On Sunday the Cup Series makes its first visit of the year to Talladega Superspeedway. The Geico 500 will consist of 188 laps at the 2.66-mile track. Talladega is the longest oval the Cup Series runs on. Like Daytona Talladega has steep banking, up to 33 degrees in turns 1 and 2. The track features extremely high speeds and tight pack racing. The drivers need to draft off of one another to maintain pace. Given the speed and nature of drafting racing, “the big one,” and/or multiple smaller wrecks will almost certainly take out a significant chunk of the field.
Large wrecks and late race pushes are a staple of Talladega. This means predicting races at Talladega and Daytona is significantly harder than at other venues. One of the most predictive metrics I use for ovals and road courses, incident adjusted speed, is of limited value at Talladega. First, there is there limited correlation between Talladega and other tracks. More importantly, unlike most tracks, at Talladega there is limited correlation between speed and finishing position.
With speed data being of limited use here I have to look to other data points to handicap this race. One type of data that I find particularly helpful is the percentage of laps a driver has spent inside the Top 10, Top 3, and leading. Laps are obviously not randomly distributed throughout a race. The percentage of laps led can however give us a reasonable idea of how often a driver has managed to make his way to the front. Being in the lead is of course a pre-requisite to winning. Looking at the amount of time a driver has spent in the Top 10 and Top 3 is also helpful. Knowing how often a driver is inside the Top 3 in particular can tell us how often a driver is in a position to make a move for the lead.
There won’t be practice this weekend and qualifying is based on single car single lap speed. This means that between now and the race we are unlikely to get useful data that we don’t already have. As such I’m not waiting to make my bets. It’s possible, but unlikely that a driver will see his odds get longer after qualifying. So since qualifying speed isn’t particularly relevant to drafting speed or ability, I’m ready to make my bets now.
Ryan Blaney to Win | +1200 (Barstool and BetRivers Sportsbooks)
Ryan Blaney has been really good at Talladega over the years. Last year in the spring race he led 23 laps (12.23%). In the fall he led 32 laps (17.02%). Over his 10 races at Talladega with Penske, Blaney has led 183 laps. That is good for 9.98% of 1832 laps the Cup Series has run at the track during that time. Blaney won back to back races here in the fall of 2019 and spring of 2020.
Blaney’s success at Talladega isn’t a fluke either. He has also led 181 of 1640 laps at Daytona while driving for Team Penske. Across the two tracks he has led 10.48% of all laps. That includes 36 laps at last year’s Daytona 500 which he easily could have won if not for an extremely aggressive block by his teammate Austin Cindric.
As noted in the chart below, in the Gen 7 car Blaney has the second most laps led at superspeedways. The only driver with more is Brad Keselowski. Blaney is also efficient with his laps run. Of his laps inside the Top 10, 24.53% of the laps have been laps in the lead. Again, only Brad Keselowski has a higher percentage in this category 24.75%. He leads the field in percentage of Top 10 laps also inside the Top 3 at 49.07%.
All things considered Blaney is an incredibly talented superspeedway driver who has been knocking on the door of another win at one of these tracks. I expected him to open at +1000 so I was happy to take him at +1200 at the Kambi books and would bet him down to +1100 which is available at DraftKings and FanDuel. I am keeping my bets smaller this week, I only have .4u on this bet.
A Bet I’m NOT making
When reading about why I have bet on Ryan Blaney, you may notice that the one driver who is ahead of him in a number of the statistics I’m focused on is Brad Keselowski. Brad’s odds to win are also longer than Blaney’s. He is available at +1400 to +1500 depending on the book. I’m not betting on Brad though, for two reasons. First, unlike Blaney, Brad has had a harder time finishing races. If we go back to the chart above, Brad has only completed around 86% of the laps run at superspeedways in 2022 and 2023. Blaney on the other hand has completed over 99% of all laps run. There is a lot of randomness to who gets taken out, so its certainly possible that Blaney will get knocked out early and Brad will be running at the end. However, I’m looking at the recent trend and it gives me just enough questions about Brad’s ability to survive to the end that I’m not willing to play him at +1500. If a book were to offer me +2000 or longer though I would consider it.