GEICO 500 Preview

The restrictor-plate is dead after over 30 years of using it in Cup races at Talladega Superspeedway as NASCAR ushers in a new era in hopes of making the races more competitive and safer. The season-opening Daytona 500 was the last race to use the plates and the new package has never been tested at Talladega so there's a lot of uncertainty and anticipation by all the teams heading into Friday's practice in preparation for Sunday's Geico 500.  
“I have no idea," Kevin Harvick said about what's in store for his team this weekend. "You just show up and see how it develops. All you can do is show up for a weekend at Talladega and see how it develops and go from there.”
Talladega's high-banked 2.66-mile layout is the biggest and fastest on the circuit, and while NASCAR has created more drag with the new cars, which includes a 9 inch tall spoiler, aero ducts, and raising the rear an extra inch, the engine with 550 horsepower offers more throttle response compared to the plates engines that produced only 410 horsepower. On paper, it looks like the cars will go much faster. 
“There are a lot of unknowns going into this weekend with the new package," said Ricky Stenhouse Jr., winner of the 2017 spring Talladega race. "We expect that the speeds will be higher than normal. I know we are all looking forward to getting on track Friday to see how the new rules package will affect the handling of the car. Talladega always put on a great race because we are all racing so close together. We’ve had some issues the past couple of weeks so we are looking to turn that around this weekend.”
Stenhouse only has two wins and they both came in 2017 on plate races. The Westgate Las Vegas Superbook lists him at 18-to-1 odds to win in part because of his past wins, but also because he's the active leader at Talladega with a 10.6 average finish. 
Still, we don't know how the cars will run. Do the teams that have had success with the new package have an edge this weekend? This week's package with the tapered spacer limits horsepower to 550 horsepower just like at Atlanta, Las Vegas, Fontana, and Texas and there were two winners from Team Penske and two winners from Joe Gibbs Racing in those races. The other package with 750 horsepower on the shorter tracks, JGR has three wins and Penske has the other. The season scoreboard reads JGR 6 wins, Penske 3 wins.
Why should Sunday be any different, especially considering Ford has won the past seven races at Talladega, five coming from the Penske stables. Brad Keselowski leads all active drivers with five wins at Talladega and Joey Logano is next with three, which is why the SuperBook has them both listed as 8/1 co-favorites to win.
I want to know more, though. The cars will likely be faster -- Kurt Busch won the pole at Talladega last fall at 195 mph -- and we'll probably see more tandem racing and drivers figuring out the aero push of the new body bringing lots of side drafting to slow the other cars down briefly.  The best explanation I've heard from how things might look this weekend came from Matt DiBenedetto's crew chief Mike Wheeler.      
“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 Wheeler, who won the 2016 Daytona 500 as Denny Hamlin's crew chief. "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."
What Wheeler said about Texas is interesting and worth taking note of (Hamlin won at Texas). While the spoiler is supposed to create more drag, it looks like it will also create more downforce which will have all the tires sticking with no slips while drivers keep the gas pedal mashed to the floor all the way around. 
"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," Wheeler continued. "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."
Wheeler was the race engineer for Hamlin when they won at Talladega in 2014. He knows his stuff setting up cars at Talladega and Daytona, which is part of the reason DiBenedetto led twice for 49 laps in the Daytona 500 before being collected in the "Big One." The other part that Leavine Family Racing has a technical alliance with JGR. The SuperBook respects the volatile nature of Talladega, the randomness of finishers, and DiBenedetto's car so much he's only 30/1 to win Sunday.  
The only certainty this week is that we will eventually see the "Big One" due to all the drivers being bunched up -- bumper-to-bumper, side-by-side three and four wide -- at 200 mph. I also don't foresee drivers and crews foregoing the final practices this week like they used to in plate races for fear of wrecking the car because they have so much to learn about the new package before Sunday. 
Kyle Busch has top-10 finishes in all nine races this season, but Talladega is his worst track with a 20th-place average finish. Busch's lone win at Talladega came in 2008 out of 27 career starts at the venue. Perhaps the new package will help him improve and he's also got some amazing 2019 momentum to feed off of. 
"You kind of look at what Denny (Hamlin) does and what Brad (Keselowski) does, the guys who are good racers at Daytona and Talladega and the guys who are fast right now," Busch said. "Denny makes the most out of what he’s got for equipment and I’ve got the same stuff and I’m not quite as forceful in situations as he is and he makes that work for him. We certainly gained a lot of confidence from Daytona. Our cars were better there and I’m hoping we can carry that momentum at Talladega."
Gibbs had a 1-2-3 finish in the Daytona 500 with Hamlin, Busch, and Erik Jones. But none of that plate stuff matters other than their own drafting skills and ability to maneuver through traffic and keeping the car clean.
Hamlin is the driver I look at with 10/1 odds to win to give the Penske duo the most trouble. Part of the reason is just because of his skills in past plate race regarding the draft. He always gets to the front at Talladega and Daytona and has done so nine of his last 10 starts at Talladega. 
Another reason to back 2019 Daytona 500 champion this week is his performance with the new package this season. He's tied with Kyle Busch with a series-best six top-fives. He's been in the top-10 in eight of his nine starts and the race he didn't he finished 11th. He's got two wins already this season after none in 2018. It's the best start to Hamlin's career. 
He's got the owner, the car, the momentum, drafting skills, and he's never been more confident in himself or his crew. 
Good luck this week, and be sure to watch Friday and Saturday's practices to get a read on what team has this package figured out the best.
Top-5 Finish Prediction:

1) #11 Denny Hamlin (10/1)
2) #22 Joey Logano (8/1)
3) #48 Jimmie Johnson (18/1)
4) #17 Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (18/1)
5) #2 Brad Keselowski (8/1)