Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – TALLADEGA, AL – Recent winning history on the Talladega Superspeedway high banks has been dominated by a distinctive blue oval.
Ford drivers hold a seven-race winning streak as the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series heads to Alabama for Sunday’s GEICO 500 (2 p.m. ET on FOX, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) – the winningest stretch for a manufacturer in more than a decade of competition on what is ironically considered one of the most unpredictable venues.
Not only has Ford owned the party in Talladega’s famous Victory Lane since 2015, they have utterly dominated the competition – leading 58.8 percent of all laps run in the last seven-race span – 785 of the 1,336 laps of competition.
Team Penske driver Joey Logano scored his third Talladega Superspeedway win in this event last April, leading a race best 70 laps and holding off another Ford teammate, Kurt Busch for the trophy.
In the last Monster Energy Series race on the Alabama high banks – during October’s Playoff portion of the schedule – Stewart-Haas Racing’s Aric Almirola took a different, more concise path to the win, leading only the last lap. His SHR teammate Clint Bowyer was second followed by 2017 Talladega winner Ricky Stenhouse Jr. earning Ford a true podium sweep. Ford driver Kurt Busch won the pole position and led a race best 108 of the 193 laps in that race only to finish 14th.
In Logano’s win last April, seven Ford drivers combined to lead 126 of the race’s 188 laps – 67 percent of the race. In Almirola’s victory, Ford was even more dominant. Six Ford drivers combined to lead 184 of the race’s 193 laps or 95.3 percent of the race.
Ford drivers have led at least 58 percent of the race laps in four of the make’s last seven Talladega wins, including the last three races.
With each of Ford’s wins in this span, the statistics have been increasingly impressive. And with three wins through the opening nine races of 2019, Ford has already established good pace.
Team Penske’s two Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship drivers Brad Keselowski (2012) and reigning champ Logano – who have hoisted three race trophies in 2019 – have combined to earn eight trophies at Talladega making them-the most decorated among the current competition. The duo have won five of the last seven races and led a combined 426 laps in that time – 54 percent of Ford’s total laps out front.
Four times – twice each – they have led the most laps in a race. And over the course of the last 10 races, Logano’s 235 laps out front and Keselowski’s 229 laps led are most among Cup drivers.
Perhaps Keselowski summed up the team’s feelings best two seasons ago – in the days before claiming his career fifth win at the track.
“Talladega has been good to us,” he said. “Talladega has been a track for us that’s been a great catalyst for success. I don’t know why that is, but it’s a track where if you’re capable of winning here, I think you show a certain level of attitude and swagger that carries your way through the rest of the year.”
Even so, Penske drivers aren’t the only ones in Talladega tip-top strata. In Almirola’s win, his Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Kurt Busch led a race high 108 laps in his runner-up finish – the most laps led by one driver since Matt Kenseth led 142 and finished eighth in May, 2013. Only three times since then has the driver who led the most laps won the race – Dale Earnhardt Jr. in Spring, 2015, Keselowski in Spring, 2016 and Logano in this race last year.
Two other Ford drivers have joined the Penske duo in Victory Lane celebrations during the manufacturer’s current winning streak – Almirola last October and Stenhouse Jr. in 2017 when he claimed his first Cup victory. Stenhouse went on to score his second series win three months later at the Daytona summer race.
While Team Penske drivers have already celebrated with trophies and Almirola has come close, Stenhouse sees this weekend, in particular, as an ideal chance to earn a win and his shot in the season-ending Playoffs. However, as is typically the case on the big tracks such as Talladega, he’s just unsure what to expect in race condition.
“Back in the day, I felt like you had a lot of friends when you had a fast car but now if you have a fast car they want to shuffle you out so they don’t have to contend with you,” Stenhouse said. “Now going into speedways a lot of times you can do a lot of things on your own at Talladega and Daytona now.
“As much as all of us have learned with side drafting, I am interested to see how this package is going to draft. It will be different than what we have been running so it is what it is. We will go out there and do what we can and try to get a win. I always feel confident going there.”
While last year’s dominant SHR team is still looking for its first win of 2019, three of its four drivers do have previous Talladega victories. Kevin Harvick and Clint Bowyer swept the 2010 season while driving for different teams and Almirola scored his dramatic Talladega win in his first season with SHR last year.
SHR team drivers Almirola, Harvick, Bowyer and Kurt Busch (now with Chip Ganassi Racing) led 155 of the 193 laps in Almirola’s victory last Fall.
“That day completed our organization, you know what I mean?” Bowyer said. “Aric’s (Almirola) victory put all four cars in Victory Lane for the year and set a precedent for SHR that ‘We’re here.’ That was big for our organization. Heck, that would have been big for any organization. And for us to do that in SHR’s 10th anniversary year made it special.”
“Attitude is a big part of this, but it goes toward being a student while you’re out there, learning as much as you can. That’s the tricky thing about these situations at these racetracks.”