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Track Talk: 500 at Talladega

Today's 500 at Talladega will be wild.

Today’s 500 at Talladega will be wild.

Each weekend, our panel provides their thoughts on the latest stories in NASCAR while predicting the winner of the 500 at Talladega Superspeedway, the upcoming Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race!

Today, our panelists Adam LucasAshley Hobbs, Ashley HullChristina BowmanCody ShoppeJose Acero JrKatie Copple, and Matt Sisoler reflect on the new rules package for 2019, racing at Talladega, the big Hendrick crew chief shakeup, and our friend Matt DiBenedetto’s new racing home for next season!

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Question 1
Bigger spoilers, less power, good or bad?

Bigger spoilers, less power, good or bad?

NASCAR announced its new rules package for 2019 in the hopes of promoting more downforce and less horsepower.  While it’s early to tell its actual impact on the track, might this promote more balanced racing and a chance for smaller teams to compete for wins?

Acero :  Here we go with the mentality of, “Hey, it worked for one race, it’s gonna work at every track we go to.” I mean, yeah it’s gonna throw a curve ball to every team in the garage. Yeah, it’s cool and all that they are changing the rules package, but how many more edits will they do to such? That right, that’s one of the reasons why stands aren’t as filled. Now, if you ask about the restrictor plate being gone at Daytona and Talladega, I can’t wait to see how that plays out!

Bowman :  One can hope, but at the same time most of the package changes NASCAR has implemented have been mediocre at best. Every once in a while they hit on something amazing, however, the consistency just isn’t there. I don’t think it will help any of the smaller teams unfortunately, and I only say that because the larger teams have more money to throw at testing the new package and making adjustments that the smaller teams do not have.

Conley :  I’m just glad they waited. It gave NASCAR a real chance to work on the package, and not just throw it in heading towards the playoffs in 2018. I think it’s going to give us a lot to talk about, and it’s going to throw teams off a little, which in my mind. Change it up, throw them off more. The thing i’m really interested in is the elimination of restrictor plates at Daytona and Talladega. The first time in several decades these cup cars will use something other than a plate.

Copple :  Honestly, I couldn’t really care less. They seem to try something new each and every year to try and promote closer and more balanced racing, but does it ever really work?

Look at this season for example. We have only seen a small handful of drivers run up front or even make it Victory Lane this year. Until I see this new rules package on track and see how it really impacts the racing, I am just going to sit here and enjoy the rest of this season.

Hobbs :  It feels like they have tried something new every year to promote closer racing, and nothing has prevailed this far. I don’t think this move will help smaller teams compete for wins because those teams still, sadly, lack the funding needed to get the cars up the the level of a Stewart Haas or Joe Gibbs Racing.

Hull :  I am tired of them changing something on a whim just because it worked for one race. I’m skeptical that it will actually work, but what’s there to lose?

Lucas :  It’s back to the future again for NASCAR’s Cup series. I hate to be the party pooper, but I think that we’ll see closer racing, just not the underdogs of the midfield-on-back. Of course, it’s way too early to tell (for obvious reasons) if this will solve anything.

Shoppe :  All you can really say is you hope so! For years now, NASCAR has been searching for the right package to make the racing where it needs to be for today’s fans to stay interested.

It is sad how much of a struggle it has been to find this balance of downforce, drag, horsepower, etc. But through it all, NASCAR keeps trying and I am thankful for that. Let’s just try to wait till we see the results before we say its all a bad idea.

Sisoler :  I honestly don’t know if it’ll allow more mid-pack teams to get up there and battle with the top teams. NASCAR keeps trying to find the cure-all for the spread out racing that we’ve seen the past few years, and will occasionally hit on a great idea for one track.

Unfortunately, those same packages don’t work to make it closer at all tracks. Most teams will not be able to afford to do the type of research that the big-name teams can do. So, we’ll continue to see winners, aside from the very rare upset, come from the top teams.

Question 2
Will it pay to be aggressive or patient at Talladega?

Will it pay to be aggressive or patient at Talladega?

Talladega is typically seen as the wild card race of the Playoffs.  With some favorites below the cut line heading into Talladega, might we see amplified aggression all race long this Sunday?

