Talladega Superspeedway hosts the Amp Energy Juice 500, the seventh race of this year’s Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Three drivers—Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch—enter the race within a weekend’s points haul of leader Jimmie Johnson, with Hamlin the closest at six markers back.
Talladega is widely understood to be the most unpredictable track in the Chase, with its restrictor-plate-engineered pack racing perpetuating the threat of a 20-car accident at any corner. Any driver can encounter bad luck at Talladega. Most have.
The points leader coming out of this weekend will not necessarily be the guy to win the race, it will be the guy who survives the big one...if it happens.
With that in mind, recognize that the following picks are a crapshoot.
As far as the luckiest driver at Talladega goes, it’s Kurt Busch, with only three DNFs in 19 career Talladega starts. His resultant 12.8 average finish is the sport’s best. From the end of 2004 through 2007, he had a seven-race streak at the track of single-digit finishes, though he has never actually won at the track.
Looking at a dark horse, Jamie McMurray is your best bet. This race’s defending winner, he’s doubled his career win total this year alone, as the Earnhardt-Ganassi team re-establishes itself as a weekly contender.
McMurray’s won half of his career races at Daytona and Talladega, the sport’s two biggest tracks and the only two to require the use of restrictor plates.
Three more for the sake of three more:
Hey, remember that time Dale Earnhardt Jr. won four Talladega races in a row? He’s still a track favorite, even if that streak ended in 2003.
He’s led in his past nine Talladega starts and in 19 out of 21 career races run, which has to count for something, even as lead changes seem to become more frequent every time Sprint Cup comes to the speedway.
Tony Stewart’s only Talladega win came at this race in 2008, but it was not without controversy.
Most fans believed that, despite passing Stewart below the yellow line on the final lap, Regan Smith deserved the win for passing cleanly and not wrecking his competitor.
Regardless, it finally validated a solid Talladega record that includes a half-dozen runner-up finishes.
Finally, let’s look out in left field for our final pick, since it more often than not seems like at least somebody in the top 10 at Talladega gets there on sheer luck.
Scott Speed was that lucky gentleman in the spring of 2009, placing fifth in his debut at the track.
He’s only got three starts at the track, one of which ended in a wreck, but the other result, a 15th place run this spring, wasn’t too bad either.
I mean, Talladega’s a crapshoot anyway, you could really do worse than to tape a bunch of driver headshots to a dartboard and pick whomever you hit (not that I recommend doing that...not that I did that for this week’s column, either…I swear).