There are a couple of ways to play when the series rolls onto one of the restrictor-plate, superspeedways. Marquee drivers like Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch, and Kyle Larson are equally capable of winning or getting in a wreck. Normally mid-pack drivers like David Ragan, Michael McDowell, or Paul Menard can and do score top-10s with frequency, so there are a lot of seeming bargains to be had.
One might also chose to play a game of—for lack of a better word: attrition. Look for drivers who are likely to be extremely popular and make certain they are on the roster. Particularly in 50/50 games, this insures that if they experience trouble, everyone suffers. That strategy puts a premium on selecting one’s dark horses, however.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. will certainly be popular and can be signed for $9,200. That statement might make the reader believe he belongs strictly to the second strategy, but that is not true. Junior has the record necessary to recommend him, but there is also an intangible that plays into his favor. NASCAR is often filled with unbelievably poignant storylines and Earnhardt winning in his final race at a track that has been so special to both him and his father fits that bill.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. also straddles the two strategies. As the winner of the last two plate races, many experts believe he will win again. And while he has a slightly better than 1-in-40 chance of getting to Victory Lane, that is not necessarily what recommends him this week. Stenhouse has finished worse than 15th only twice in his Talladega career. One of these was a 16th in spring 2016. His last two efforts have been top-fives and five of eight events dating back to 2013 ended in top-10s.
Kurt Busch is another consistent driver on this track. As erratic as he can be on other courses, he typically stays out of trouble at Talladega and enters with a six-race streak of top-12 finishes. Only one of these has been a top-five, but even if he can achieve his average finish of eighth, he will worth the $8,300 it will take to sign him.
One will eventually need to look substantially below the midline if one wants to take a high-priced driver. Options abound, but as is often the case, we like consistency as an indicator. Menard fits. With six results of 13th or better in his last eight efforts, he is poised to run well in this week’s Alabama 500. It should be noted that in that span of races, however, he has never had three strong runs in a row and is coming off back-to-back top-15s.
Joey Logano has won the last two fall races at Talladega. On the other hand, his last six spring efforts wound up 25th or worse, but that could mean that he gets overlooked by the competition this week. He will end up being the most expensive driver on the roster and one might chose to take another marquee racer if they are willing to go cheap on the final pick.
In 2012/2013, Ragan logged four straight Talladega top-10s including a win in the Aaron's 499. His next five races were all in the 30s, but he finished 10th this spring in his current ride. If your intuition suggests something different, note that Ty Dillon and Chris Buescher also scored top-15s this spring in the Geico 500.