Acero :  Tempers are going to be beyond boiling point, desperation at a high level and drivers eager to get to the front, which will result in a big name driver causing “The Big One!” Mark my words, Talladega is and will always be the wild card race for everyone except Chase Elliot. Expect some aggressive driving from the get go.

Bowman :  As the Playoffs winds down, you will definitely see more aggressive racing, but a lot of drivers become very hesitant at Talladega, simply because of its reputation of either making or breaking drivers championship dreams. You may see a driver that believes ‘Dega is his best chance take a risk or two.

Conley :  This race has not seen the “chaos” that the spring race tends to have. I think most of that is due to the playoff implications. I still think we will see a lot of ride and save for the end. It’s so different than the “ROVAL” because you can get back to the front – with help. This could be easily a race to “help” teammates. Get back into playoff contention, or moved to the next round.

Copple :  With Talladega already being a big wreckfest, I think we might see those drivers sitting at the bottom of the stack playing it safe to avoid getting caught in the big one. I don’t think we will see anything crazy until the closing laps because nothing really matters except that elusive win.

Hobbs :  This is a race you cannot plan for, and all the drivers know that. Chase Elliott gets to watch everything unfold, and can even try for some extra bonus points heading into the next round. Alex Bowman has everything on the line after Dover (well, almost), as he is pretty far behind that dreaded cutline; he has to go for it.

The three drivers above Bowman have to minimize their risk. For those not named Elliott, Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, and maybe Martin Truex Jr, they need to watch their rearview mirror and stay out of trouble if they don’t want to risk it all come post-Talladega.

Hull : You better believe it. These drivers are going to be scraping and clawing to get into the next round. It will be aggressive, but you may also see drivers try to take it easy, like the Gibbs cars did a couple of years ago. It will be a crazy race nonetheless.

Lucas :  I think we can expect a Hendrick brigade to lead the field this weekend. With Chase Elliott already locked into the Round of 8, and theoretically the new pied piper of plate racing, I think he could make a good Bandit to Alex Bowman’s Cledus (wow, I used a Smokey and The Bandit reference!).

Bowman has been quietly optimistic in his latter half of the season. Could we see another Hendrick car finally make it to Victory Lane? I think Talladega is a good place for it! However, Talladega in the fall brings another amplified version of chaos and carnage. It’s going to either be a 187 lap parade until the white flag, or we’re going to be on edge every lap until there’s only 12 cars running at the finish.

Shoppe :  Let’s just hope it isn’t a parade along the high groove with guys content to ride in the top 10 to get points! We have seen that all too much in recent plate races! While only Alex Bowman is really in a must win situation, I hope to see all the playoff drivers race hard for a chance to lock themselves into the round of 8!

Sisoler :  Even if this wasn’t in the playoffs, you’re always gonna see increased aggression at the super-speedways. But with some drivers almost needing a win to guarantee a place in the next round, yes, you will see even more aggression out of drivers than usual at ‘Dega. Expect a wreck-fest.

Question 3
NASCAR's version of the Beatles ends after this season.

NASCAR’s version of the Beatles ends after this season.

Chad Knaus will move from the No. 48 team of Jimmie Johnson to William Byron’s No. 24 team after 16 full-time campaigns that saw seven championships.  How much will this help Byron’s team? Will Johnson’s team have the wherewithal to have a strong 2019 with new crew chief Kevin Meendering?

Acero :  This is a coin toss. Whether Byron has results or not, we won’t know until he and Knaus get that chemistry going.

Now about the Meendering/Johnson duo. I think we should have an idea how them two will fare in 2019 a few races into the season. Given the fact that Meedering was with HMS before, again, it’s only a matter of time until we see if Mr. H did the right thing or not with this crew chief swap!

Conley :  I think Johnson will have quicker results, but Byron will have long lasting success with Knaus. Johnson has the benefit of experience and a fully intact team. Kevin Meendering spent 16 years at Hendrick before taking on the crew chief duties at JR Motorsports with Elliott Sadler.

Now, he steps in to a team that has been working together for several years. I think it will be a refreshing start for Johnson over his final years. Byron is young and Chad has no inclination of slowing down. That should be just the kick in the pants Byron needs.

