Photo: Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images

Up to Speed: GEICO 500 at Talladega Preview

By David Morgan, NASCAR Editor

While short tracks have been the order of the month of April, the calendar now turns to May and with it comes the biggest and baddest track on the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series circuit, the 2.66-mile Talladega Superspeedway and Sunday’s running of the GEICO 500.

Racing at Talladega has always been crazy from the time the track opened back in 1969. From the driver boycott of the first race that led to unknown driver Richard Brickhouse scoring his one and only win in the Cup Series to all of the crazy finishes that have happened since then. To name a few, there was Ron Bouchard sneaking by Darrell Waltrip for the win in 1981, Bill Elliott making up two laps on the field in 1985 to win, Bobby Allison taking out a section of fencing but not going into the grandstand in 1987 to start the restrictor plate era, Brad Keselowski spinning Carl Edwards to win in 2009, Jimmie Johnson beating Clint Bowyer to the line by .002 seconds in 2011, David Ragan taking his underdog Front Row Motorsports team to victory lane back in 2013, and many others.

The point is, racing at Talladega is unpredictable and anyone in the field has a shot at the win as long as they can be in the right place at the right time. This weekend’s GEICO 500 should be no different, while there will be favorites, any of the cars still running in the closing laps could pull off the win. There’s a reason fans come from far and wide to witness racing at Talladega and that unpredictability is a big part of it.

By the Numbers

Opened: 1969

Track Size: 2.66 mile tri-oval (Turns banked 33 degrees, Tri-oval banked 18 degrees)

Race Length: 188 laps, 500.08 miles

Stage Lengths: 55 laps (Stage 1 and 2); 78 laps (Final Stage)

May 2016 Race Winner: Brad Keselowski – No. 2 Ford (Started seventh, 46 laps led)

October 2016 Race Winner: Joey Logano – No. 22 Ford (Started 16th, 45 laps led)

Track Qualifying Record: Bill Elliott – 44.998 seconds, 212.809 mph – April 30, 1987

Top-10 Driver Ratings at Talladega:

  • Chase Elliott – No. 24 Chevrolet – 97.1
  • Dale Earnhardt, Jr. – No. 88 Chevrolet – 92.0
  • Kurt Busch – No. 41 Ford – 88.8
  • Matt Kenseth – No. 20 Toyota – 88.0
  • Jimmie Johnson – No. 48 Chevrolet – 87.9
  • Brad Keselowski – No. 2 Ford – 87.4
  • Denny Hamlin – No. 11 Toyota – 84.0
  • Joey Logano – No. 22 Ford – 83.8
  • Ryan Blaney – No. 21 Ford – 83.5
  • Kevin Harvick – No. 4 Ford – 81.5

From the Driver’s Seat

“It’s so difficult to predict Talladega,” said Kurt Busch. “You can ride around in the back, or charge up front all day and, either way, your day can end with your car on the hook. You just hope to have Lady Luck guide you to a good finish. Restrictor-plate races have turned into this pattern that it is hard to have any type of advantage over any other team. It just comes down to being in the right place at the right time.”

“You’ve got to be able to know the draft, understand the draft, use the draft, block other guys, find holes, make holes. It’s definitely a chess game because you’re always thinking three or four steps ahead. It’s tough to get caught up when you make a mistake. You’ve got to quickly get rid of that and put together a new plan. At the end of the race, everybody is saving their best for the end. Cars are just going everywhere. The plan you thought you had, you’ve got to make a new one. You’ve got to go on the fly.”

Last Year’s Results

With rain in the area threatening last May’s GEICO 500, the already intense racing that normally happens at Talladega was cranked up ten-fold as drivers all wanted to be out front when the impending rainstorms set in around the 2.66 mile superspeedway.

Though the rains never came during the 188 lap event, things got crazy as the laps wound down, with three and four wide racing becoming the order of the day, and big crash after big crash leaving only a few drivers unscathed at the end of the race.

Of those that were still running at the end, Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch were able to separate themselves from the madness behind them, with Keselowski setting sail out front ahead of Busch and Austin Dillon.

While Keselowski was well on his way to the win, another big wreck broke out in the trailing pack involving Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex, Jr., Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., AJ Allmendinger and others, bringing out the caution just shy of the finish line. When the caution flew for the final caution, Keselowski, Busch, and Dillon would finish 1-2-3. Chase Elliott and Jamie McMurray would round out the top-five.

The win was Keselowski’s second win of the season, along with his fourth win at Talladega, the site of his first career win back in 2009.

