It's time to once more spin the wheel and place a bet on who will win a Talladega race. For a short while, it appeared there was a dim light on the horizon for fantasy owners. Two-car drafts provided a framework for consistency, because even though the circumstances still existed for plenty of accidents, if a driver trusted their partner and both held a steady wheel, they could avoid being a part of the multi-car incidents that defined the plate-racing era.
The rank-and-file NASCAR fan cried out for a change and NASCAR listened. The fans did not believe the action was exciting enough with two-car tandems and wanted the sanctioning body to return to big drafts of cars, where danger lurked in every corner. NASCAR acquiesced and changed the rules at the start of the season to encourage the cars to stay off one another's bumper. Pack racing returned with the Daytona 500.
This year's Great American Race was plagued by rain that kept it from being run until Monday night, one day after the scheduled start time, and it was filled with action that included a seven-car accident in the shadow of the checkered flag. Fans seemed to get the result they craved, but fantasy owners were sent back to the drawing board. Restrictor-plate superspeedways are once more almost completely unpredictable and only two drivers who earned top-10s in this year's Daytona 500 also finished in the top 10 at Talladega this past fall.
More of the same
Additionally, the two-car tandems weren't really all that much more predictable. That style of racing started at the end of 2010 in the fall Talladega race after the surface was repaved. Drivers found they could go much faster if they stayed hooked together for the entire circumference of the track and when they returned to Daytona at the start of 2011, the found the practice still worked.
Despite the promise that a pattern eventually would emerge, two-car tandems created just as much confusion in 2011 as the draft ever did. That season, no driver scored more than two top-10 finishes in the four races contested at Daytona and Talladega; nearly all of these included one strong finish on each track and was the only driver who managed to sweep the top 10 on the 2.66-miler in Alabama. Several drivers swept the top 15, but there was not enough of a pattern to be helpful as drivers surged and waned throughout the afternoon.
This week, fantasy owners need to use both sides of their brains to select their rosters. There are indicators of which drivers run strong, such as average running position and historical statistics, but plate tracks -- and especially Talladega -- are prone to dark horses that no one anticipated. Dave Blaney's third-place finish this past fall certainly was unexpected, as was Brad Keselowski's victory in his first start on this track. To find these drivers, one has to use the right side of their brain where creativity lives.
But if players look back far enough, the analytical left side of the brain will come into play. Owners will find a long streak of dominance for and note that Bowyer has finished first or second in his past three attempts. There also is a correlation between running up front and finishing well because the fewer cars there are in front of a driver, the less likely it is that one of them will create a spinning roadblock. Unfortunately, this is difficult to put into a formula because some of those same drivers eventually get shuffled out of the lead pack and find themselves in harm's way.
Earnhardt is a perennial favorite on the plate tracks and his fans don't care how far in the past he actually dominated these courses. They point to a span of races in 2001 through '05 when he scored 16 top-10 finishes in 20 races and revel in the thought that he won seven of those. Recently that streak has been of almost no importance in setting a contemporary fantasy roster, but this year is different. Junior has momentum on his side in the form of five consecutive top-10s. While points leader failed to finish in the top 15 for the first time all season at Richmond, Earnhardt remains perfect in that regard, which gives him the confidence needed to weave in and out of traffic. Anything can happen on a plate track, but that is equally true for the other 42 drivers in the field and Earnhardt will be in contention for the win with a handful of laps remaining if he is not swept into a Big One.
Bowyer rebounded nicely last week with a solid top-10 finish that came after he ran with the leaders all race long at Richmond. Like Junior, he enters the weekend with more self-assurance than most of the other drivers and that character trait is equally well-earned. Bowyer has been at the top of his game on the plate tracks in recent years with two wins and a second-place finish in his past three starts at Talladega. Add to that streak, a seventh in the spring race at 'Dega, and not only is he the single driver who swept the top 10 last year, he was one of only four racers that did so in the previous season. In both of his victories, he held off colleagues but it was not a simple matter of team orders. This past fall, he nearly crashed with en route to the checkered flag in his determination to find Victory Lane.
If not for crash damage this past fall, would likely have a similar record to Bowyer. He entered that race at Talladega with a three-race top-five streak on this track that included a victory and second-place finish. He led the field for several laps immediately before he was involved in a multi-car accident on the 103rd circuit and that is what he will chose to remember. Harvick is the last driver to sweep the top 10 in all four superspeedway races (2010) and after finishing seventh in the Daytona 500, he could do that again this season.
Talladega is kind to dark horses. Ever since Richard Brickhouse won the inaugural 1969 Talladega 500 it seems that anyone with enough nerve and moxie can find Victory Lane. Ten drivers have won their first Cup race on this track, including Keselowski and in the past decade, and with the right set of circumstances someone else could easily add their name to the record books this week. The most likely driver to earn a career-first win is AJ Allmendinger. He has run strong on several occasions this year but lacked the luck to close the deal on some of his better efforts. If he is anywhere near the front in the closing laps on Sunday, he's going to be determined to make those final passes, which could result in a dramatic win or a spectacular crash.
Other dark horses will run to a type. Blaney's third-place finish this past fall is not atypical because it seems that every restrictor-plate superspeedway race has at least one Cinderella story. was one of the best values throughout 2011 and Trevor Bayne's victory in the Daytona 500 that season has movie of the week written all over it, but fantasy owners are not going to get much of a hint about who will run strong based on practice or qualification speeds. The best advice is to spread the wealth and don't be afraid to take some bargain-basement drivers if it allows them to better manage the top of the salary-cap order.
is another matter altogether. He climbs into a ride that already has several strong runs with and Vickers behind the wheel and this is perhaps his best opportunity to score a predictable top-10. As a part-time driver Waltrip will allow fantasy owners to stretch their salary caps and he should be on every roster.
Anyone can get swept into an accident and no one goes to Talladega and Daytona for very long without getting their car battered and wrinkled. When it happens with regularity, however, it is time to leave that driver in the garage. Marcos Ambrose showed a lot of heart last week when he overcame back spasms to run with the leaders for much of the race at Richmond, but he will need more than stamina to stay out of trouble at Talladega. Ambrose has been slowed or stopped by crash damage in his past eight consecutive races on restrictor-plate superspeedways. Immediately prior to that streak of misfortune, he blew an engine in the 2010 Daytona 500 and had another accident at the end of his rookie season in '09.
Biffle is one of the most expensive drivers in the game this week and that alone would be a good rationale to leave him in the garage. Since anyone can get swept into an accident, there is absolutely no reason to overspend on a driver with a 50/50 chance of making it to the checkers unscathed. The raw numbers are actually a little better than 50 percent, but with 16 accidents in 37 starts on plate tracks, they are not enough better to recommend activating the points leader. He will be a solid value as soon as the series returns to tracks that are more likely to be in the driver's control.