Hull :  This will be an adjustment for sure. Chad Knaus has been with Jimmie Johnson through his entire career. We will see what kind of boost Chad will give William Byron. Hopefully, this will help both teams get the boost they both need.

Lucas :  Water and oil, that’s what we should call Chad and Willy next season. It’ll be an odd couple relationship, but probably will turn out for the best.

Jimmie is in a weird spot though. In the past, he’s had great success with interim crew chiefs, but of course, we all know that that being temporary was just that, temporary. I really and truly hope that Jimmie will be able to go out with a bang and not flicker into the cold night with little fanfare. Time will only tell if these new pairings will bear fruit.

Shoppe :  Throughout all the years of domination for Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus, many have asked the question of who is the real key to their success. Is it Johnson, the seemingly mediocre XFINITY Series driver who got the call of a lifetime to join Hendrick, or is it Knaus, the former floor sweeper at the Hendrick shop?

Now with the dynamic duo apart, we will get an idea of how they are without each other. Time will tell if this will be the prove to be the push in the right direction William Byron needs, or the change Jimmie Johnson needs to return to glory.

Sisoler :  It’s a tough question for a tough split. I’ve always been a fan of the Johnson-Knaus combo, but now we’ll see what’s gonna happen. Will Chad be able to ignite William Byron’s career the way Ray Evernham did for the last long-term occupant of the 24 car? Can Kevin Meendering breathe life into Johnson’s garage and propel him to winning his eighth championship? Will both of those things happen and we’ll see a 24 vs. 48 showdown at Homestead for a championship? Will neither of those happen?

No one knows, but I know one thing for sure: the change-up has got everyone in the garage talking about Hendrick Motorsports. That’s what Rick Hendrick wants: everyone in the garage wondering about his cars for the rest of 2018 and into the foreseeable future.

Question 4
Matt DiBenedetto joins Leavine Family Racing for 2019.

Matt DiBenedetto joins Leavine Family Racing for 2019.

Matt DiBenedetto’s gamble paid off as he will drive the No. 95 Leavine Family Racing’s entry in 2019.  As the team switches to Toyota with an alliance with Joe Gibbs next year, what can we expect from this combination for next season?

Acero :  Honestly and personally, I see it playing out like with FRR. JGR playing Robin Hood helping the LFR, then LFR quite possibly being up to par with Gibbs and then all of a sudden, boom, they are closing shop!

Did FRR do this for a paycheck at the end of the day? Or did JGR not want the “lower” team compete for wins with them? Matt knew what was going on before he decided to give up his seat! I mean, hopefully DiBurrito gets a win or two next year!

Conley :  The 95 team has an average finish of 22nd with a race winning driver. However, Matt has had an average finish of 26th in sub-par equipment. He has the talent and with the Toyota backing, I could easily see LFR consistently in the top-15, maybe score a win at his best track of Bristol or a restrictior plate track. There is a lot of potential. Matt DiBenedetto bet on himself and it will payoff.

Hull :  I expect nothing but it being a learning experience for Matt DiBenedetto. He may fare well in a Toyota. But it will be a wait and see deal.

Shoppe :  Next season will be a season of growth for LFR and Matt DiBenedetto. For the first time in his Cup career, DiBenedetto has a chance to be competitive. The 95 team themselves are also going into this new partnership with JGR with their first real chance to be competitive! Only time will tell if this small team’s partnership will suffer the same fate as Furniture Row who last aligned with Joe Gibbs Racing, But in the coming few years, expect a popular rise for both this family owned team and this fan favorite underdog driver!

Sisoler :  It’ll be something that we’ll have to wait and see. I’m not gonna say that Leavine is gonna have the same success as the soon-to-be dead Furniture Row Racing. FRR really had something special.

But on some tracks this year, LFR with Kasey Kahne behind the wheel looked really, really good (i.e. the summer race at Daytona). With Gibbs help and Toyota power, DiBenedetto and LFR have a real shot, but if and only if LFR can find that same edge that FRR had.

Also, the switch is gonna put DiBenedetto front and center. So far in his career, he could fall back on the cars not being competitive week-in and week-out to explain for his mid-pack finishes.

