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Fantasy Preview: Spread the wealth around at 'Dega

October 19, 2011, Dan Beaver, Special to NASCAR.COM, NASCAR.com

Wild-card effect lessoned to some degree, but plate track remains unpredictable

In any other season, there would be a lot of handwringing and angst as the series rolls into Talladega Superspeedway. The character of this race track has been cantankerous and mysterious since NASCAR began using restrictor plates to slow the speeds of the cars. Multi-car drafts encouraged pack racing and as the teams built stronger engines with more horsepower, NASCAR was forced to take increasingly drastic measures to keep them south of the 200 mph mark. That meant the packs got bigger and the risk of the Big One increased.

Finally, NASCAR hit on something truly unique. By reshaping the bumpers, they eliminated three-car drafts and any number greater than that. For the past several plate races, drivers have been forced into two-car tandems. Because of its novelty, this style of racing was no more predictable than one in which multi-car accidents were frequent, but slowly a pattern has begun to emerge. With the reduction of multi-car accidents, the cream can rise to the top with greater frequency. The middles stages of the race might be totally incomprehensible as tandems surge and fade, but as drivers figure out where they want to be with 10, five, and one lap remaining, the faces up front are starting to look familiar.

NASCAR continues to fiddle with the rules. Partly in response to a negative outcry from fans who loved the volatile nature of the multi-car draft, the sanction is attempting to break up the tandems by creating conditions that make it hard for them to stay locked together for long periods of time. Many crew chiefs and drivers think this will have a limited effect and only serve to cause the pairing to swap positions more often, which is going to make them surge and fade with greater frequency. By the end of the weekend, the marquee drivers will have figured out the pattern, however, and those old familiar faces will challenge for the lead.

Talladega has been approached with a lot of trepidation in the past. The ever-present threat of the Big One plus the erratic nature of the multi-car draft that could cause a driver to drop from first to 31st in the blink of an eye made this a complete wild card. Though lessened, those conditions are still present -- especially on restarts. A little mistake by any driver ahead of them could result in catastrophe for the points leaders and if that happens, Jimmie Johnson's deficit from last week will be erased. Instead of ruining a driver's hopes, Talladega could become a great equalizer this week and wipe the slate clean.

Fantasy owners can hope for the same egalitarianism. Plate tracks still are unpredictable enough that you will not want to risk starting high-priced drivers that might be easier to handicap in the final four races. Johnson won this spring's Aaron's 499, but prior to that four of his previous five plate races ended in results of 25th or worse. Meanwhile, he has dominated Martinsville, Texas and Phoenix in the past so this is a good time to give him a week off.

Brad Keselowski's dramatic victory on this track in his inaugural attempt in spring 2009 came in a lightly funded entry for James Finch, which proves just how strong dark horses can be. In that same race, Marcos Ambrose and Scott Speed also finished among the top five in rides that were not favored when the green flag waved.

This week, spread the wealth around and only take marquee drivers if they do not hamper your ability to take any mid-priced dark horses that intrigue you. At some point in the Good Sam Club 500, all of your drivers will be in the top five and at others, all of them will be deep in the pack; just hope you guessed wisely about those who will be up front at the end.

The Favorites

Favorites have to be identified each week, but the overriding caveat still applies: Don't take any of these picks if it keeps you from managing the mid-priced drivers in your salary cap. That said, Kevin Harvick gets an enthusiastic nod as this week's top driver. At the start of his career, he was not particularly strong on the plate tracks, but that all changed in 2010. Streaks on this track type are incredibly hard to maintain, but Harvick swept throught the first three plate races with a seventh in the Daytona 500 and back-to-back victories in the spring Talladega and summer Daytona races. The two-car tandems that began in earnest last fall in this race could have derailed him, but he finished second to teammate Clint Bowyer in a photo-finish when the field was frozen because of a last-lap crash. A blown engine in this year's Great American Race has kept him from being perfect, but he snapped back to finish fifth and seventh in the two most recent plate races.

Without fate's intervention, the odds are good that the points battle will be just as tight leaving Talladega as it is entering the track. Like Harvick, Edwards got off to a slow start on this track type and he either suffered crash damage or engine failure in 13 of his first 19 attempts at Talladega and Daytona combined. On the heels of those disappointments, he logged eight consecutive incident-free races that produced a pair of top-fives, five top-10s, and a worst finish of only 17th. This summer, he crashed again at Daytona, but the preponderance of his recent record recommends starting the No. 99.

