The good news for fantasy owners is that the drivers got through a pair of practice sessions at Talladega Superspeedway Friday without triggering a big wreck. The bad news is that the chances of the same thing happening during Sunday's race are slim to none. The pack racing brought about by restrictor plates inevitably leads to a big wreck, and the likelihood only increases as the laps wind down. Another downer for owners is that practice times are far from reliable at such an unpredictable track. While the times do give hints as to which drivers have the better handling cars, it is anyone's guess as to whether or not they survive 200 laps at Talladega unscathed.
With that in mind, Aric Almirola topped the charts in the opening practice. At the very least, it is a good sign for the young driver as he prepares for his first race with his new crew chief Mike Ford. Granted, nobody is expecting Almirola to suddenly produce the types of results that Ford and Denny Hamlin produced the last couple of years, but Almirola should only improve with the help of a proven winner atop his pit box. Going forward, Almirola could see a nice boost in value.
Michael Waltrip turned the second-fastest lap of the first practice, and fantasy owners should consider him a legitimate sleeper option. Sure, he only runs a handful of races these days, but he is a former Talladega winner and has four career wins at restrictor-plate tracks. Waltrip also finished in the top 10 at Talladega last fall, and there is no reason he can't do it again this weekend.
A trio of big names rounded out the top five, with Matt Kenseth, Jeff Gordon and Kevin Harvick claiming the spots. Gordon finished third at Talladega last spring, and his four wins at the track since 2004 are the most in the series. Meanwhile, Harvick has a win and three top-five finishes in his last four starts at the track. Surprisingly, Kenseth is the most risky option, even though he won the season opener at Daytona. He hasn't had a top-10 finish in his last 10 starts at Talladega, and he hasn't had a top-15 finish in his last nine starts.
In terms of 10-lap average speeds, Brad Keselowski led the way. His career at Talladega started with a bang, as he won in his first-ever start at the track. Keselowski hasn't slowed down, picking up four top-10s in six starts. He definitely deserves consideration from fantasy owners.
Harvick posted the second-best 10-lap average speed, with David Ragan, Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart rounding out the top five. Along with Harvick, big names Edwards and Stewart are the drivers to target. Edwards has been steadily improving at the plate tracks, finishing 11th or better in three of his last four starts at Talladega. Stewart is a former winner at the track, and he led the most laps at the track last fall.
In the final practice, Almirola grabbed the top spot once again. However, several big names, including Stewart and Harvick, took the safe approach and opted not to even take the track. It is more important for a driver to keep their primary car in one piece than to grab an extra few laps of practice.
Kenseth and his Roush Fenway Racing teammate Greg Biffle were next on the leaderboard, and owners have to like the point leader's chances this weekend. Biffle has been able to avoid the big wrecks in recent years, finishing in the top 20 in six straight starts. He has also finished seventh or better three times during the stretch, and he had a dominant car during Speedweeks at Daytona to open the year.
Denny Hamlin and Regan Smith rounded out the top five, and both drivers have plenty of value for fantasy owners this weekend. Hamlin has finished in the top 10 in three of his last four starts at the track. Meanwhile, has a pair of top-15 finishes in his last three starts at the track. Smith also posted the top 10-lap average speed in the session, but it should be noted that only six drivers ran enough laps to qualify.
Two names that didn't appear at the top of the charts were Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jimmie Johnson. However, fantasy owners shouldn't worry about the mediocre times. Both drivers have stout records at Talladega, and they spent the sessions working with each other and getting a feel for the draft. With seven wins between them, including Johnson's victory in this race last season when Junior pushed him to the checkered flag, there is a good chance the duo will be a factor Sunday.
Happy Hour Speeds (sorted by Best Lap)
10-Lap Average Speeds (must run 10 consecutive laps)
First Practice Speeds (sorted by Best Lap)
10-Lap Average Speeds (must run 10 consecutive laps)
About Brian Polking
Racing has been part of Brian's life ever since he can remember, and he spent his childhood at dirt tracks throughout Ohio and Kentucky watching his father race. NASCAR naturally became his favorite sport, and he has been following the Cup, Nationwide and Truck Series for most of his life. Brian majored in journalism and economics at Ohio State University and becoming a sports writer has always been his dream. Although he has covered everything from minor league baseball to the NCAA tournament, his passion has always been NASCAR. Brian has served as a NASCAR writer for a variety of sites, eventually becoming head editor of the NASCAR section for Fanball.com. His knowledge of NASCAR comes from his life-long love of racing, and he tries to add a personal touch to every article he writes. Brian is always up for talking NASCAR with anyone that wants to. Brian joined KFFL's team in 2011.
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