By Toby Christie
So far, it’s been a 2019 season that has been dominated by just two race teams (Joe Gibbs Racing and Team Penske). However, as we come out of the first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series off weekend of the season, there is reason for hope. The great equalizer — Talladega Superspeedway — looms large.
The 2.66-mile draft pit has hosted many magical moments throughout it’s 50 years and it is sure to keep that tradition going in this weekend’s GEICO 500.
There are so many layers as to why Talladega is so unpredictable and why teams like Front Row Motorsports, Phoenix Racing have actually had a chance over the last 10 years at the track nestled in scenic Alabama.
The big one is a terrifying multi-car melee that occurs nearly every time we head to this track and it can wipe out anywhere from 10 to 15 to 20 or more cars. Surviving this is crucial, but you can’t bank on the big one happening at the same time. In 1997 and 2001 races at Talladega ran totally caution-free. So if you play it too safe, you chance losing the draft and potentially falling laps off the pace.
While the smaller, less funded teams in the sport have a fighting chance, they still have long odds as normal dominant forces over the years like Dale Earnhardt (10 wins), Jeff Gordon (six wins), Dale Earnhardt Jr. (six wins) and Brad Keselowski (five wins) always have found ways to get themselves near the front when it matters most at this race track.
That being said, who are the drivers to beat?
Well, as insane as it sounds the guys at the top of the heap come from Team Penske and Joe Gibbs Racing yet again.
Denny Hamlin, who won the 2019 Daytona 500, is considered one of the best drafting track drivers in the sport today. As long as he avoids chaos on pit road and on the track he should play a factor for the win.
Though Hamlin has shown incredible drafting prowess throughout his career, he has not been as fortunate at Talladega as he has been at Daytona. In 26 starts at the Superspeedway, Hamlin has just one win.
Brad Keselowski, another dominant plate racer is just the opposite of Hamlin. Keselowski hasn’t found much in the form of luck over the years at Daytona, but once the tour hits Talladega, Keselowski shines. He has five wins at the track including one that came before he was a full-time Cup Series driver.
Then there is Joey Logano who has recorded three Talladega wins over his young career.
So, who can stop Team Penske and JGR?
How about Stewart-Haas Racing’s Kevin Harvick, Clint Bowyer or Aric Almirola?
Almirola won at Talladega last season and he always seems to be in the mix for wins at these types of tracks (see the 2018 Daytona 500).
Harvick also scored a win at Talladega back in 2010, but additionally he has three runner-up finishes at the 2.66-mile track.
Bowyer, who has been zeroing in on victory the last couple of races, has two wins at this racetrack in his career and he finished second here last fall.
Who could be a surprise winner on Sunday?
Roush Fenway Racing could play into the decision especially if their two drivers Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Ryan Newman help each other throughout the day.
Newman comes into Talladega on a two-race top-10 streak and Stenhouse isn’t far removed from a two-restrictor-plate-race-win season in 2017. If the No. 6 and No. 17 work together they can be there at the end of this race.
Also, the Front Row Motorsports team of David Ragan, Michael McDowell and Matt Tifft. Ragan is obviously the best drafter of the three (his two-career Cup wins have come at Daytona and Talladega), but if either of his two teammates survive the day they could team up in the closing laps to get the checkered flag.
One last not usual front runner to keep an eye on is Ty Dillon. Dillon won a Stage at Bristol a couple of races ago and his Germain Racing team has been much improved this season.
Back in 2017, Dillon worked his way to the front of the field in the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona and led seven laps late in the event before being shuffled out late. Dillon finished 16th that day. But this time around he has a better performing team and his confidence is at an all-time high. I think the No. 13 could prove to actually be a lucky number Sunday at Talladega.