The last time NASCAR visited Talladega, it made for one of the most exciting races of the season. The Aaron's 499 featured a record 88 lead changes, and eight cars raced in four tandem groups with Jimmie Johnson edging Clint Bowyer by 0.002 seconds for the win.
However, despite the finish, the two-car draft has a got a lot of press and stirred up a lot of controversy among the media and fans. It's been such a discussion that NASCAR has changed the restrictor plate sizes for Sunday's Sam Good Club 500.
For those that don't know, the restrictor plate limits air flow into the engine and thus regulates the amount of power a car can generate. It's used at the biggest (and fastest) superspeedways to limit cars from going dangerously fast (which is somewhat of an oxymoron in auto racing).
NASCAR increased the size of the restrictor plate, which means there will be more air flow and the cars are expected to top out at about three mph faster. What that means to the two-car dance that we've seen at 'Dega and Daytona? I'm not really sure. It seems that the hope will be that if the cars can go a little faster on their own, they won't be as likely to need the draft as a speed-generating strategy.
They've also recalibrated the cooling system, so the engines don't overheat.^ That might stop the dancing, as cars won't need to switch out of being the caboose, but it won't do anything to deter the strategy of drafting.
All in all, we're back to square one, where we don't really know quite what to expect out Sunday's race. That's ok, though. Uncertainty is par for the course at Talladega, which makes projecting a fantasy lineup difficult. But, I'll try!
*In case you're new to this segment, check out my first fantasy post on how the system works.
Strategy: Talladega is one of the toughest tracks to predict. Most tracks have multiple drivers with driver ratings well over 100; this track's top rating is 92.7 (Dale Earnhardt Jr.), a rating that struggles to crack a top-10 at many venues! Be safe. Start someone you'd be ok seeing wreck out in 35th as opposed to your prized driver that you've used frugally this season for top finishes.
#22 Kurt Busch - The older Busch's 13.9 average finish is best among Chase drivers and is one of only three with top-10s in more than 50% of his starts (the other two are on the B-List). His 86.9 driver rating comes in second on the A-List.
#24 Jeff Gordon - The 24 has sadly fallen out of Chase contention, but you can't ignore Gordon's six wins at Talladega! Just keep in mind that I'm not willing to make guarantees on anyone this weekend. For all his success here, he's still registered more DNFs (eight) than wins.
#29 Kevin Harvick - Harvick has put together a great season in general and his 14.3 average finish on this track trails only Kurt Busch among Chase drivers. No one's a "safe" bet this week, but the combo of a strong season and decent success at Talladega make Harvick the best thing going.
#48 Jimmie Johnson - In a rare situation, there are many A-Listers worth parking this week. Johnson gets the nod for a couple reasons. First, he won here in the spring, so you're naturally thinking of playing him. Second, he's in unfamiliar territory of needing to make up significant ground in the Chase. This is a terrible track to visit when you need to push the limits, because you'll often end up in the garage early. He has seven DNFs in 19 starts at Talladega, so he's passed those limits on several occasions.
#2 Brad Keselowski - Three top-10s and a win in five starts make him a pretty solid option this week, if you have enough starts left to risk one.
#20 Joey Logano - He's sees the blue deuce and raises a top-10! He has four top-10s in five starts and the fifth he wrecked out. Considering he hasn't been that effective this year, he's a great option on whom to use a start since he has the third-best driver rating in the field.
#33 Clint Bowyer - Who knows? If Bowyer had been 0.003 seconds faster and won the race in the spring, he might be in the Chase! He has five top-10s in eleven starts, including a win, at Talladega.
#88 Dale Earnhardt Jr. - For all the weeks Junior has made the "Park" list, it's his time to shine (at least that's what Junior Nation hopes). He has the best driver rating and a monster five wins in 23 starts. I personally earmarked this race weeks ago when I was down to just one Junior start remaining.
#1 Jamie McMurray - McMurray won this race in 2009 and finished second in the spring of 2010, but he's in 27th-place right now, ok? If you start him on a whim thinking you're clever, you're not; you're just foolish.
#43 AJ Allmendinger - I always seem to miss the wave on this guy. Two weeks ago, I said start him and he finished 25th. Last week, I said park him and he finished seventh. He's never registered a top-10 here, so he's not a good choice. Not to mention, if the two-car draft takes place, the only driver worse on the B-List at Talladega is teammate Marcos Ambrose, so that won't help him.
#6 David Ragan - Ragan showed his ability on the superspeedways with strong performances at Daytona, including a win in July. He's also got the fifth-best driver rating, and it's rare to see a C-Lister crack the top-10 of that list.
#34 David Gilliland - Looking for a start from somewhere in the bowels of the C-List? Gilliland's only two top-10s this season came at Daytona (Feb.) and Talladega (Apr.). He also finished 16th at Daytona in July, so he's worth considering.
#78 Regan Smith - Smith has only one top-10 in the last 11 races (here at NHMS is Sept.) and, if the two-car draft starts rolling, he doesn't have a set dance partner, so he's not much of a guarantee.
My Preliminary Roster
A - HARVICK (8), Kurt Busch (7)
B - EARNHARDT JR. (1), KESELOWSKI (5), Bowyer (2), Logano (4)
C - RAGAN (2), Menard (2)
*Number in parenthesis are allocations remaining.
^ After publishing, I read a different school of thought about the change in the cooling system. The original said that it will keep the engines cooler (which would promote drafting). The other says it will lower the temperature at which the engines overheat (which would discourage drafting). We'll have to ask our local mechanic to figure out which one is true and which one is false.