Fantasy Picks/Pans: Talladega

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They do not mix well at all.

And choosing a Talladega winner is like throwing an egg against the wall. A large chuck will crack and fall away (let that represent cars taken out in "The Big One") and the rest will stick to the wall. Your task is to figuring out what will stick.

Plate races are NASCAR's great equalizer, but Sunday's race at Talladega Superspeedway will have a different feel. NASCAR allowed drivers to try plates with various hole-sizes during a March test at the track, which meant higher speeds and greater throttle response. Combine these factors with the aerodynamic advantages gained by the new spoiler, rear window blade, NASCAR's new leniency on bump drafting, and the inevitable usage of the multiple green-white-checkered finish rule, and the Aaron's 499 will surely be a barn burner this weekend.

The trendy fantasy racing picks in most arenas likely will center on Hendrick Motorsports drivers, but peel back a layer of the onion and you might cry at those picks:

- Jimmie Johnson has run well at Talladega before, but also has struggled there in some races. He is a bigger favorite at future tracks, so do not expend your chance to pick him Sunday. Save the champ for later.

- Jeff Gordon has won more restrictor plate races than any active driver, but his inability to close the deal in the final laps of recent races is a damning factor for the four-time Talladega champ. Gordon also struggled at Daytona in February and has not finished better than 20th at Talladega since sweeping both 2007 races there.

- Mark Martin is not a fan of plate racing and finished the 2009 fall Talladega race on his roof.

- Dale Earnhardt Jr. has five 'Dega victories, but has not won there since 2004 and, frankly, needs to do more behind the wheel before the 'No. 88' and 'victory' are mentioned in the same sentence.

Don't place any bets on last week's winner in Texas, Denny Hamlin. The No. 11 team is strong at Talladega, but Hamlin still has a "superman complex" in plate races, which usually works to his detriment.

Let's take a look at this week's picks...


Kurt Busch -- Busch's pending move to a Shell-sponsored No. 22 Penske Dodge in 2011 has been a hot headline this week, but the Las Vegas native may be on the front page after this Talladega race for other reasons. Busch is likely the best active restrictor plate driver to not win a race at either Daytona or Talladega. The 2004 champ led 33 laps in the Daytona 500 and has been a threat to win nearly every week that he has not been caught up in a crash.

By the numbers: Busch has 22 top 10s in 37 career Sprint Cup plate races.

Kyle Busch -- There is little reason to bet against the No. 18 team at Talladega this weekend. Busch has shown a knack for finding a way to the front in most plate races and has won at both Daytona and Talladega. The M&Ms Toyota has shown a keen ability to bounce back from problems in the last couple of races this year and Talladega is one of the easiest tracks for drivers to make up lost time. The last four Sprint Cup races have ended in closing lap free-for-alls and Kyle Busch is a driver you want in your stable for one of these unstable drives to the checkered flag.

By the numbers: Busch won the April 2008 Talladega race...but that is his only top 10 at the track. He is due for a good run.

Juan Pablo Montoya -- Sprint Cup cars at Talladega may favor more patient drivers, but Montoya's feistiness and absolute need to bring the No. 42 a good finish may drive the Target Chevy to Victory Lane or somewhere close. Montoya has run well at most of his races at the 2.66-mile track, but bad luck-crashes have taken him out of contention in most of them.

By the numbers: Montoya's sole Talladega top 5 was a runner-up finish to Kyle Busch in April 2008.


Jeff Burton -- Jeff Burton has the respect of his competitors and renewed fire this season. A mixture of these two traits will be highly important to whoever wins the Aaron's 499. Burton has shown unusual aggression on the track this season, but rarely has this worked to his detriment. Burton also ran very well last April in Alabama (ending up 10th after running up front most of the race) and scored a 5th place finish last Fall. While uncertainty surrounds the future of teammate Kevin Harvick, Burton may carry the Richard Childress Racing banner this weekend.

By the numbers: Two of Burton's four Talladega top 5s (in 32 career races) have come in the last five races and he has the fourth-most driver points in that span.

Joey Logano -- There has been no sophomore slump so far this season for Logano. But instead of shoving his No. 20 Home Depot Toyota to the front in every race, he has run cleanly and been around for good finishes at the end of some wacky races this year. Talladega could be the backdrop for a sneaky finish for Logano. He survived several crashes to finish 10th last April and an extremely unlikely 3rd last November. Logano will likely be able to do the same this weekend -- as long as he does not have to rely on a push late in the race from on-track foes Greg Biffle and Kevin Harvick.

David Ragan -- Ragan seems to love plate races. He has average finishes of 14.1 at Daytona and 14.5 at Talladega -- better than any other track on the schedule. The fourth-year youngster also claimed victory in last April's Nationwide Series Talladega race and seems to have gained respect in the draft from restrictor plate heavy-hitters. Ragan is in need of a jump-start to his second disappointing season in a row, so do not be surprised to see the UPS Ford near the top of the Aaron's 499 finishing order.

By the numbers: Believe it or not, Ragan has the second-most points in the last six races at Talladega, dating back to his career debut there in 2007.


Underdog, low-budget drivers -- Almost any driver planning to run the whole race will work. Regan Smith almost won Talladega in fall 2008 and is driving the No. 78 Chevy that won the pole there in spring '08. Scott Riggs and the No. 90 may run competitively, if they qualify. Bet on at least one driver in your C or D Tier to score a top 10 finish this weekend. Pinching your pennies and laying a pick down on one of these drivers will likely net you the biggest fantasy bang for your buck until 'Dega rolls around again in the fall.

By the numbers: An underdog driver (depending on how one would qualify the term) has claimed victory in the spring Talladega race twice in the last 10 years: Bobby Hamilton in 2001 and Brad Keselowski in 2009.

NASCAR returns to short track racing next Saturday night in Richmond, after a three-race excursion on three different types of tracks. Great racing is expected and you'll need a good set of picks to make the night perfect. Turn in here next week to see which drivers top the list.

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