Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – TALLADEGA, AL – It’s hard to imagine the popular and frantic racing at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway being more intense than it naturally presents, but with the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoff stakes on the line in this Sunday’s 1000Bulbs.com 500 (2 p.m. ET, NBC, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio), the chances for drama couldn’t be higher.
Stewart-Haas Racing’s Aric Almirola won last year’s Playoff version of the Talladega 500-miler, leading only the last lap en route to his first win since 2014 – only a mere .105-seconds ahead of his SHR teammate Clint Bowyer.
It was an especially tough pill to swallow for veteran Kurt Busch, who led a race-best 108 laps on the day but finished 14th. He’s tied with three-time Talladega winner Joey Logano for most top-five finishes (eight) among all active drivers and he has the most top-10 runs (20) at the track – but Busch is still looking to take home his first Talladega trophy.
Last year’s race was a typically frantic finish and the 500-miler this May was a similar crowd-pleaser with Talladega’s favorite “son,” Chase Elliott, earning his first win at the storied track. He tallied a race-best 44 laps out front and led his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Alex Bowman across the line as the race finished under caution.
Elliott could use some more of that Talladega good fortune this weekend as he suffered a rare DNF at Dover last weekend, putting him into a championship-points deficit heading in to this weekend’s race and ultimately next week’s Playoff Round of 12 finale at Kansas Speedway. Elliott is ranked 11th of the 12 drivers still championship eligible – seven points behind his Hendrick teammate William Byron in the eighth-place “cutoff” position. The top eight drivers following the Kansas race will move forward to the next round of Playoff contention.
Talladega is known as a wild card, in general, for its dramatic finishes and close racing. And drivers tend to really like the style of racing of close-quarter racing or not. If you’re in the Playoffs, however, there is little choice. The only driver who doesn’t have to worry about his Talladega fortune is Kyle Larson, who won at Dover last week and has earned an automatic bid into the next Round of 8.
Points leader Martin Truex Jr., who has an impressive two wins and a runner-up finish in the four Playoff races to date, has not had the best luck at Talladega. The six-time 2019 race winner has only two top-five finishes in 29 starts at Talladega. And he has more DNFs (13) than top-10 finishes (eight). There is reason to remain optimistic, however, as the driver of the No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota won at Talladega in both of his NASCAR Xfinity Series championship seasons, 2004 and 2005.
Truex holds a 15-point edge over his JGR teammates Denny Hamlin, who won at Talladega in 2014, and Kyle Busch, the 2019 regular season champion who won at Talladega in 2008. Stewart-Haas Racing’s Kevin Harvick, who is ranked fourth in points, 21 points behind Truex, won at Talladega in 2010.
Team Penske driver Brad Keselowski, who is currently ranked sixth in points, is the winningest active driver at Talladega with five trophies. His teammate Logano has the second-most victories (three) and will need to tap into that positive history this weekend for sure.
Logano suffered a mechanical problem before taking the green flag at Dover and finished 34th. He’s now tied with William Byron in points, but sits behind him in ninth in the standings – one spot outside the cutoff – based on the tie-breaker. Their teammate, Ryan Blaney, has yet to win at Talladega but will need some good fortune as well. He’s ranked 12th among the 12 drivers fighting to advance in the championship, 22 points behind eighth-place Byron.
In the past, manufacturers have made an effort to work together at Talladega regardless of team affiliation. And they expect that to play into strategies this weekend as well. The bottom line is several season-long championship favorites need a strong showing at the big track this weekend.
“We made a pretty conscious effort with our manufacturer of Chevrolet to try and do a better job of working together,’’ Elliott said. “It worked at Talladega (in May). A lot of us crashed but at least a Chevrolet still won the summer race at Daytona (too).
“Hopefully it works out. That’s the thing, we can put as much effort as we want or as little effort as we want, but it’s never going to guarantee that you aren’t going to crash or have a bad day there. I expect we’ll do our part on our end to try and make as good of a day as we can out of it, but no guarantees.’’