Stenhouse takes win

Ricky Stenhouse Jr., driver of the #17 Fifth Third Bank Ford, takes the checkered flag to win the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway on May 7, 2017 in Talladega, Alabama.

Certainly in recent years, Ford drivers have shown the way to Talladega Superspeedway’s famous Victory Lane – the seven most recent race trophies all belong to the manufacturer and its teams.

Yet NASCAR’s biggest and fastest speedway always remains a place where last lap maneuvers and daring from-the-gut calls have produced some of the most thrilling and unpredictable finishes of the racing season. Ford has hoisted a string of trophies in recent seasons but the statistical examination of past driver performance keeps this historic venue one of the schedule’s most fickle venues and NASCAR’s best drivers perpetually on the verge of breakthrough and triumph.

Sunday’s GEICO 500 (2 p.m. ET on FOX, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) is the next great superspeedway chapter. And for all of Ford’s recent winning patterns, Chevrolet and Toyota drivers are every bit a part of the statistical high expectation.

Team Penske driver Brad Keselowski owns five Talladega trophies – most of anyone competing this weekend. His Ford teammate Joey Logano is the defending winner of this race and has three Talladega trophies of his own.

But it’s Chevrolet driver Chase Elliott who boasts the top driving rating (91.3) and best average running position (10.8) even as he looks for his first win on the track. Fellow Chevrolet driver, Chip Ganassi Racing’s Kurt Busch is hoping his 36th start will result in his first win at the famed track. He leads this weekend’s field in quality passes (7,406) and laps run in the top 15 (66.7%) and more importantly top-five (eight) and top-10 finishes (19) even as he races for his first trophy.

Seven-time Monster Energy Series champion Jimmie Johnson is looking to snap a nearly two-year winless streak – the longest time in his 83-victory career between trophy hoists and champagne toasts. A two-time Talladega winner, he’s led the most laps (322) at this track among his competitors this weekend. This year’s Daytona 500 winner, Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin is second with 302 laps led.

“I think superspeedway racing is just something where you have to stay out of trouble,” Hendrick Motorsports driver Alex Bowman said. “Things can change on track quickly and you just have to be able to stay out of harm’s way.

“We were strong in Daytona and our Nationwide Camaro ZL1 is usually pretty good on superspeedways. The new aero package that we tested in Daytona a few months ago should be interesting to run and I am definitely looking forward to how it does on track. I am ready to see how it does and get to the track.”

XFINITY DASH 4 CASH RAISES THE STAKES IN TALLADEGA

The NASCAR Xfinity Series next stop on the schedule is at Talladega Superspeedway for the MoneyLion 300 (Saturday, April 27 at 1 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) which presents a new chapter for all the championship contenders. For the first time this season there are no former Talladega winners or pole-winners entered in the race.

Add to that the Dash 4 Cash $100,000 bonus is up for grabs between four of the series hottest drivers – Cole Custer, Austin Cindric, Justin Allgaier and reigning series champ Tyler Reddick – and this weekend’s 300-miler on the series’ fastest track couldn’t be more wide-open. The highest finisher among those drivers earns the $100,000 check from Xfinity and qualifies for next week’s Dash 4 Cash. In addition, the highest top-three championship contending Xfinity finishers this week at Talladega will also qualify to compete for the big check next week at Dover International Speedway.

Among those talented drivers, Allgaier, in particular, is eyeing this race to get back in Victory Lane. The veteran is on a remarkable run of six consecutive top-10 finishes at Talladega – including a runner-up showing in 2016 and a third-place finish last year. His average finish (10.0) is tops among those with more than one start Talladega and the worst he’s finished since 2011 is eighth (twice). Currently fifth in the championship – 87 points behind leader Reddick. Only two-time race winners Cole Custer (227 laps) and Christopher Bell (428 laps) have led more than Allgaier’s 224 laps this season.

Not only will the JR Motorsports driver Allgaier be a car to watch, Jeffrey Earnhardt will be back behind the wheel of the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 18 Toyota this week. Earnhardt, the grandson of the late 10-time Talladega Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series winner Dale Earnhardt, was a major storyline in the series’ first superspeedway race in Daytona Beach in February. He started on the outside pole at Daytona and led a career best 29 laps in the perennial contending JGR No. 18. This will be Earnhardt’s first start for JGR since Texas last month and first Talladega start since a career best 12th-place finish there running a part-time schedule for a different team in 2015.

Championship leader Tyler Reddick is still looking for his first victory as well and Talladega has traditionally been a positive place for him. He finished eighth last year in the Xfinity race and has two top-five finishes in three starts in the NASCAR Gander Outdoor Truck Series, winning the pole position in his first ever race (2014) at the superspeedway.

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