The Ultimate Wild Card

·6 min read

Fans love the races and NASCAR has rewarded them with four events each year. Large drafting packs create a scenario in which 'Big One' crashes occur at Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway with alarming regularity. It doesn’t seem to matter if a favored driver is involved in one of those accidents, fantasy players and bettors alike shrug off the impact and move onto the next race.

Horsepower-restricted superspeedway races have always been wild cards. Even if one takes accidents out of the equation, Daytona and Talladega are difficult to predict because of the capriciousness of the draft. A driver racing for the lead one lap could find himself outside the top 20 when he comes back around to the flag stand. It’s possible to lose 20 positions in one trip around the course, but it’s incredibly difficult to gain them back.

At its best, plate racing is a game of high speed chess. At its worst, this course type is a flip of a coin.

Last year’s Coke Zero Sugar 400 was the first time that Daytona’s second race was the final one of the regular season and predictions abounded that it would be chaotic. It was no worse than most races on NASCAR’s two restricted tracks, but it did play a pivotal role as William Byron earned his first Cup victory and advanced into the playoffs.

The race will be filled with hopefuls this week as well. One playoff spot remains in the field of 16 and there are 20 drivers who want it. Tyler Reddick and Austin Dillon can potentially advance on points if there is not a 14th unique, playoff eligible winner. For everyone else, it’s either win or spend the next 10 races watching their competition vie for the championship.


What risks will they take to advance? Time will tell. But it’s a fair bet that almost any entrant is in a position to roll those dice.

In part because of the massive accidents that trim the competitive cars from the late-race list of contenders, only a handful of drivers with more than five starts on this track type have failed to score at least a top-15. Six other drivers have one top-10 to their credit and three of them have only two starts under their belts.

Some of them have been incredibly successful, including Justin Haley, who won the 2019 Coke Zero 400 by staying out before a rain shower, and Michael McDowell, who took this year’s Daytona 500 as caution waved for a fiery crash behind him.

They are two of 13 drivers this week with at least one win on the aero-restricted superspeedways since the beginning of the 2017 season. That means one-third of the field has visited Victory Lane on this course type. Another eight have earned at least a top-three – putting that number over .500.

Twenty-nine drivers in the field have top-10s top their credit.

The Cream

While plate tracks have been the most egalitarian on the calendar, the cream still rises to the top. Two drivers have earned 10 top-10s in the last 18 plate races.

Denny Hamlin has been the most successful with three victories, another three top-three finishes, and nine total top-fives to his credit. Two of these wins were prestigious Daytona 500 victories. Hamlin seems to know when to drive to the front. Six of his top-fives came in the last seven plate races.

Eight of those results happened in the last 12 events, but even Hamlin provides a cautionary tale. In the four races in which he failed to crack the top five, he finished outside the top 25.

Ryan Newman has not won a plate race since 2008, but he joins Hamlin with 10 top-10s. That year, he scored his only aero-restricted superspeedway win in the Daytona 500. And while Newman has been near the front of the pack, he has far fewer top-fives than Hamlin with four. The good news is that his recent on-track performance has been modest enough to make his betting odds consistently long.

The same is true of Aric Almirola, who has the third-best record of top-10s since 2017. He has finished that well nine times while making one fewer start than Hamlin or Newman. Almirola is also won of the 13 winners in the field this week with a 2018 Talladega 2 victory.

Next on the list are Team Penske drivers Ryan Blaney and Joey Logano with seven top-10s to their credit – but recently, their careers have diverged drastically.

All of Logano’s top-10s – six of which were top-fives and one that was a sixth – came before the halfway point of the 2019 season. The highlight of this record was a ‘Dega win in 2018. He has been 25th or worse in five of the last eight restricted races.

On the other hand, five of Blaney’s seven top-10s came after the halfway point of 2019, including back-to-back victories at Talladega in fall of that season and the next spring. He finished 25th last fall at Talladega and 30th in this year’s Daytona 500.

Other drivers to watch this weekend include six who have scored six top-10s in the last 18 plate races. They include Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Chase Elliott, Erik Jones, Michael McDowell, Kurt Busch, and Chris Buescher. All except Buescher have also visited Victory Lane at Daytona or Talladega since the beginning of 2017.

Superspeedway finishes – 2017+

Driver

Wins

Top-3s

Top-5s

Top-10s

Top-15s

Starts

Denny Hamlin

3

6

9

10

12

18

Ricky Stenhouse, Jr.

2

4

5

6

7

18

Ryan Blaney

2

4

4

7

8

18

Brad Keselowski

2

2

2

4

7

18

Chase Elliott

1

4

5

6

7

18

Erik Jones

1

3

4

6

6

18

William Byron

1

3

4

4

5

14

Aric Almirola

1

2

6

9

11

17

Michael McDowell

1

2

5

6

10

18

Kurt Busch

1

2

2

6

7

18

Austin Dillon

1

2

2

5

8

18

Joey Logano

1

1

6

7

9

18

Justin Haley

1

1

1

1

3

5

13 Drivers

Ryan Newman

2

4

10

12

18

Kyle Busch

2

2

3

6

18

Chris Buescher

1

3

6

8

18

Ty Dillon

1

2

5

10

16

Bubba Wallace

1

2

2

7

15

Martin Truex, Jr.

1

2

2

3

18

Alex Bowman

1

1

5

7

14

Ryan Preece

1

1

4

6

10

21 Drivers

Kevin Harvick

4

5

5

18

Matt DiBenedetto

1

4

6

18

23 Drivers

Corey LaJoie

4

6

16

Kyle Larson

3

7

15

Ross Chastain

2

3

11

Tyler Reddick

2

2

7

Daniel Suarez

1

3

18

Cole Custer

1

2

6

Kaz Grala

1

1

2

30 Drivers

Landon Cassill

2

10

Quin Houff

1

7

Timmy Hill

1

7

Christopher Bell

1

6

Chase Briscoe

1

2

Anthony Alfredo

1

2

Austin Cindric

1

1

Joey Gase

15

Cody Ware

6

BJ McLeod

6

Josh Bilicki

3

Garrett Smithley

1

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