However, if this new car shows top-5 or top-10 speed every week and the 95 isn’t finishing better than 15th-18th, then he’ll be on the hot seat. It’s hard to capture lightning in a bottle. Let’s see if the LFR/DiBenedetto combo can have the same spark that FRR had pair with MTJ.

Silly season means no rest and that was a stellar effort by our team around Talladega!  Before we make it happen for the win, let’s review the craziness that ensued last Sunday at Dover!
A stats machine beat the panelists.

A stats machine beat the panelists.

Hobbs gets some breathing room but it is Talladega today.

Hobbs gets some breathing room but it is Talladega today.

Well, friends, let’s go for the win for today’s 500 at Talladega, here on Track Talk!
Is it a day for favorites or for the underdogs at Talladega?

Is it a day for favorites or for the underdogs at Talladega?

Tiongson :  Most of the focus will be on Brad Keselowski and Chase Elliott.  Rightfully so, as both have fast rides at Daytona and Talladega. However, I’m going with Joey Logano.  If not for a win, he can get me a good top-five to make up points!

TPF Stats :  This is the time for Team Penske driver, Joey Logano, to continue his hot restrictor plate finishes.

Acero : At 8/1 odds and the most recent driver to win at ‘Dega, Joey Logano zig zags his way to VL!

Bowman :  Aric Almirola is hun-gry! Give the man a W!

Hull : Aric Almirola!

Copple :  Clint Bowyer is in need of a good finish, so I think he gets it done at Dega!

Shoppe :  Clint Bowyer will have a Talladega sized party in victory lane Sunday!

Hobbs :  He was on a hot streak before the Playoffs and when the Playoffs began, but has faded somewhat. But, Brad Keselowski knows how to get to victory lane at Talladega Superspeedway and is poised to do it again!

Sisoler :  We’ve seen chaos reign at all of the super-speedway races so far. Austin Dillon and Erik Jones won crash-filled races at Daytona. However, neither of them have had particularly special seasons besides those victories. Joey Logano grabbed the win in the earlier race at Talladega (which, just FYI, was a day after my birthday).

Despite that, I had picked him not to advance. So, to try and play to my picks from our previous Track Talk, I think I am gonna go with the lone guy from my home state to still be in the playoffs. Bad Brad Keselowski survives the carnage and gets it done at ‘Dega!

Conley :  Helloooo….Alex Bowman! Teammates work together to put the other Hendrick playoff contender in to the round of 8.

Lucas :  I have nothing to lose and everything to gain with my super dark wild card driver. Hopefully not the final time, but I do know it’s getting closer and closer with every passing season, my scuba diving brother with a pretty cool casino Brendan Gaughan, will finally find and take the elusive Cup victory this weekend at Talladega!

That wraps this week’s preview, race fans!  Thanks for joining us for another edition of Track Talk!

We’re ready for some racing. How about you? What do you think are the biggest storylines heading into Sunday’s race and who is your favorite to win?  Tweet us now @ThePodiumFinish and tell us now!

Thanks as always to the TPF team for their amazing efforts this week!  We hope to see you at the races.

The opinions and thoughts expressed in Track Talk are solely of the authors. They do not reflect any organizations affiliated with the participants and author outside of TPF. This weekly feature is strictly for entertainment purposes and are not indicative of TPF, the organization, and its staff.

Rob Tiongson is a sports writer and editor originally from the Boston area and resides in the Austin, Texas, area. Tiongson has covered motorsports series like NASCAR and INDYCAR since 2008 and NHRA since 2013. Most recently, Tiongson is covering professional basketball, mainly the WNBA, and women's college basketball. While writing and editing for The Podium Finish, Tiongson currently seeks for a long-term sportswriting and sports content creating career. Tiongson enjoys editing and writing articles and features, as well as photography. Moreover, he enjoys time with his family and friends, traveling, cooking, working out and being a fun uncle or "funcle" to his nephew, niece and cat. Tiongson is an alum of Southern New Hampshire University with a Bachelor of Arts in Communication and St. Bonaventure University's renowned Jandoli School of Communication with a Master of Arts in Digital Journalism.

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