Fantasy NASCAR preview: Amp Energy Juice 500

by Eric McClung on October 27, 2010 @ 17:42:00 PDT

 


While the wrecks are often more memorable than the performance of the winner, creating a safe fantasy lineup for Talladega Superspeedway can be a fool's errand. Thankfully, there is a short list of drivers that have done a good job of avoiding trouble. There are even a few restrictor plate sleepers to choose from. The abilities to drive in heavy traffic and stay in the draft of the fastest pack are the keys to victory at Talladega. Oh yeah, a little bit of luck doesn't hurt, either.

Location: Talladega, Ala.
Shape: Tri-oval
Length: 2.66 miles
Laps: 188
Turns 1-2: 33 degrees
Turn 3: 32.4 degrees
Turn 4: 32.5 degrees
Front stretch: 16.5 degrees
Back stretch: 2 degrees

Drivers to keep an eye on

Kyle Busch | No. 18 Halloween M&M's Toyota | Joe Gibbs Racing

Since winning the spring race at Talladega back in 2008, the younger Busch brother has only one top-10 finish in four starts at the site. Thankfully for fantasy owners, it was a ninth-place result that came back in the spring of this year. In addition, Busch held an average running position that ranged from seventh to 13th in the aforementioned span. In the last eight starts at Talladega, Busch has led at least one lap in seven starts, including 20 or more in three of the last four. A big performance is what Rowdy needs to make some noise before his championship hopes are totally out of reach, and that's exactly what he's poised to do this Sunday.

Jeff Burton | No. 31 Caterpillar Chevrolet | Richard Childress Racing

Jeff Burton, Richard Childress Racing
Running on emotion?

With everyone busy looking at teammate Kevin Harvick's stellar resume in restrictor plate races this season, it's easy to forget how good Burton has been at Talladega. He has led at least one lap in seven of the last eight starts at the site, with an average running position of 13th or better in three of the last four. Back in April, Burton was leading with nearly 20 laps to go but was collected in a late wreck that caused him to finish 32nd. Similar cases of misfortune have been a thorn in Burton's side at times this season. Fired up after Harvick criticized him for how he was raced last week, Burton may have a chip on his shoulder and be eager to show his teammate the RCR stable has more than just one plate race ace. 

Jamie McMurray | No. 1 Bass Pro Shops Dale Earnhardt Tribute Chevrolet | Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing

In the last four restrictor plate races, McMurray has two wins and a runner-up performance. McMurray is the defending champion of the Talladega Chase race and was the runner-up at the site earlier in the year. He kicked the season off with a win in the Daytona 500, but crashed in the Independence Day Weekend event. You won't find strong loop data behind those finishes, but that's OK. Jamie Mac has been getting it done by picking his spots and charging hard late. His career-year wasn't enough to make the postseason, but that hasn't stopped McMurray from spoiling one Chase race already. No. 2 could be on the way. He's an automatic start in all formats and is as close to a safe pick as you'll find.

David Reutimann | No. 00 Aaron's Dream Machine Toyota | Michael Waltrip Racing

Despite finishing a career-best 14th at Talladega in the spring, Reutimann was a major factor in the first half of the race. In addition to leading five laps around the midway point, Reutimann was among the top bump-draft partners and assisted many drivers on their way towards the front. The average finish of 25.3 in seven career starts at the site is misleading due to three DNFs. On six occasions, Reutimann has compiled an average running position of 17th or better. The Double Zero carries some risk because of the target that seems to be painted on his bumper. Assuming others play nice, and they should given his ability to push them forward, Reutimann is a nice sleeper selection.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. | No. 88 Legend of Hallowdega AMP Energy Juice/National Guard Chevrolet | Hendrick Motorsports

A Halloween race at Talladega could be exactly what Earnhardt needs to overcome his nightmarish season, at least for one day. He's a five-time winner at the site, the most recent coming in 2004, and has led two or more laps in 19 of the last 20 starts at the site, including nine straight. Earnhardt has also maintained an excellent average running position, ninth or better in four of the last five, which is difficult in restrictor plate races. Losing the draft will send a driver plummeting backwards through the field. Earnhardt led a season-high 90 laps last week and comes with a lot confidence to a track that is among his very best. Fantasy owners will be uneasy, but Earnhardt is the ultimate trick-or-treat play this week.

