Talladega to play host to restrictor plate racing

The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series heads from the short-tracks of Bristol and Richmond to the mammoth superspeedway of Talladega this weekend for the Sunday’s GEICO 500.

The race will be the second restrictor plate event of the 2017 season. ‘Dega is the longest track in all of NASCAR, and is known for the infield parties, high banks, fast speeds and Ricky Bobby. But this weekend, it’ll be all about 40 of the MENCS’ best tackling the 33-degree high-banks.

WHAT: GEICO 500 (188 laps, 500.8 miles), stages of 55, 55 and 78 laps, respectively

WHEN: Sunday, May 7, 2017. Green flag scheduled to fly just past 2:15 p.m. ET on FOX

WHERE: Talladega Superspeedway, 2.66-mile tri-oval in Talladega, Alabama

FAVORITES: Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano and Dale Earnhardt Jr. (9/1)


LAST YEAR’S WINNER

 

Photo: Matt Sullivan/NASCAR via Getty Images

The new restrictor plate ace, Brad Keselowski, wound up in victory lane in this race one year ago. His No. 2 Ford was one of only five cars to sustain no damage throughout the afternoon. The win was his second of 2016 and fourth at Talladega Superspeedway in his career.

 


THE FIELD

Photo: Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images

Qualifying at restrictor plate tracks (excluding the Daytona 500) is different from the usual knockout qualifying. Each car puts down a single lap, and the fastest 12 advance to the next round. Then, those 12 put down another lap to see who wins the pole for the race.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. emerged with the fastest lap of the 12 drivers in the final round. He put down a speed of 191.547 mph (49.99 seconds). The pole is the second of his MENCS career and first at Talladega. Following him to the green flag on Sunday will be Dale Earnhardt Jr., Brad Keselowski, Matt Kenseth and Trevor Bayne.

Rounding out the top ten will be Kevin Harvick, Daniel Suarez, Chase Elliott, Paul Menard and Kyle Busch. Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano will start 11th and 12th respectively as well.

Photo: Daniel Shirey/Getty Images

Some notable starters include Martin Truex Jr. in 13th, Kurt Busch in 15th, Clint Bowyer in 18th, Kyle Larson in 21st, Jimmie Johnson in 30th and Danica Patrick in 31st.

Aric Almirola will roll off 22nd in his No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports Ford. He won the Sparks Energy 300 earlier on Saturday afternoon in the No. 98 for Biagi DenBeste Racing. The win was his third in his XFINITY Series career and first at Talladega Superspeedway.


EARNHARDT COUNTRY

Dale Earnhardt Jr. has six wins, 12 top fives and 16 top 10’s in his career at the 2.66-mile track. From 2001-03, Junebug won four straight races at ‘Dega. He won once more in 2004 and then a decade later in 2014. However, only one of those six wins have come behind the wheel of the No. 88 for Hendrick Motorsports. The other five were in the famed No. 8 Chevrolet.

Photo: Tim Bradbury/Getty Images

“You know, I think the fact that there are so many people there pulling for you and there to see your team do well, it really motivates you to be proactive and be on the offensive all day long,” Earnhardt Jr. told FOXSports.com of the extreme Junior Nation fandom that shows up year after year at Talladega, A.K.A. redneck heaven. “You’re trying to move forward and get into the lead and lead as many laps as you can, because you know the people love it.”

His father also found Talladega’s victory lane 10 times in his career. His final win in the 2000 season came at Talladega, where he came from the back of the pack to the lead in a matter of laps. People say that if you’re an Earnhardt you can “see the air” in the draft. Or maybe they’re just that good in the draft. After all, they don’t call this place “Daleadega” for nothing.


PENSKE DOMINANCE

The two-car team of Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano have combined to win four of the last five races overall at the Alabama superspeedway. The No.’s 2 and 22 have been up front a whole lot recently, and there’s zero reason to think that’ll change this weekend.

Keselowski boasts four wins, six top fives, nine top 10’s and an average finish of 15.4 (third-best). He is also the defending winner of this race.

Logano has claimed the checkered flag in the last two fall races at Talladega, with last year’s vaulting him into the championship four. The spring hasn’t been as kind to the No. 22, though. In fact, since joining Team Penske, he has zero top 10 finishes. He has two in his career, both coming with Joe Gibbs Racing. In 16 starts, his average finish is 18.7, though. Logano also came home third in the XFINITY race earlier on Saturday afternoon in the No. 22 Ford.


TROUBLE IN PARADISE

Coming off their win last weekend at Richmond, the No. 22 team was hit hard this week by NASCAR. The sanctioning body penalized the team for a rear suspension violation, a L1 level penalty, which resulted in crew chief Todd Gordon being suspended for two MENCS races and fined $50,000. The team was also docked 25 owner points while Logano was docked 25 driver points. But that’s half the story when it comes to this penalty, which was announced Thursday.

Photo: Chris Graythen/Getty Images

The win from last weekend at Richmond is now labeled as “encumbered.” This means Logano and the No. 22 team can NOT use the win to qualify for the playoffs. If Logano were to qualify for the playoffs by winning another points-paying race, the five playoff points earned at Richmond will NOT count towards his point total. Team Penske will not appeal the penalty.

Gordon said the part in question was 1/32 of an inch off, and explained further as to why the team was penalized. Greg Erwin will fill in atop the pit box until Gordon’s suspension is over.


AVOIDING “THE BIG ONE”

It’s inevitable. When cars are inches away from each other, at almost 200 mph, three (sometimes four) wide, 10 rows deep, “The Big One” is going to happen. Bank on it.

Last season in the fall race at Talladega, the four Joe Gibbs Racing cars sandbagged all afternoon in hopes of staying out of trouble and advancing in the playoffs. They succeeded, but it was far from a “good show” that Talladega usually puts on for the fans on the property.

On Sunday, some drivers will fall directly to the back and stay out of the way of the big wreck. Once it happens, they’ll make their move and attempt to come forward to the front. Some drivers will hang out in the front all race long, and some drivers will be in the wrong place at the wrong time and become a victim of the carnage. A lot of cars will end up torn to shreds when the checkered flag flies on the GEICO 500—and you can take that to the bank.


PREDICTION

Per usual, I’m sticking with the prediction I made on “Victory Lane” this week and going with Denny Hamlin to get his second career win at Talladega–and JGR’s first win of the season. He’s been solid on restrictor plate tracks throughout his career and has five top fives and eight top 10’s at ‘Dega. Plus, he’s overdue. His whole team is. Denny will deliver at ‘Dega.