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MOTORPORTS: Ford Drivers on a Hot Streak at Talladega

Talladega Superspeedway’s high banks produce some of the most spine-tingling, unpredictable, high-speed action in all of NASCAR, but for all the genuine suspense generated, Ford drivers seem to have cornered the market on victory recently.

The make has won the last seven consecutive Talladega races and eight of the last nine. Reigning Monster Energy NASCAR Cup champion Joey Logano is the defending winner of Sunday’s GEICO 500 and has three victories in a Team Penske Ford Mustang on the 2.66-mile speedway – all within the last seven races there. His teammate Brad Keselowski has three wins in the last nine races and five career victories overall at Talladega – best among active drivers.

So not too surprisingly, oddsmakers have picked Keselowski and Logano as the favorites this weekend followed by fellow Ford drivers Clint Bowyer and Kevin Harvick. Six of the eight “favorites” drive Ford Mustangs.

While Chevrolet holds a 41-26 victory advantage over Ford all-time at Talladega, certainly Ford drivers have found the winning formula as of late, and it’s not typically been a case of final lap drama. In all but one of the last seven races, Fords have combined to lead at least 40 percent of the race laps. In Logano’s win last April, seven Ford drivers combined to lead 126 of the 188 laps (67 percent). Last October, Stewart-Haas Racing’s Aric Almirola won the Playoff race leading only the checkered flag lap, but six Fords combined on the day to lead 184 of the 193 total laps or a stunning 95.3 percent of the race.

Team Penske, in particular, has discovered the magic to the superspeedway style of competition, winning five of the last seven Talladega races. Roush Fenway Racing Ford driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr. earned his first career win (from the Busch Pole position, no less) in the 2017 spring race and Almirola claimed his second career win with his work last fall.

In all, Fords have led 785 of 1,336 laps of competition (58.7 percent) during their seven-race string of superiority.

The hot streak is not completely unfamiliar to the Talladega high banks, where certain drivers have historically proven themselves masters of the superspeedway. Chevrolet, for instance, won 13 consecutive races from 1999 (the late Dale Earnhardt) to the 2005 season (Jeff Gordon) and 17 of 18 through 2007. Hall of Famer Dale Jarrett was the lone interruption in that streak, claiming the 2005 fall race win in a Ford.

Almirola looks to go back-to-back at Talladega

The most recent winner at Talladega Superspeedway is Stewart-Haas Racing driver Aric Almirola, who shows up with every reason to believe his good fortune will continue. The Tampa, Florida, native has top-10 finishes in his last five races at the big track, including three top-five efforts and the Playoff win last October that propelled him into the Round of 8.

The superspeedways of Daytona and Talladega have been highlights on Almirola’s resume. In addition to the Playoff win at Talladega, he won the 2017 Xfinity Series race there. His first career Cup victory was at Daytona International Speedway in July of 2014. Plus, he won an Xfinity race there in 2017 – meaning four of his five wins in the top two series have come at these behemoth tracks.

“I always had to go to these races and be aggressive because, back then, they were our only realistic options to win races,’’ Almirola said. “It was the only way I could make it into the Playoffs, and we were able to do that in 2014. They’ve been good to me. I’ve always gone into those races with that mindset.”

That recent Talladega victory was instrumental in Almirola finishing a career best-fifth in the 2018 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship in his first season driving Stewart-Haas Racing Ford Mustangs. And Almirola has responded with another stellar season start. He won the pole position at Atlanta and had a streak of six top-10 finishes between Atlanta and the Bristol races. He’s currently ranked 11th in the points standings and his 72 laps led is already nearly half his career-best season total of 181 laps last year.

Kyle Busch was close in Daytona; will his luck change at ‘Dega?

The current Monster Energy Series points standings leader Kyle Busch shows up at Talladega Superspeedway hoping to re-establish some good vibes with one of the most unpredictable circuits on the schedule. A win for the Toyota driver this weekend would snap a seven-race Talladega victory streak for Ford.

The Joe Gibbs Racing standout’s three wins and six top-fives through the opening nine races of 2019 are tops in the series and have given him a 20-point edge over Team Penske driver Joey Logano in the standings. Busch also has nine top-10 finishes in nine races this season. But the Talladega high banks may prove to be the biggest challenge of the year. He has one win (April, 2008) in 27 races at Talladega.

In the last six races at Talladega he has a pair of top fives, but also three finishes of 26th or worse during that time. He led the most laps (48) of his career at Talladega in the 2017 spring race but finished third.

“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. I won’t try to put myself in a bad spot to cause something, but it’s always a challenge and it’s always different.”

Kevin ‘The Closer’ Harvick is closing in

Stewart-Haas Racing’s Kevin Harvick has the same number of top-10 finishes (seven) through the season’s opening nine races as he did last year, but the difference? Three of those top-10s last year were victories and the 2014 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion is still looking for his first trophy of 2019. Since 2013, he’s only gone winless through the opening 10 races of a season once – 2017, when he scored his first victory at the summertime Sonoma, Calif. road course race (No. 16 on the schedule).

Talladega Superspeedway has been as unpredictable for Harvick as you might expect of a superspeedway. His only win there came in the 2010 spring race. He has seven top-five finishes in 36 starts. And he’s only got a pair of top-10 finishes in the last seven Talladega races. He won the pole position in this spring event in 2018, led 12 laps and finished fourth – his best showing since his win and runner-up in the two 2010 races. Harvick’s three runner-up finishes ties Jimmie Johnson for most all-time among active drivers.

