Looped In: Talladega race is anyone's to win

May 01, 2013, Mike Forde, NASCAR.com

History is no indicator for this superspeedway

Talladega driver rankings:

Rankk    Driver Driver Rating
1 Jeff Burton 91.4  
2 Dale Earnhardt Jr. 89.6  
3 Matt Kenseth 88.9  
4 Brian Vickers 87.3  
5 Kurt Busch 86.1  
6 Brad Keselowski 85.6  
7 David Ragan 85.5  
8 Denny Hamlin 84.9  
9 Tony Stewart 83.5  
10 Jeff Gordon 83.1  
11 Jamie McMurray 81.7  
12 Kyle Busch 81.1  
13 Jimmie Johnson 80.9  
14 Aric Almirola 80.7  
15 Elliott Sadler 80.4  
16 Joey Logano 79.1  
17 Clint Bowyer 79  
18 Juan Pablo Montoya 78.8  
19 Kevin Harvick 78.7  
20 Trevor Bayne 77.3  
21 Greg Biffle 75.3  
22 Martin Truex Jr. 75  
23 Casey Mears 74.7  
24 Paul Menard 72.2  
25 Marcos Ambrose 71.9  
26 Ryan Newman 71.2  
27 Kasey Kahne 71  
28 Scott Riggs 70.1  
29 Regan Smith 69.7  
30 David Reutimann 68.6  
31 Travis Kvapil 68  
32 Scott Speed 67.3  
33 Sam Hornish Jr. 66.9  
34 Mark Martin 66.8  
35 Michael Waltrip 66.3  
36 Carl Edwards 65.1  
37 Landon Cassill 62.8  
38 Bobby Labonte 61.8  
39 David Gilliland 61.7  
40 David Stremme 60.6  
41 A J Allmendinger 58.2  
42 J.J. Yeley 56.9  
43 Dave Blaney 55.6  
44 Mike Bliss 51.9  
45 Joe Nemechek 51.8  
46 Terry Labonte 49.7  
47 Ken Schrader 48.5  
48 Michael McDowell 41.3  
49 Josh Wise 27.6  
50 Timmy Hill 26.4  

Aric Almirola -- holder of the longest current top-10 finish streak in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series -- may win this weekend. So, too, could David Ragan. Or Dave Blaney. Or…

The longest of long shots thrives at the longest of tracks. With 10 different drivers earning their first career win at Talladega Superspeedway, including six that never won again, Talladega is the undisputed champion of unpredictability.

And I’m not talking solely about pre-race forecasting. Even on its last laps, the Alabama track often offers surprises.

Since 2005, when NASCAR launched its Loop Data statistics, the leader at the white flag lap went on to win six times in the 16 Talladega races. Jimmie Johnson once came from seventh place on the white flag lap to win at Talladega in April 2011 -- the furthest back since 2005.

So, the takeaway: This one’s nearly impossible to predict.

My go-to statistic for all pre-race analysis is Driver Rating, a Loop Data statistic based on a formula that relies on a handful of categories including finishing position, average running position, green flag speed, fastest laps run and laps led.

Why I love it: It relies heavily on average running position, which helps weed out unfortunate late race disasters -- like blown engines, accidents or pit road blunders -- that immediately turn a sure top five into finish outside the top 20. A driver who runs up front the entire race but crumbles at the end could still earn a high rating.

And it’s often spot on. Take Richmond, for example: Richard Childress Racing entered the race without a single top-five finish in a 2013 points race. Yet, Kevin Harvick won. Going into the event, Harvick had the third-best Driver Rating at Richmond. Matt Kenseth had the third-best rating going into his win at Kansas. Kyle Busch ranked fifth in Texas Driver Rating prior to his victory in Ft. Worth.

A perfect Driver Rating is 150. A top-five pre-race Driver Rating often eclipses 100. The number one Driver Rating at Talladega: 91.4, belonging to Jeff Burton.

The reason for such a low rating at the superspeedway is average running position. If you’re up front at Talladega, you’re not up front for long.

Consider this: Over the past five years at the track (10 races), 49 different drivers have led at least one lap. At last week’s host track, Richmond, there have been 25; at Darlington, which is on deck, 33.

That’s why all you NASCAR.com Fantasy Live players out there should spread your salary cap money evenly. Don’t go big. Johnson, especially, would be ill-advised -- his ’Dega Driver Rating of 80.9 is  a personal low.

Instead, go with the top-ranked Burton. He’s one of two drivers with an active three-consecutive-top-10 streak at Talladega (Brad Keselowski is the other).

Or Ragan, who I mentioned at the very top. Only six drivers swept the top 10 last year Talladega: Ragan, Kenseth, Burton, Keselowski, Greg Biffle, and Kyle Busch.