Temper your expectations

Jeff Gordon | No. 24 DuPont/National Guard Chevrolet | Hendrick Motorsports

Even though Gordon's six wins at Talladega are the most among active drivers, he has no finishes better than 15th at the site since sweeping in 2007. In that span, Gordon has led at least one lap in four of those five starts. In fact, his average running positions of 11th and 18th in the last two starts aren't too bad, either. While it's not all doom and gloom, Gordon's already high ownership levels and name will cause him to be overvalued. The last two races of this season's Chase have also been filled with misfortune for Gordon, despite leading laps in each. Based on his recent runs at Talladega, more heartbreak could be in store for the No. 24.

Tony Stewart | No. 14 Office Depot/Old Spice Chevrolet | Stewart-Haas Racing

Once upon a time, from 2001 to 2006, Stewart finished as the runner-up at Talladega six times in 11 starts. In the eight starts since, Stewart managed to pick up that elusive win, which came in the Chase race of 2008, but finished outside of the top 20 on five occasions. Three such results have come due to crash, and while leading laps haven't been an issue, Stewart's boom-or-bust nature at the site is not unlike his current postseason. In the six races held thus far, Stewart has a win and another top-five but also owns four finishes outside of the top 20. Stewart isn't afraid to gamble or drive overly aggressive, two things that could cause another backfire at Talladega.

Greg Biffle | No. 16 3M Ford | Roush Fenway Racing

Greg Biffle, Roush Fenway Racing
Too inconsistent

From 2006 to 2008, Biffle experienced five DNFs, four due to crashes, at Talladega. In the three starts since, Biffle has a top-five and another top-10 from a year ago in addition to a 17th-place result in this year's spring race. That finish came with a career-best average running position of 15th, so there are some positives here. However, he has a similar mixed history at Daytona International Speedway, the only other restrictor plate track on the circuit. Earlier this season, The Biff notched only his second top-five in 16 career starts there. Low ownership levels make him a value, but Biffle's up-and-down history in these races makes him a liability during a key part of the season.

Kasey Kahne | No. 83 Red Bull Toyota | Red Bull Racing

In a total of 27 combined starts at Talladega and Daytona, Kahne has only finished in the top five on three occasions. The interesting part is that they have all been runner-up performances, one coming in last year's Chase race at Talladega and the most recent in July at Daytona. A lot has changed since then, including a switch from Richard Petty Motorsports to Red Bull. The first run with his temporary team was a mild success, finishing 14th at Martinsville Speedway, but there's little reason to assume this work-in-progress can have a much higher ceiling, especially given Kahne's lack of overall success in plate races.

Brad Keselowski | No. 12 Penske Racing Dodge | Penske Championship Racing

In his first start at Talladega, won the race on the final lap of the race thanks to a frightening wreck that sent rival Carl Edwards airborne and spinning into the catch fence. In the postseason event, Keselowski finished eighth with a better average running position than during his victory. Things have not come so easily in plate races this season. Keselowski finished 36th in the Daytona 500 before crashing at both Talladega and during the return trip to Daytona. Coming off his first top-10 finish of the season, some may be swayed to give Kes a go. We'll grant him dark horse status, but the middle tier is stacked with far superior driver talent.

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About Eric McClung

Eric McClung has been profiled by the FSWA for covering the fantasy sports spectrum and is a two-time award finalist. He's also made several appearances in print and on radio. McClung began contributing to KFFL in 2008 and currently serves as one of KFFL's featured fantasy NASCAR experts.

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