Certainly, driving a Ford Mustang is encouraging for Harvick’s chances this week. The make has won the last seven straight races at Talladega and his Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Aric Almirola won the Talladega race during last fall’s Playoff race with another teammate Kurt Busch leading a race best 108 laps.

“It’s tough to know exactly where you need to be at the end of the race but, for me, I’ve only won one of them there,’’ said Harvick, who drives the No. 4 SHR Ford Mustang. “In that particular race, we were tandem racing and I was second coming into the tri-oval and was able to get past Jamie McMurray. But I would still rather be leading and in control. If I’ve made it to the white flag, then I’ve made it a lot farther than I’ve made it lately, so it’s a chess match all day.

“You have to have a little bit of luck on your side, but you can also put yourself in a good position by making the right moves, having a good day on pit road and not making any mistakes.”

Kurt Busch is on the verge to putting Chevrolet back on top

Chip Ganassi Racing driver Kurt Busch shows up at Talladega this week 0-for-36 at the sport’s biggest track – one of eight drivers ranked among the potential championship Top 16 who have not hoisted a trophy there. However, Busch certainly must feel some confidence as he is one of the best – statistically speaking – of all those on this week’s entry list, win or no-win.

Busch boasts the best driver rating at the track (90.5) for competitors with more than six starts and is second only to Chase Elliott (91.3) who has just six starts at Talladega. Busch is ranked first or second in four of the six primary Loop Data Statistical charts that evaluate past performance. His 19 top-10 showings are best in the field, as are his eight previous top-five showings. Only third-year series driver Daniel Suarez (15.0) has a better average finish than Busch (15.4) – and Suarez only has four starts compared to Busch’s 36.

Busch finished 14th in the October Playoff race last year after leading 108 laps – the most laps led by a driver since Matt Kenseth led 142 laps and finished eighth in 2011. Busch has led laps in the last three Talladega races. His 116 laps led in that time is second only to three-time race winner Joey Logano, who led 129 laps and is defending winner of this spring race.

Truex looking to check off another box

The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series’ most recent winner, Martin Truex Jr. earned his first career short track victory two weeks ago at the Richmond Raceway. He’d like to expand his resume again this week with his first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series win at the other extreme – on one of NASCAR’s biggest tracks – Talladega Superspeedway.

Although the 2017 series champion won three consecutive NASCAR Xfinity Series races at Talladega from 2004-06, he has only a pair of top-five finishes in 28 Monster Energy Series starts there and has crashed out 13 times, most among the series’ top 16 ranked drivers. Truex’s best work at Talladega is a fifth-place finish – twice – in the fall, 2006, and the spring, 2015. He won the pole position there in October of 2016.

Certainly, the Richmond win – after leading a race best 186 laps – was a huge confidence boost in his first year with Joe Gibbs Racing, a team that’s collected six wins through the season’s opening nine races. And having checked off one major item on his bucket list at Richmond, confidence will not be a problem.

“I don’t think anyone really knows what to expect going into Talladega this week,’’ Truex said. “It’s going to be really fast is all I know.

‘Bama Bound: DiBenedetto is good to go

Leavine Family Racing’s Matt DiBenedetto shows up at Talladega Superspeedway this week feeling perhaps the most optimistic he’s been before a big race. And that’s largely because of his showing in NASCAR’s biggest race – the season-opening Daytona 500.

DiBenedetto led a race-best 49 laps at Daytona and was running up front – fourth – in the waning laps when he was collected in a 21-car pileup with nine laps remaining in the scheduled 200-lap race. He finished 28th, but certainly left the track feeling more accomplished than that score would indicate.

His 49 laps out front in his first race with the No 95 Leavine Family Racing Toyota Camry team was more than double his previous career total (23 laps). And the 2.66-mile Talladega high banks has historically been another positive venue for DiBenedetto. He’s led laps in the previous three races there and with the LFR Toyota and Joe Gibbs Racing team alliance behind him for Sunday’s race, DiBenedetto may well be set for a career-best showing. His previous best is 18th-place – twice – in the spring of 2015 and 2017. Two of his four career top-10 finishes have come on big tracks. He was ninth in the 2017 Daytona 500 and eighth in last year’s summer race at Daytona.

This season’s best finish for DiBenedetto is 12th at Bristol Motor Speedway three weeks ago.

Hall of Famer Dale Jarrett to MRN Radio Booth

NASCAR Hall of Famer and former Talladega Superspeedway winner Dale Jarrett will serve as lead analyst for the Motor Racing Network’s (MRN) broadcast of Sunday’s GEICO 500 – the 50th consecutive spring race the racing network has broadcast.

The 1999 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion Jarrett won the October 2005 race at Talladega, leading the final two laps and holding off fellow series champions Tony Stewart and Matt Kenseth. It was the 32nd and final win of his celebrated career.

His role as lead radio analyst this weekend is the same position his father, NASCAR Hall of Famer Ned Jarrett, held for many years at the network.

“I’m very excited MRN has given me the opportunity at Talladega to do something in NASAR I’ve never done,’’ the two-time Talladega winner Jarrett said. “It’s always an exciting race and to work my first radio broadcast at the track I scored my last victory is very special.’’

 

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