Talladega Preview: Fantasy NASCAR Numbers and More

Scott EngelCorrespondent IApril 23, 2009

TALLADEGA, AL - OCTOBER 05: Kurt Busch driver of the #2 Miller Lite Dodge leads Brian Vickers driver of the #83 Red Bull Toyota during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Amp Energy 500 at Talladega Superspeedway on October 5, 2008 in Talladega, AL.  (Photo by John Harrelson/Getty Images for NASCAR)

When Talladega appears on the schedule, there’s always a mix of emotions for Fantasy NASCAR participants. The events are always thrilling to watch, because of the high-intensity restrictor plate action. Yet the tight racing at the track has historically led to the “Big One” – A major multi-car accident that can wreak havoc on fantasy results for the week and put hurtful dents in the standings.

Fantasy owners simply have to set their best possible lineup and then hope their top drivers can avoid trouble. As usual, past results at the track and recent overall trends dictate who you should start, and the unpredictability of the event is something fantasy leaguers will simply have to live with. Ignore the pitfalls of Talladega when setting your lineups, and realize your selections can compensate for any rotten luck at less treacherous tracks in the weeks ahead.

In fact, Talladega may actually produce another happy ending for a driver who seems due for a win. Matt Kenseth, Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin have all enjoyed trips to Victory Lane that have renewed the confidence of their owners for at least brief periods. Kenseth has fallen off recently, but the other two should continue to be strong choices moving forward. Now, it appears to be time for Tony Stewart to take his place among the inspiring early-season winners.

Stewart’s first season as a driver/owner has been more successful than expected so far, and he has been very reliable for fantasy purposes. Stewart is fourth in the Sprint Cup standings and is coming off his best outing of 2009 so far, a second-place showing at Phoenix. He has reeled off three consecutive Top 5 finishes and has six Top 10 finishes in eight starts so far in 2009.
“This is the best start to the season that I’ve ever had in my career,” Stewart said. “The last three weeks have just been amazing. I mean, it’s been so much fun. We’ve been in contention. We’ve led laps. We’re doing everything right. It’s just a matter of time. We are consistent now and that’s the way you’ve got to be.”
Consistency is what fantasy owners look for foremost in a driver, and those who have rode with Stewart so far may get a great reward this week. Stewart’s last win came in the second Talladega race of 2008. In the past eight races at the site dating back to 2005, Stewart leads all drivers in Driver Rating (95.9), Average Running Position (12.3) and Laps in the Top 15 (981, or 64.6 percent). He has nine Top 5s and 12 Top 10s in 20 Talladega starts.
Denny Hamlin was caught up in a wreck in the second Talladega race of ’08, after he had delivered a pair of Top 5 finishes in his previous two races at the site. Hamlin’s DR of 93.2 since 2006 is second to Stewart among all drivers having participated in events at the site dating as far back as ’05. He also ranks second in ARP (14.2). Expect a good run from Stewart’s former teammate this week.
Gordon, however, can be the strongest bet to keep Stewart out of Victory Lane. He has six wins, 16 Top 10s and 13 Top 5s in 32 Talladega starts. Of course, he also has eight DNFs at the site, so obviously he has to steer clear of bad luck first. Gordon is the perfect example of how a fantasy driver can be all-or-nothing at Talladega. Gordon is well-known for his restrictor plate prowess and his DR of 92.3 ranks third among all drivers since ’05.
The resurgent Kurt Busch should come through with another quality finish at Talladega. He has six Top 5s and 11 Top 10s in 16 Talladega starts. Since ’05, he ranks fourth in ARP (15.2) and second in Laps in the Top 15 (964, 63.5 percent) and Quality Passes (1,945) at the site. NASCAR defines Quality Passes as passes of cars in the Top 15 while under green-flag conditions.
David Ragan is easily the best value driver this week, even though he has only one Top-10 finish in the first eight races of ’09. Ragan finished fourth and third at Talladega last season. His DR of 91.4 puts him fourth among all drivers since the stat was first recorded in ‘05. When accidents happen at a site like Talladega, it can often push some lesser drivers to the front of the pack and make them more attractive bargains in fantasy. Brian Vickers won at Talladega in 2006, and was fifth in the first race at the site in ’08. His DR of 90.6 is sixth-best on the circuit since ’05.
Jamie McMurray is a solid bet to finish respectably at Talladega. He notched fifth-place finishes at the site in 2006 and 2007. His DR of 87.6 is sixth-best since ’05. Some Loop Data suggests Jeff Burton will finish well this week. Since ’05, he leads all drivers in Quality Passes (2,082) and Green-Flag Passes (3.148) at Talladega. Jimmie Johnson is only 10th in DR at Talladega (83.9), and in tiered leagues, this may be a week to pass on him. Johnson has not finished worse than 13th in his past four races at the site, but he has just four Top 5s in 14 Talladega starts, and you should save him for tracks where he has been more dominant.
Other notable competitors to avoid this week in salary cap and tiered leagues include Kyle Busch (72.5 DR, 21st since ’05), Kasey Kahne (69.6, 24th), Carl Edwards (68.6, 26th), and Greg Biffle (66.7, 28th). Martin’s DR of 60.6 is 41st, so don’t expect his momentum to carry into Talladega. Keep in mind that DR removes factors such as accidents and pit issues from the formula, and is a true measure of how a driver performs at a given track. These drivers aren’t prime picks even if they can avoid crashes.

For my Talladega rankings and a link to this week's RotoRacing podcast, which also features Indy Racing analysis, click here.