Fantasy NASCAR race preview: Aaron's 499
The often unpredictable racing at Talladega Superspeedway could reach new heights this week. Last April's race saw a record 88 lead changes while the October event featured 87 swaps up front. Should the drivers elect to employ the two-car tandem from the season opener at Daytona International Speedway that number could fall and yet another surprise winner could emerge.
The recent practice schedules have been friendly to fantasy owners facing pre-qualifying deadlines. Once again, the first practice session to be held a day prior to setting the gird. Two practice sessions to be held Friday while qualifying late Saturday morning.
Location: Talladega, Ala.
Drivers to keep an eye on
Since winning his fifth race at Talladega in the fall of 2004, Earnhardt owns just three top-10 finishes in the last dozen starts. Yet, there are plenty of reasons to warrant starting him. Since 2006, Earnhardt had led at least two laps in every Talladega start, averaging 20.4 laps led per race. Since moving to Hendrick Motorports in 2008, he has finished 13th or better four times. In that time, Earnhardt has held an average running position of ninth or better in four of six starts. He has also been finding a groove this season. Since a strong run in the Daytona 500 was spoiled by a crash, Earnhardt has an average finish of 8.6 in six races.
Even as a rookie in 2007, Montoya has been successful in getting around Talladega. Over the last seven starts, the Columbian owns an average running position of 11th or better in four races, including running 14th or better on six occasions. Last year was particularly impressive for JPM as he finished third in both Talladega starts while qualifying on the pole in October. A risky start for much of the 2010 campaign, Montoya has finished sixth or better in half of his starts this year.
During his remarkably consistent 2010 season, Harvick was perhaps most impressive in the often frantic restrictor plate races. After finishing seventh in the Daytona 500, Harvick won the spring race at Talladega and the Independence Day weekend event at DIS. In Talladega fall event he would finish second despite a career-high 79.8 percent of laps running in the top 15. While Harvick has not started this season off as smoothly, he has already won two races and could match last year's haul with another checkered flag this weekend.
The reason Harvick didn't win that postseason Talladega race was because of his teammate. After starting on the outside pole, Bowyer shattered previous career bests with an average running position of eighth and 83 percent of laps spent in the top 15 en route to winning for the first time at Talladega. Over the last seven Talladega races, Bowyer has finished 12th or better each time out save for a wreck just seven laps into the spring race of 2009.
Since 2008, the year he barely missed the Chase in just his second year as a full-time driver, Ragan's average finish of 10.5 at Talladega is tops among the field. Even during his struggles over the last two years, Ragan remained a capable driver in plate races. Over the last six 'Dega races, his average running position has been 15th or better on five occasions. Coming off consecutive top-10s for the first time since that impressive sophomore season, Ragan is in a great spot to deliver once again.
In 60 career Cup starts, Keselowski owns just six top-10 finishes. However, half of them, including his only win, have come at Talladega. In addition to winning last year's Nationwide Series event and leading at least one lap in all four career Cup starts at Talladega, Keselowski held an average running position of 17th or better on three occasions. Even though he hasn't been very sharp this season, Keselowski has finished 19th or better in three of the last four and could sneak in to earn his first top-10 of the year.
With one top-10 finish to his credit this season, McMurray could very well fly under the radar this weekend. Despite finishing 18th in the Daytona 500, he led 11 laps with an average running position of 13th. Should we see the traditional drafting packs, remember McMurray used a safe, steady approach at Talladega to win the 2009 Chase race and finish as the runner-up last spring. If value is what you seek, back Jamie Mac.
Another struggling driver could be turn it around this week, Logano has never failed to hold an average running position worse than 15th while leading at least one lap at Talladega. If not for a wreck last spring, Logano would likely own a top-10 finish in all four of his starts and possibly three straight top-fives. In the Nationwide Series, Logano has finished third and second, respectively, in his two starts.
Temper your expectations
Thanks to a quick start, Newman has been started heavily in allocation formats. With so many value options available, this one week to keep him in the garage. Newman has been involved in late wrecks in two of the last three races at Talladega. In last year's Chase race he qualified eighth but quickly lost the draft, went a lap down and was never a factor.
Since 2007, Stewart has one win and one other top-15 finish in eight starts at Talladega. He has also suffered three DNFs due to crash in that span. More concerning is Stewart's performance over the last two races of this season. After disappearing at Martinsville Speedway, Smoke was struggling mightily at Texas Motor Speedway. While his desperate gamble on fuel mileage nearly paid off, Stewart may need to wait on another summer surge to rediscover his mojo.
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. Follow @EricMcClung
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