Aaron’s 499 Practice Recap: Drivers to Watch
The series heads to Talladega Superspeedway this weekend, and while the pack racing and multi-car wrecks give any driver a shot at having a solid finish, it doesn’t mean that practice times are completely irrelevant. Yes, the speeds are less of an accurate predictor at Talladega than at other tracks, but handling is often underrated at the massive superspeedway. After all, a driver that has a car that is handling well in the draft is going to be better able to slice and dice through the heavy traffic and make the race-winning moves in the closing laps. Not to mention the fact that the drivers that can get to the front have the best chance of avoiding the wrecks that usually start in the middle of the pack in the early stages of races at Talladega. With that in mind, here is a closer look at a few drivers that performed well during the practice sessions at Talladega Friday that deserves consideration from fantasy owners this weekend.
1. Brad Keselowski: After posting the 11th-fastest lap in the first practice at Talladega Friday, Keselowski jumped to the top of the charts in Happy Hour. Of course, he is used to being at or near the top of the leaderboard at the track, and his 12.3 average finish is actually the best among active drivers. In eight starts at the track, Keselowski has tallied six top-10 finishes, including a pair of wins. One of those victories came in the Aaron’s 499 last spring, and given his overall record at Talladega, an excellent finish seems likely even he doesn’t take the checkered flag again.
2. Jeff Gordon: The veteran hasn’t had the greatest start to 2013, but after ranking ninth and seventh in the two practices at Talladega Friday, he could be primed for one of his better runs of the year. After all, he is the active leader in wins at the track with six, and he has finished third or better twice in the last four starts. Yes, luck does play a factor at Talladega when it comes to avoiding the big wrecks, but the fact that Gordon is one of the most-decorated and most-experienced restrictor plate drivers certainly doesn’t hurt his chances this weekend. Gordon has managed just a single top-five finish this year, but he has definite top-five potential this weekend at Talladega.
3. Kasey Kahne: Kahne showed as much muscle between the two practices Friday as any driver. After posting the 10th-fastest lap in the first session, he vaulted to third on the leaderboard in the final practice. Fittingly, improvement has been a theme for Kahne at the track lately. He has posted a 7.3 average finish in his last three starts at Talladega, logging a pair of top-six finishes during the stretch. For his career, Kahne owns an unimpressive 20.3 average finish at the track, but he is a much better fantasy option than his overall numbers suggest. In fact, fantasy owners should feel comfortable expecting a top-10 effort out of Kahne this weekend.
4. Carl Edwards: He got off to a fast start in practice Friday at Talladega, topping the charts in the first session. Edwards followed that up by cracking the top 10 in Happy Hour, as well. On the flip side, he has a 21.8 average finish at Talladega for his career and has managed just a single top-10 finish in his last 12 starts at the track. Of course, those numbers would look a little different if not for a lot of late-race wrecks, including a memorable clash with Brad Keselowski in 2009 that sent Edwards from first into the fence on the final lap. Obviously, Edwards is far from a sure thing this weekend, but he appears to have his car handling the way he wants it in the draft. For fantasy owners that want to pick more of an unconventional option with the hopes of gaining ground on the competition may want to take a chance on Edwards.
5. Dale Earnhardt Jr.: Although he ran just a couple of mock qualifying laps in the final practice at Talladega, Junior showed more than enough muscle in the first session Friday. In addition to turning the 12th-fastest lap, he logged the best 10-lap average speed. Having a car that handles in the draft over the course of a longer run at Talladega can be the difference between making a decisive move in traffic or getting shuffled out of the draft, and Junior knows how to seal the deal at the track as well any driver. After all, he is a five-time winner at Talladega, and in the last six spring races at the track, he has finished 11th or better. Junior offers fantasy owners a nice mix of reliability and upside so there is no reason he shouldn’t be widely rostered this weekend.
6. Matt Kenseth: Kenseth opened up Friday’s practices at Talladega by posting the sixth-fastest lap, and he felt good enough about his No. 20 Toyota to sit out Happy Hour. The confidence is a great sign, especially considering the numbers he has amassed at the plate tracks recently. Dating back to the start of 2012, Kenseth leads all drivers in wins, top-five finishes, points scored and laps led at the superspeedways. At Talladega alone, he finished third and first in two starts a year ago. Kenseth was a top-five fantasy option heading into the weekend, and after Friday’s practices, his value hasn’t changed.
7. Michael Waltrip: For those that are new to fantasy NASCAR, you probably know Waltrip more as an announcer than a driver. Well, the truth is that he was an absolute stud at the restrictor plate tracks in his prime, and all four of his career Cup wins have come at either Daytona or Talladega. These days, he really only races at the plate tracks, but he can still make some noise. Friday at Talladega, Waltrip posted the 14th-fastest lap in the first practice along with the fourth-best 10-lap average speed. Not to mention the fact that he has finished in the top 10 at Talladega as recently as 2011, and he was fighting for the lead in the closing laps last fall before Tony Stewart took him out. Don’t be surprised if Waltrip delivers a top-10 finish this weekend.
8. Joey Logano: He put together a solid set of practices Friday at Talladega, ranking fourth and 13th, respectively. The practice times are extra important for a driver like Logano, who has been very hit in miss at Talladega. In eight career starts, he has logged four top-10 finishes, but he has also finished outside the top 20 four times. Needless to say, Logano is not the most consistent option, but the practice times could be a sign that one of his better runs is on tap for Sunday. Clearly, the potential for a strong run is there.
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