After a few weeks of racing on relatively short tracks, it’s time to let it all hang out this week at NASCAR’s biggest track the 2.66 mile Talladega Superspeedway. Sunday’s race marks the second of four restrictor plate races. Our last restrictor plate race was the season opening Daytona 500, however Talladega is an entirely different track with wider racing grooves and more speed. You can look at the results from Daytona, or at Talladega in the past, but at both tracks the element of luck and being in the right place at the right time means it’s really anybody’s race to win, or lose.
The Joe Gibbs Racing stable has been strong all season, and JGR driver Denny Hamlin won the Daytona 500, while two of his teammates finished in the top five. But Dale Earnhardt Jr. is the defending race winner here and Joey Logano won in the fall. Hamlin did win here in the sprint of 2014, but the last four races have been won by Ford, Chevy, and Toyota. That shows just how wide open and unpredictable Talladega can be.
Here are our favorites for Sunday’s tenth race of the year for your betting or fantasy racing leagues. The odds are current as of Wednesday morning and the Driver Ratings (stats that are a combination of various stats used to determine the best drivers on a given track) are from NASCAR are based on the last 22 races at among active drivers at Talladega Superspeedway (2005 – 2015).
1. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (6-1) is still our favorite. He won this race last year, that makes him a winner in three of the past nine plate races. In addition, his 960 laps led at Talladega is more than twice as much as second most (Jimmie Johnson 467). He has three second place finishes this season, the highest driver rating among the field, 93.8, and he leads all active drivers with six wins here. There is no reason why Earnhardt shouldn’t be the favorite. He also made a splash on the Internet this week when his team revealed that they are bringing back the same car they won with last season.
“We’re going to have ‘Amelia.’” Earnhardt said. “She is fixed and (No. 88 team crew chief) Greg (Ives) says she is going to be the primary. He’s fired up his Twitter account recently … and he let all the fans know on Monday that Amelia is coming back. I’m excited about that – we know how she ran last year. We just have to run Talladega like we have to win it, just like we did the last time we were there. We did a good job. If we run it like that, we’ll be up front at the end.”
2. Denny Hamlin (7-1) has the seventh best driver rating at Talladega, 82.9, and did win the season opening 500 by a nose. As mentioned he won here in 2014, and the JGR cars have been strong all year. Hamlin could lead the pack of all four JGR cars and the rest of the 40 when the checkered flag falls Sunday.
3. Jimmie Johnson (7-1) has had his struggles this season but has always managed to finish near the front. He has the second best driver rating, 89.5, and two wins here the last coming in the spring 2011. He was second in this race last year however and led the second most laps, 50. It would be no surprise if Johnson pulls off a win over his teammate Sunday.
4. Kyle Busch (8-1) is another teammate that could upstage another Sunday. He won here in 2008, but missed this race last year as he recovered from his injuries, and he came home 11th last fall. That has dragged his driver rating down to outside the top 10, 79.3, but after nearly winning last week, losing only after a bump from his teammates, Busch will be on a mission and he did finish third in the Daytona 500, so he knows how to race at the front on restrictor plate tracks.
5. Joey Logano (10-1) did win here last fall and has been strong most of the first nine races. He has the 10th best driver rating, 81.5, and with the confidence of winning here a few short months ago could be strong. It would be a tall order to pull off back-to-back wins in a separate season, the last time it happened was with Earnhardt Jr. in 2002-2003, but if anyone can do it, Logano certainly can.
Others: Martin Truex Jr. (12-1) has never won a restrictor plate race and has a subpar driver rating of 78.6. But he nearly won the season opening Daytona 500 and was fifth here last year. Ryan Blaney (16-1) has just three starts at Talladega and dropped out in the fall after blowing an engine; but he was fourth in this race last spring and his driver rating stands at 76.9. He has run strong at times and could be a shocker to win it all Sunday.
The NASCAR Sprint Cup GEICO 500 will be run on Saturday May 1. Live coverage will be on Fox starting at 12:00 p.m. ET with the green flag coming at about 1:15 p.m. ET.