with larger spoilers (9 inches high) and splitters in addition to aero ducts is supposed to increase drag which is supposed to slow the cars down to make up for the added horsepower.
The racing is expected to be similar to what we’ve seen the past few seasons of plate racing which means all the cars being bunched together with side-by-side racing, sometimes three and four wide. And, of course, the racing should also produce the inevitable “Big One” when a driver loses control of his car and starts a chain reaction wreck that at times can wreck half the field.
Last fall’s pole speed at Talladega was 195.804 mph by Kurt Busch, so that will be the mark to watch this weekend during practices and qualifying. My guess would be that the cars will be faster, but not enough for NASCAR to do some immediate tweaks to the package.
The biggest question now is how do we incorporate what little we know about how the cars will run to making some money in the sportsbooks? If they do run similarly as expected by NASCAR, then we’ll use the same practice we’ve always used for plate races, which are essentially a crapshoot or throwing darts blindfolded.
We happened to get lucky this year with Jimmie Johnson in the Clash at Daytona at 25-1 and Denny Hamlin in the Daytona 500 at 12-1 so the luck may have been all used up, but I’ll fill you in with my strategy this week.
First off, it’s important to note that a Ford has won the past seven races at Talladega. One of those Ford drivers, Brad Keselowski, leads all active drivers with five wins at Talladega and his Penske teammate Joey Logano is next with three wins — all coming between his last seven starts.
It’s also important to note the package being used this week is similar to ones used at downforce tracks like Atlanta, Las Vegas, Fontana, and Texas. Keselowski won at Atlanta and Logano won at Las Vegas. Joe Gibbs Racing’s Kyle Busch took his Toyota to the winner’s circle at Fontana and Denny Hamlin won at Texas. My guess is that the teams that performed well there will also be good at Talladega.
However, past history gets put into this wagering equation more because drafting with other cars to go faster is somewhat of an art and not all drivers are equipped with the talent. A driver that fits that criteria perfect is Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who won this race in 2017. He’s the active leader at Talladega with a 10.6 average finish in 11 starts.
Hamlin won at Talladega in 2014 for his first career plate win and he’s learned to be great in the draft which gets him to the front often. He’s led laps in nine of his last 10 starts there and was fourth in his last race last fall. He’s the most recent Toyota to win there.
The first Toyota to win at Talladega was Kyle Busch in 2008 for his only victory on the beastly track. Shutting out Busch for that long is a testament to how volatile Talladega can be to any driver.
At the turn of the century, it was Chevrolet that dominated plate races with Hendrick Motorsports, Richard Childress Racing, and Dale Earnhardt Inc., but the last active driver to win at Talladega was Clint Bowyer in 2011 and Bowyer now drives for Ford. Jimmie Johnson won in the spring of 2011 for his second and last win there.
It has been a bit of a dry spell for Chevrolet at Talladega where the Earnhardts dominated for almost three decades. Chevrolet doesn’t have any wins this season, either. Johnson would seem like a good candidate as would his teammate Chase Elliott. It’s Elliott’s father, Bill Elliott, who was part of the reason NASCAR implemented the restrictor-plate when he set the still-standing qualifying track record of 212.809 mph in 1988.
It’s no longer called restrictor-plate racing, but expect most of the cars to perform similarly in that almost any car can win like was the case in the good old plate racing days of yesteryear.
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