GEICO 500 Preview

It's almost May and Talladega is already upon us and of the nine races completed already, six have been won by two drivers winning three straight races in a row showing there's a major divide between the have's and have-nots -- have's as in having "good equipment". However, the three Kyle Busch wins certainly were more entertaining than Kevin Harvick's streak when he did it within the first four weeks of the season. Or at least that's the way I see it.

Perhaps I have a Busch bias because he's from Las Vegas, but I think I'm more at ease right now, or the past three weeks, knowing that other teams are slowly getting better and closer to that plateau Busch and Harvick are at. When Harvick was crushing the field early in the season, there wasn't much optimism that things would get better. And it also helps that since the Harvick run we've seen races on all three short tracks with only one race on a downforce track. Busch won at Texas, but it's quite possible we could see Harvick being dominant again when the series goes to the 1.5-mile layout at Kansas on May 12.

What we've seen in the past four races involving the short tracks is drivers like Clint Bowyer step up with his first win since 2012, as well as the entire Stewart Haas Racing stable of Fords. Kurt Busch has been extremely competitive and Aric Almirola looks like he's going to break through with a win soon in the No. 10 Danica Patrick used to drive. She has to hate seeing Almirola run in the top-10 every week when she only had seven top-10s in six Cup seasons. I still miss her, though.

The shorts tracks gave us some nice moments for Ricky Stenhouse to shine for Roush Fenway Racing and Darrell Wallace Jr. to show his Richard Petty Motorsports Camaro can be competitive since getting information shared by Richard Childress Racing this season. The Team Penske Fords have been strong every week as has Joe Gibbs Racing. But perhaps the best sign that things are turning around is Hendrick Motorsports finally showing some speed. They had two cars finish in the top-5 at Bristol a couple weeks ago.

Kyle Busch won three straight races in 2015, the season he won his only championship after missing the first 11 races due to a broken leg. The last time a driver won four straight was Jimmie Johnson during the 2007 Playoffs when he won one of his seven titles. But none of those streaks, including Harvick's this season, included a restrictor-plate win at Talladega Superspeedway's 2.66-mile, high banked layout. That's what Busch has to deal with this week in an attempt to make it four straight wins.

"It's definitely cool we've won three in a row," Busch said Saturday after winning for the fifth time at Richmond. "We did it a couple years ago, and now I don't know if you can shoot for four in a row. It's hard to go to Talladega with that much of a winning streak and think that you can go to Victory Lane, but we're going to go there anyway and give it a shot. We'll see what we can do... I think it's easier to win the Power Ball than to win at Talladega."

Yes, you're so right Kyle. It's wide open at Talladega where up to 35 drivers have a chance to win. It's random because of the volatility associated with racing at over 200 mph and getting four-wide sometimes. Busch has just one career win at Talladega (2008) and has averaged a 20th-place finish between 25 career starts on that beast of a track.

Despite the randomness, we have seen a pattern develop the last three seasons at Talladega with Ford winning the past five races there -- two each by Penske teammates Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano. Stenhouse won this race last season for his first career win and he'd also win at Daytona in July, the other track requiring restrictor-plates.

Chevrolet broke up the Ford restrictor-plate party in the season-opening Daytona 500 where RCR's Austin Dillon cashed a lottery ticket paying out at 60/1 odds. Finishing second was the rookie Wallace who was 80/1. Look at the top-14 finish in the Daytona 500 as the perfect example of just how random plate racing is. Chris Buescher was fifth, Paul Menard sixth, Michael McDowell ninth, A.J. Allmendinger 10th, Almirola 11th (was leading on the last lap), Justin Marks 12th, Trevor Bayne 13th and David Gilliand 14th.

Wallace is definitely a driver to take seriously here with a wager and he's got a lot of confidence heading into his first Cup start at Talladega.

“You are just trying to be there at the end,” said Wallace Jr, who is 60/1 to win this week. “Talladega, and all the plate races, are about being in the best position at the end and having a car that is capable of getting to the lead. We really showed in the Daytona 500 that our Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 had everything we needed. We’re going to Talladega with a new car and we’re working hard to make sure we have the same performance.”

Along with Wallace as a legitimate contender, Buescher (100/1), Menard (100/1) and Almirola (30/1) should all be considered with a small wager. Almirola had top-five finishes in both Talladega races last season while driving the No. 43 and his only Cup Series win came at Daytona with the plates on in 2014.

When you go to the bet window to bet Sunday's Geico 500 at Talladega, just know that there is no wager that is a bad one until it officially loses. Any driver can win. Some drivers are better than others with the plates on, but it takes a lot of luck and also the ability to stay out of trouble during the race to be one of the drivers on the lead lap at the end. My advice is to stay away from driver match-ups because of the volatility and expand your odds to win betting with a few favorites, some mid-level choices and a few long shots and try to hit the lottery.

My random dart throw for this race landed on No. 12, so Ryan Blaney in the Penske Ford is my choice. It's not exactly the most scientific method for picking a winner, but I can live with it knowing some logical reason behind it as well. He led a race-high 118 laps in the Daytona 500 and finished seventh, so he should be just as good along with five-time Talladega winner Keselowski and two-time winner Logano.

If you've been reading the space for a while, you know I love Denny Hamlin in the plate races and I do here as well. He's led laps in his last eight Talladega races, which started with a 2014 win there. He won the 2016 Daytona 500 as well and has three Daytona Shootout wins as well. I bet him all the time because he's always around the top-five with a chance to win when the restrictor-plates are on.

Still, it's a crap shoot as always at Talladega, but drivers like Hamlin, Keselowski, Stenhouse, and Logano have a knack for the draft and seem to be playing with an edge others don't have.

Top-5 Finish Prediction:

1) #12 Ryan Blaney (12/1)
2) #11 Denny Hamlin (8/1)
3) #2 Brad Keselowski (6/1)
4) #22 Joey Logano (10/1)
5) #17 Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (12/1)