By Toby Christie, NASCAR Editor
On most weeks in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, only the super teams (such as Hendrick Motorsports, Team Penske, Joe Gibbs Racing and a few others) should really expect to end their day in victory lane. In order to win at intermediate 1.5-mile speedways it takes teams of engineers, and millions of dollars just to finish inside the top-10.
Talladega though, is a different animal. Instead of gobs of resources, it just takes an unrelenting will to win and incredible intestinal fortitude to conquer the day at Talladega Superspeedway. Over the years, the 2.66-mile restrictor plate track has become the great equalizer for underdog teams.
Sure for an underfunded team being swept up in the big one can be disastrous, as they don’t typically have an excess of bullets to put in their chamber from week to week, but the possibility of victory makes the juice worth the squeeze, especially with this current version of the Chase format.
Nowhere has David slayed Goliath more often than Talladega. Guys like Phil Parsons, Greg Sacks and Ron Bouchard have all collected their first — and only — Sprint Cup Series wins in unpredictable fashion over the years. Current underdog, David Ragan utilized a push from then Front Row Motorsports teammate David Gilliland to win this race back in 2013.
Gilliland will be back this weekend in a one-off race with Front Row Motorsports, and he has had great success in the past at Talladega and Daytona. But the team’s hopes for a second victory will likely rest in the hands of their full-time drivers: Landon Cassill and rookie Chris Buescher.
Cassill’s career-best finish of fourth came at Talladega in 2014.
“I always love going to superspeedways, and I know my owner, Bob Jenkins, gets excited about going to superspeedways,” Cassill said in a team release. “Front Row has won a race there, and I’ve finished fourth at Talladega before, and I feel like I always find myself up front. I also feel like my car in Daytona, which didn’t get wrecked, was one of the best drafting cars that I’ve had on a superspeedway. So I think the guys are going to be able to take it back to the shop, take a look at it and make it even better.”
Buescher is still seeking his first Cup Series top-10 finish, but he showed restrictor plate prowess in his Xfinity Series career. In five career restrictor plate starts in the Xfinity Series, Buescher recorded three top-10 finishes.
Ragan now drives for the BK Racing team, which comes into this weekend on a bit of a hot streak. Two races ago, Ragan’s teammate Matt DiBenedetto secured a career-best finish of sixth at Bristol Motor Speedway. DiBenedetto thinks big things could happen for his team this weekend.
“[Superspeedways are] fun because it kind of gives everybody a shot. It’s neat the whole race to be in the pack, in the mix. You go three, four — Talladega especially you go four wide. So cycling back and forth. For the smaller teams we really enjoy going to places like that,” DiBenedetto said. “You still need a good car, have a good motor and suck up well do all of those things. But if you’re in the draft you can hang in there and cycle from front to back and be competitive.”
Continuing the BK Racing momentum, Ragan was a solid top-15 contender all day in Richmond this past weekend, but after suffering damage from contact with Greg Biffle, Ragan finished 23rd. If either Ragan or DiBenedetto can rise above the pack to win on Sunday, BK Racing could complete the biggest Cinderella story in NASCAR history by making it into the 2016 Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Two other legitimate underdog threats this Sunday would have to be AJ Allmendinger and Casey Mears, who drive for teams that are in a technical alliance with Richard Childress Racing.
Allmendinger has had a very decent season so far with JTG Daugherty Racing, as he has amassed one top-five and two top-10 finishes through nine races, and he sits 17th in the championship standings.
Mears (who drives for Germain Racing) on the other hand, has gotten off to a sluggish start this year, but he always seems to be a factor at Daytona and Talladega. Since 2013, Mears has five top-10 finishes at restrictor plate races.
Even if an underdog doesn’t visit victory lane in Sunday’s GEICO 500, it’s refreshing that for one day they will be on a nearly even playing field as their competition. And that fact is a huge opportunity for the little guys, and it is what will make this week’s race something to watch for sure.
Image: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images