If anyone had forgotten how unpredictable the racing at Talladega can be, Brian Scott's surprise pole-winning run should be the perfect reminder. Scott scored his first-ever Cup Series pole in NASCAR's first-ever group qualifying session at a restrictor plate track The unique qualifying format brought out a variety of strategies from teams, and while Scott, Casey Mears and Danica Patrick were among the drivers that took advantage to secure rare top-10 starting spots, big names like Dale Earnhardt Jr., Denny Hamlin and Kasey Kahne were among that opted to play it safe and will start very deep in the field.
Of course, track position doesn't exactly mean a lot at Talladega. Thanks to the draft, drivers can move from the back to the front and vice versa in just a couple of laps, and many drivers will choose to intentionally run at the back of the field early in the race with the hope of avoiding any early wrecks that may erupt. With that in mind, I didn't let qualifying results or practice times impact my rankings as much as I normally would, especially when it comes to those drivers that have a history of success at the superspeedways.
The top 3
1) Dale Earnhardt Jr.
He chose to play it very safe in practice and qualifying, but given the unpredictability of the plate tracks, Junior's consistency makes him the obvious choice for the top spot in the final rankings anyway. Not only is his 8.4 average finish at the plate tracks since 2012 the best in the series, but it is also a full four spots better than any other driver. Meanwhile, Junior is the only driver to finish on the lead lap in all nine races during that span, and his four top-five finishes and six top-10s are tied for the most in the series.
2) Matt Kenseth
In his last three starts at Talladega, Kenseth has finished eighth or better three times, winning the fall race in 2012. Meanwhile, no driver has been better at leading laps at the plate tracks recently. His 506 laps led over the past nine plate track events are 301 more than any other driver, and he has led 280 of those laps at Talladega.
3) Greg Biffle
Without any driver really standing out in practice or qualifying, I bumped Biffle up into the No. 3 spot in the final rankings mainly because of his consistency both at Talladega and the plate tracks in general. He ranks third in the series in points scored at plate tracks since 2012, and in his last 10 starts at Talladega, he has nine top-20s, including six finishes of 11th or better.
7) David Ragan
He was quiet in qualifying, but Ragan did turn the third-fastest lap of any driver in the first practice when drivers spent most of the time in the draft. With that in mind, the defending race winner remains in the top 10 of the driver rankings heading into Sunday's race. Granted, I get that it's tough to trust a guy sitting 31st in points, but his success at Talladega has been more than just one fluke run. Ragan is riding a streak of four straight finishes of seventh or better at the track entering this weekend's race, and his 14.2 career average finish at Talladega is tied for the best among active drivers.
12) Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Although Ford drivers in general struggled during qualifying, Stenhouse's solid practice times suggest that he has his car working well in the draft. Of course, that wouldn't exactly be a surprise given his performances at the plate tracks. Dating back to last season, he has five straight finishes of 13th or better in plate races, including a third-place run at Talladega last fall and a seventh-place effort at Daytona earlier this year. In those five races, his 9.2 average finish ranks third in the series.
16) Paul Menard
He qualified on the outside of the front row for Sunday's race, and while I don't put a ton of stock into a driver's starting spot at Talladega, getting a good pit stall certainly won't hurt Menard's chances this weekend. Meanwhile, he has piled up eight top-20s in his last 12 starts at Talladega, including seven top-15s.
21) Austin Dillon
For the second time this year, Dillon had a strong showing in qualifying at a superspeedway as he followed up his pole-winning run at Daytona with a fifth-place effort at Talladega. Dillon parlayed the strong starting spot into a top-10 finish at Daytona so he definitely has some potential this weekend.
Big names outside the top 10
25) Joey Logano
Although it's worth noting that Logano failed to advance to the final stage of the knockout qualifying round for the first time all year, his recent record at Talladega is the main reason he is ranked so low this weekend. Logano has failed to crack the top 15 in his last five starts at the track, and he has four finishes of 24th or worse during the same stretch.
30) Kyle Larson
The sample size for Larson is small when it comes to plate track racing. He has never made a Cup start at Talladega, and his 38th-place run in the Daytona 500 earlier this year remains his worst finish of the season. A driver as talented as Larson is bound to figure out plate racing sooner rather than later, but I'll take a wait-and-see approach with the rookie this weekend.