GEICO 500 race preview (w/ podcast)

NASCAR Sprint Cup: Though there’s no sure thing on a superspeedway, top drafters such as Joey Logano, Kevin Harvick and Dale Earnhardt Jr. should garner attention at Talladega.

By C.J. Radune, PSN analyst

during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Aaron's 499 at Talladega Superspeedway on May 4, 2014 in Talladega, Alabama.

Uncertainty might be the best word to describe racing at Talladega Superspeedway. In a 500-mile race full of three-wide drafting, almost anything can happen. Even cars that start outside the top 30 still have an opportunity to score a win at this weekend’s GEICO 500. Denny Hamlin accomplished that in this very race last season.

Likewise, it’s possible for Sprint Cup teams to have one of the strongest race packages, but get caught in someone else’s mistake or be shuffled back at the wrong time, ruining what should have been a winning day. The uncertainties of restrictor-plate racing should make for a wide-open field to choose from this week.

GEICO 500: Drivers to watch

Joey Logano (#22) – Beyond his season-opening victory at Daytona, Logano has failed to finish inside the top 10 just once this season. That slip came at Bristol, where he collided with teammate Brad Keselowski. Logano’s superspeedway prowess is up there with the best of them, and his driver rating from 12 Talladega races is 82.2, among the top 10 active drivers at the track. Penske Racing drivers have captured last two wins on restrictor-plate tracks, which make this team one to watch this weekend. Two Talladega top-5s and four top-10s may not be the most, but Logano is gathering momentum on these tracks.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. (#88) – It’s virtually impossible not to consider Earnhardt when the series visits Daytona or Talladega. He is one of the best drafters in the series, with an impressive driver rating of 90.7 from the last 20 Talladega races. Earnhardt is one of the best and most consistent drivers at the Alabama track with five wins, 10 top-5s and 14 top-10s from his 30 career starts. Recent Talladega finishes haven’t been as stellar as those early in his career, but that doesn’t diminish his potential this week. He finished third at Daytona and is hungry to add another win to his Talladega resume.

Kevin Harvick (#4) – Another driver that simply cannot be overlooked at a restrictor-plate track. We could say that at almost every track, though, as Harvick puts himself in contention for the win most weeks. He finished second to Logano in the Daytona 500 and is one of the better drivers in the draft. Harvick scored back-to-back top-10 finishes at Talladega in 2014, and there’s no reason to believe he won’t be at his best again this week. Harvick simply shouldn’t be counted out until his performances take a significant and prolonged turn for the worse. That hasn’t happened for a few years now.

Denny Hamlin (#11) – Each week fans are left wondering which Hamlin will show up on race day – the Hamlin that led all but two laps in the Xfinity event at Richmond, or the guy who sunk to a 22nd-place Sprint Cup finish the following Sunday? There have been too many inconsistencies with Hamlin’s results this season to rely on him weekly. His fourth-place finish at Daytona could give rise to push him into consideration this week, but consecutive disappointing races at Bristol and Richmond raise a host of other questions. For now, it might be best to save Hamlin until he delivers consecutive top finishes.

Ryan Newman (#31) – Despite scoring two top-10 finishes in the last three Talladega races, Newman could be one to avoid this week. The Richard Childress Racing driver has one of the poorer driver ratings at the superspeedway of 68.6. He was classified 38th at Daytona earlier this season, and has failed to finish eight times in all at Talladega. Newman’s team has been shuffling personnel because of suspensions and penalties, too, and what used to be regular top-10s are coming fewer and further apart. Newman’s average Talladega finish is 20.9 from 26 career starts – not the ideal driver to rest hopes on this week.

Carl Edwards (#19) – Strides forward for Edwards may not continue this week. The newest addition to the Joe Gibbs Racing stable has improved since the start of the season, but Edwards’ record at Talladega is a dismal one. His driver rating from the past 20 races at the track is 66.3, and six DNFs at the track form a poor average finish of 21st from 21 tries. Three of his last six Talladega outings ended with finishes of 30th or lower, and he finished 23rd at Daytona. Teammates Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch have shown Gibbs cars can be restrictor-plate contenders, but Edwards still has improvement to find.

Casey Mears (#13) – Despite a top-10 finish at Daytona in February, Talladega has been a difficult track for Mears. He holds the dubious distinction of the longest streak without a top-5 Talladega finish among active drivers at 23. The top-10 he snagged in the fall race here last season was his first at the track since the spring of 2008. Mears has proven to be a decent option some weeks so far this season, but Talladega should lower the expectations a bit. Mears has just one top-10 finish so far for one of the smaller teams in the series, but just because that came at Daytona doesn’t signal a repeat coming.

Clint Bowyer (#15) – Again this week, Bowyer could turn out to be a solid dark horse. The Michael Waltrip Racing driver has been taking small steps forward, improving his finishes from earlier in the year and improving over 2014 as well. Bowyer also has been quite good at Talladega, with consecutive top-5s in last season’s two races there and another top-10 before that. Bowyer placed seventh in the last restrictor-plate race, too. That finish at Daytona had been his only top-10 of the season until he raced to ninth last week in Richmond. Confidence is starting to gain traction in the No. 15 garage.

Radune covers motorsports for and was named the 2012 Fantasy Sports Writer’s Association Racing Writer of the Year. Follow him on Twitter at @cjradune.