Talladega Superspeedway is unpredictable, but this spring the top four finishers all belonged to the top tier. One way or another, the cream found its way to the top.
Of course, just because it happened in the Geico 500 doesn’t mean that will happen again and there were six Level 2 drivers – including fifth-place Ricky Stenhouse Jr. – that finished in the top 10 who could win this week.
The 1000Bulbs.com 500 is a two day show with practice and qualification to be held on Saturday, so there is nothing new to factor into the handicap. That really does not matter, however, because nothing is predictive on the 2.66-mile course.
Start: Team Penske
Team Penske remains at the top of the list. The major buzz this week has been about how well they run at Talladega and it has been suggested that the Fords in general have an advantage. Joey Logano won this spring. Brad Keselowski won last year’s edition of this race, but each of them has a 30-something result in the last two years to go along with a pair of top-10s. If you can only take one, lean toward Logano and his back-to-back top-fives.
Start: Kurt Busch
It could all come crashing to an end, but for the moment Kurt Busch is the driver with the most momentum at Talladega. Seven of his last nine attempts since joining Stewart-Haas Racing ended in results of 12th or better. This spring, he finished second to Logano. He was fourth in fall 2016 and those are his only top-fives in the past decade on this track. Normally we suggest that Level 1 be reserved for drivers who are more or less assured of challenging for a top-five, but at Talladega we will take consistency over raw speed any weekend.
Park: Martin Truex Jr.
Martin Truex Jr. is not as safe as he would like. After sustaining crash damage in the closing laps of last week’s Gander Outdoors 400 at Dover International Speedway, he has an advantage over the bubble of just 36 points. Logano is only five points worse. For Truex, that equates to 36 positions on the track and would seem to be safe – until one factors in the potential of a driver getting significant stage points. Truex has failed to finish the last four Talladega races. Three of these DNFs were because of accidents; one was due to a blown engine.
Start: Ryan Newman
Racing is cyclical. In 2015, Ryan Newman earned back-to-back top-10s on plate tracks in the middle of the season. That fall and the next spring, he scored a pair of top-15s and was then outside that mark in four of his next five races on this track type. He reversed his fortune toward the favorable in summer 2017 by earning a fifth in the Coke Zero 400. Since then, he has a perfect record of top-10s to his credit on plate tracks. If he does not keep his top-10 streak alive, he is likely to score a top 15 because only three drivers in the field have a better top-15 percentage than Newman since 2014.
Start: Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
In the last three seasons, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has scored a pair of top-fives every year on plate tracks. Last year was his high water mark with wins at Talladega and Daytona International Speedway in back-to-back race. In 2016, he had a pair of 5ths on this two tracks. So far in 2018, Stenhouse has one fifth-place finish at Talladega in spring. He wants to erase the memory of his erratic showing in the Coke Zero 400; the best way to do that is to stay out of trouble in the lead pack.
Park: Erik Jones
This one is pretty easy. Until Erik Jones manages to finish a Talladega race, he will be considered a driver to park. His best effort in three starts was a 33rd-place finish in last spring’s Geico 500. He retired 23 laps before the end of that race with crash damage. His other exits due to accidents came on Lap 26 in this race last year and Lap 71 this spring. Add the three races together, and he has completed only 46.7 percent of the available laps
Start: David Ragan
The combination of Front Row Motorsports and David Ragan has always been solid at Talladega. Their first pairing led to a seventh-place finish in the 2012 Aaron’s 499. That was part of a four-race streak of top-10s on this track that included a win in spring 2013. Ragan left the team during the 2015/2016 seasons, but as soon as they got back together, he scored another top-10 last year. Ragan has earned seven top-10s in nine races with this team and is this week’s best Level 3 value.
Start: Chris Buescher
Chris Buescher has not finished in the top 10 at Talladega, but he represents a safe choice. His first attempt at the track ended in a 24th-place finish in 2015. He crashed and finished 37th the next time he strapped in, but has not finished worse than 22nd since. Last fall, he also failed to finish but went far enough into the race to score a 17th. This spring, he almost cracked the top 10 and finished 11th.