It's been a long time since we've profiled Joey Logano among the favorites, but he deserves the honor this week. The plate tracks play by their own rules, so the struggles of the No. 20 team this season cannot be held against it at Talladega. Young Guns are not supposed to be good values on this track because veterans don't want to draft with them, but Logano proved his worth in his first outing at Talladega. He finished ninth in the 2009 spring race and has failed to crack the top 10 only once during his career there. An equally strong record at Charlotte last week produced another top-15, so Logano appears to be capable on tracks that he likes.

Talladega


Our experts pick the studs and duds for this week.

Dark Horses

A.J. Allmendinger continues the theme of slow starts turning into predictably strong results on plate tracks. The Dinger couldn't even find the speed to qualify for his first four superspeedway races and he crashed in the first two events he started. Amazingly, he finished third in his third plate start in the 2009 Daytona 500, but that was his only top-15 on this track type prior to this season and most of his results were in the 30s. A light switch was turned on once the two-car tandems began, however. Allmendinger finished 11th at Daytona and Talladega in their first races of this season and he improved to 10th in the summer race at Daytona. It's a good bet that he will finish in that same range on Sunday.

David Gilliland may have been one of the biggest surprises of the plate-track season. While everyone was shocked to see Edwards pushing Trevor Bayne across the finish line in the Daytona 500 this past February, the next tandem went virtually unnoticed. Gilliland was pushed to third by Bobby Labonte, which made that race one of the best for dark horses. Bayne has experienced trouble in his past two plate races, but Gilliland continues to impress with a ninth at Talladega in the spring and a 16th at Daytona this past summer. Dollar for dollar, he could very well be the best value in the game this week.

Other dark horses are Clint Bowyer, with three consecutive Talladega top-10s that includes a victory last fall and a second-place finish this spring, plus Juan Montoya, who finished third in both 'Dega races last year and has six plate top-10s in his past nine starts.

Underdogs

Jeff Gordon is one of the best plate racers of all time. With 12 Cup victories combined at Daytona and Talladega -- not including numerous exhibition and qualification wins -- he stands head and shoulders above anyone entered in this week's race. His last plate win came in the fall 2007 race at Talladega, but on the heels of that he went 10 races without earning another top-10 and only one top-15. Most of the reason for his misfortune in those years was a proclivity for crashing. Recently, he's improved with four of his past five races on the restrictor-plate superspeedways ending in top-10s, but so long as there are restarts in the coming races, he has to be considered a wild card at best. Double-file restarts have been his Achilles' heel and last week's accident in heavy traffic underscores how inadequate he has been immediately following a green flag.

Fantasy Power Ranking

Plate tracks (past three years)
Pos.DriverPA* Pos.DriverPA* Pos.DriverPA*
2.Kyle Busch9.36 18.Brian Vickers18.00 33.Scott Speed27.15
3.Dale Earnhardt Jr.10.30 19.Carl Edwards18.16 34.Robby Gordon28.33
4.Kevin Harvick11.67 20.Greg Biffle18.45 35.Marcos Ambrose28.96
5.Juan Montoya11.70 21.Paul Menard19.21 36.David Gilliland29.94
6.Jeff Burton12.38 22.Brad Keselowski19.56 37.Terry Labonte30.41
7.Clint Bowyer12.96 23.Tony Stewart19.64 38.Travis Kvapil33.04
8.Martin Truex Jr.13.43 24.Mark Martin19.74 39.Dave Blaney34.10
9.Denny Hamlin13.96 25.Casey Mears20.73 40.Andy Lally34.52
10.Matt Kenseth14.26 26.Trevor Bayne21.08 41.Joe Nemechek35.30
11.David Ragan15.03 27.Regan Smith22.10 42.J.J. Yeley37.75
12.Joey Logano15.05 28.Ryan Newman22.35 43.Kevin Conway38.69
13.David Reutimann15.27 29.Landon Cassill23.41 44.Michael McDowell39.38
14.Jeff Gordon15.51 30.A.J. Allmendinger23.43 45.Geoff Bodine39.56
15.Jimmie Johnson16.71 31.Michael Waltrip25.29 46.Josh Wise41.02
16.Jamie McMurray16.78        

Brad Keselowski had more momentum going into last week's race at Charlotte than nearly any other driver, but he spent the entire day either trying to keep from getting lapped or unsuccessfully struggling to regain the ground he'd lost. He had a similar experience at Dover and immediately rebounded to finish in the top five the following week. But as Dorothy said to Toto in the Wizard of Oz, "I don't think we're in Kansas anymore." The plate tracks cannot be judged by the same measuring stick as other tracks, and Keselowski comes up short. Yes, he won in his first outing at Talladega, but since then he has logged only two more top-10s in nine attempts on the plate tracks and he has suffered crash damage in all but one of those races.