Photo: Logan T. Arce/ASP, Inc.

Up to Speed: Previewing the GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway

By David Morgan, Associate Editor

TALLADEGA, Ala. – With the first off weekend of the season in the rear-view mirror, the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series gets back to business in grand fashion as they get set to take on 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. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. winning four Talladega races in a row. Brad Keselowski spinning Carl Edwards to win in 2009. Jimmie Johnson beating Clint Bowyer to the line by .002 seconds in 2011. In addition, David Ragan taking his underdog Front Row Motorsports team to victory lane back in 2013, along with many others.

The point is, racing at Talladega is unpredictable and anyone in the field has a chance 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 is a reason fans come from far and wide to witness racing at Talladega and that unpredictability is a big part of it.

Ford has dominated Talladega over the last couple of years, with wins in eight of the last nine races at the track. Can they continue their reign or will a new contender emerge?

Whoever comes out on top Sunday will be the first to do so in the post-restrictor plate era as the horsepower sapping plates are gone for the first time since 1987 in favor of a tapered spacer and larger spoiler that fits more in line with the 2019 aero package.

By the Numbers

What: GEICO 500, Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Race No. 10 of 36

Where: Talladega Superspeedway – Talladega, Alabama (Opened: 1969)

TV/Radio: FOX, 2:00 pm ET / MRN and Sirius XM NASCAR Channel 90

Track Size: 2.66-mile tri-oval (Turns banked 33 degrees, Tri-oval banked 16.5 degrees)

Race Length: 188 laps, 500.08 miles

Stage Lengths: 55 laps each (First two stages); 78 laps (Final stage)

Aero Package: 550 horsepower, aero ducts, nine inch tall spoiler, and a one-inch bolt-on track bar mount to raise the ride height

May 2018 Race Winner: Joey Logano – No. 22 Ford (Started ninth, 70 laps led)

October 2018 Race Winner: Aric Almirola – No. 10 Ford (Started fourth, One lap led)

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

Top-10 Highest Driver Ratings at Talladega:

  1. Chase Elliott – No. 9 Chevrolet – 91.3
  2. Kurt Busch – No. 1 Chevrolet – 90.5
  3. Joey Logano – No. 22 Ford – 89.0
  4. Jimmie Johnson – No. 48 Chevrolet – 88.8
  5. Brad Keselowski – No. 2 Ford – 88.6
  6. Ryan Blaney – No. 12 Ford – 86.4
  7. Denny Hamlin – No. 11 Toyota – 85.0
  8. Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. – No. 17 Ford – 83.1
  9. Kevin Harvick – No. 4 Ford – 82.8
  10. Kyle Busch – No. 18 Toyota – 81.2

From Atop the Pit Box

“Talladega might be the most interesting track we go to this year with the new aero package compared to what people expect heading into this weekend,” said Mike Wheeler, crew chief of the No. 95 Toyota piloted by Matt DiBenedetto.  “Ultimately, Daytona notes from the start of the season are thrown out the window because that package is completely different than what we’re running this weekend.  We’re hoping to keep a decent notebook from Texas and some of the other tracks that had the same 550 spec NASCAR package, but with the new spoiler height and rear tail extension, the car is a whole new animal in itself.

“It wouldn’t surprise us if there is a bigger pack this weekend and that the runs on guys in traffic are quicker and harder to block in the big pack.  It may be similar to what we saw maybe 10 to 15 years ago, but ultimately in regard to handling, I think that cars are going to be stuck more into the track compared to where they’ve been in the past.  The cars for this weekend are going to be quite a bit front-heavy with the big splitter so handling in traffic might be a concern compared to clean air traffic.  We’re just not entirely sure what’s going to happen this weekend because handling might come into play because of the off-balance of the aero-balance.

“I do think though that with this package, if you get shuffled out of the pack, you might have a better chance of hooking back up to the big draft.  The holes that cars are going to punch in the air this weekend are bigger than ever and the motors have more horsepower than before at Daytona and Talladega.  The game plan for this weekend will be to figure out the new travel heights and the downforce making sure that no one has any issues.  We’ll need to make sure that we get the balance of the car drivable both in clean air and in traffic.  We’re really starting from scratch this weekend with a new tire, the new aero-balance, and the additional horsepower, the cars might drive completely different than what everyone is expecting them to.”

Last Time at Talladega

“It’s a good day to be in a Ford,” Clint Bowyer said with a laugh after last October’s 1000Bulbs.com 500 at Talladega.

“We finally got all four cars to the cream of the crop. Oh my gosh, was it awesome.  To be able to work together like that, we could hold on.  They get runs on you and everything else, but as long as you stayed your ground, stayed in line, we’d prevail.”

A good day indeed, as Stewart-Haas Racing Fords finished first and second, with Aric Almirola scoring his first win of the season, breaking a winless streak dating back to 2014 and Bowyer taking the runner-up spot. It was absolute domination by SHR, leading 154 of 193 laps on the day and sweeping the first two stages, as well as being headed towards a likely 1-2-3-4 sweep.

“I felt like I kept giving it away and I was so disappointed for all these guys behind me because they’re awesome,” said Almirola after the win. “They’re the best.  I’m with the best team in the garage and I felt like I kept letting them down not winning a race.  Today, the Good Lord was shining on us and we went to Victory Lane.  We did it, finally.”

However, it was also a bittersweet day as Almirola and Bowyer were celebrating their finishes and others were left wondering “What If?”

As the laps wound down, Kurt Busch was out front and SHR held a substantial lead over the rest of the field. The only question was which of the four Fords would be ending their day in Victory Lane. When the caution flag flew for a crash on lap 187, everything changed.

With the race pushed to overtime and an extended caution period for clean-up, fuel became a concern for the drivers at the front of the field.

Kevin Harvick peeled off and headed down pit road, not having enough fuel to finish, while the other three gambled that they had enough in the tank to complete the final two laps. Two out of the three made it, Busch did not.

Busch, who led 108 laps on the day, would run out of fuel on the final lap, dropping from being in contention for the win to 14th, while Harvick finished the day in 28th.

With Busch and Harvick out of the picture, the victory was up to Bowyer and Almirola to salvage things for SHR. Almirola, who had a heart-breaking finish the week prior at Dover, surged to the lead on the final lap and held off all comers to score the win.

Bowyer, whose crash in the closing stages at Dover played a role in Almirola’s heartbreak in that race, noted that it was almost poetic that the win came down to the two drivers.

“I was happy for Aric,” said Bowyer. “He had that race won last week, and it was me that brought out the caution.  I feel like he got a little redemption there.”

Weekend Schedule (All Times Eastern)

Friday, April 26

  • MENCS Practice (1:35 pm to 2:25 pm – No TV, Streamed on NASCAR.com)
  • MENCS Final Practice (4:35 pm to 5:25 pm – FOX Sports 1)

Saturday, April 27

  • MENCS Qualifying (4:40 pm – FOX)

Sunday, April 28

  • MENCS GEICO 500 at Talladega (2:00 pm – 188 laps, 500.8 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.