“I didn’t have a great frame to see what happened to everyone else,” said Keselowski. “The guys at Team Penske gave me a great Miller Lite Ford and this Fusion was hauling it.  One of the best tickets to stay out of the wrecks at Talladega is if you can stay up front, and you’ve got a great shot of not getting wrecked.  But this No. 2.  Daytona didn’t go the way we wanted it to go.  We thought we were gonna be better than that, but we just didn’t show the speed in the 500 and the guys went to work and they brought me a really strong care here for Talladega.  I’m so proud of everybody at Team Penske.  To be back in Victory Lane with two wins this year, and we feel like we can get a lot more.  We’re growing as s team.  We made a lot of changes at Team Penske and this feels really good, really good.”

The race was slowed by 10 cautions, with several big names involved in those crashes, one driver taking a hair-raising barrel roll down the backstretch, and several big hits into the SAFER barriers that surround the track. By the end of the day, a total of 33 of the 40 cars that started the race wound up with some sort of damage incurred in a wreck.

Six Pack of Picks

  • Chase Elliott – In his sophomore season in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, Elliott still seeks his first win, but has been stout on the restrictor plate tracks. Elliott came close to winning the season-opening Daytona 500 and has run toward the front at Talladega in both of his starts at the track, with finishes of fifth and 12th with 12 laps led, one pole, and an average finish of 8.5.
  • Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. – As a native of Mississippi, Talladega serves as Stenhouse’s home track and the Roush-Fenway driver has always run well on the 2.66 mile track. With the resurgence of RFR as a whole this season and the roll that Stenhouse has been on over the last month, this weekend could be where the No. 17 team finally breaks through. In seven starts, Stenhouse has two top-five finishes, four top-10 finishes, 17 laps led, and an average finish of 11.7.
  • Clint Bowyer – Another of the drivers still looking for their first win of the season, Bowyer will be looking to make a return to Talladega’s victory lane this weekend for the third time and the first time since 2011. Along with his 2011 win, Bowyer also won at Talladega in 2010 and has six top-five finishes, 12 top-10 finishes, 100 laps led, and an average finish of 14.7 in 22 starts.
  • Kevin Harvick – Harvick will be looking to make it two restrictor plate wins in a row for Stewart-Haas Racing by scoring his second Talladega win and first of the season this weekend. Harvick’s lone win at the track came in 2010 with a .011 second margin of victory over Jamie McMurray and in 32 starts, Harvick also has six top-five finishes, 14 top-10 finishes, one pole, 187 laps led, and an average finish of 15.1.
  • Brad Keselowski – Defending winner of the spring Talladega race, Keselowski will be without crew chief Paul Wolfe this weekend, but that’s no reason to count out the No. 2 team as they go for their fifth win on the high banked superspeedway. In 16 starts, Keselowski has his four wins (2009, 2012, 2014, and 2016), six top-five finishes, nine top-10 finishes, 181 laps led, and an average finish of 15.4.
  • Dale Earnhardt, Jr. – FOX has been running a commercial for Sunday’s race touting Talladega as “Earnhardt Country” and that has proven to be true over the years, with Earnhardt capturing six wins at the track during his long and storied career, second only to his late father’s record of 10 Talladega wins. Though Earnhardt crashed out of last May’s race and missed the fall race while recovering from his concussion, his announcement last week that he would be retiring at season’s end will have the driver and fans alike energized to see if Earnhardt can pull off a win at his best track on the circuit in one of his last trips to the track as a driver. Along with his six wins (2001, 2002 sweep, 2003, 2004, and 2015), Earnhardt has finished in the top-five 12 times, in the top-10 16 times, and has led a staggering 960 laps for an average finish of 15.4 in 33 starts.

Weekend Schedule (All Times Eastern)

Friday, May 5

  • MENCS Practice (2:30 pm to 3:25 pm – FOX Sports 1)
  • MENCS Final Practice (4:30 pm to 5:25 pm – FOX Sports 1)

Saturday, May 6

  • MENCS Qualifying (4:00 pm – FOX)

Sunday, May 7

  • MENCS GEICO 500 at Talladega (2:00 pm – 188 laps, 500.08 miles – FOX)

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David Morgan is the Associate Editor for Motorsports Tribune. A 2008 graduate from the University of Mississippi, David has followed NASCAR since the early 90’s and became hooked at an early age after attending his first race at Talladega Superspeedway in 1993. He has traveled across the country since 2012 to cover some of the most prestigious events both IndyCar and NASCAR have to offer, with an aim to only expand on that in the near future.