Sunday’s YellaWood 500 race preview (2 p.m. ET, NBC, MRN)

Who’s Going To Win Sunday’s YellaWood 500

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Denny Hamlin

You have to take a look here. He was fourth in the spring race, third in the fall race last year and has won two straight Daytona 500’s to go along with three in the last five years. His superspeedway finishes this year have been – 1st, 4th and 3rd respectively. He has four straight top six finishes in the Fall playoff race at Talladega too (3rd, 6th, 4th and 3rd).

Brad Keselowski

You always go with Brad on a superspeedway race even though he’s struggled as of late. He’s won five times at Talladega, so don’t sleep on him still.

Joey Logano

He has four top five finishes in his last six Talladega starts and is a three-time Talladega winner in his last 11 tries too.

Chase Elliott

Which one do you get here? Elliott finished second in the Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona a couple of months ago. In the spring Talladega race, he’s finished in the top five in three of them. In the Fall Talladega race, he has no top fives in four tries with a best finish of eighth.

Sleepers

Ryan Blaney

He won the spring race. He won the Fall race. He finished second in the Daytona 500. Worth a look here.

Aric Almirola

The Stewart-Haas Racing driver has eight consecutive top 10 finishes at Talladega including five of which in the top five. He won this race in 2018, was fourth last year and spun across the finish line to a third place result back in June.

Alex Bowman

He has three top eight finishes in his last five Talladega starts including a runner-up in the 2019 spring race.

Kurt Busch

Another driver worth a risk. Busch has seven top 10 finishes in his last 10 Talladega starts. He was ninth in the spring race.

William Byron

He won Daytona in August. He won his Duel in Daytona back in February. He was 11th in the Talladega spring race.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. 

Always a superspeedway threat. Stenhouse Jr. was runner-up this past spring. He was ninth in this race last year. He’s had three top five finishes in his last five Talladega starts including six top 10’s over his last eight Talladega races overall. Five of those six ere inside of the top five too including a win.

Chris Buescher

He was sixth in the spring race and has always had great finishes at Daytona. Worth a risk.

YellaWood 500 Race Preview

The penultimate race of the Round of 12 is here. This is the scariest, most tense race of the entire postseason for the NASCAR Cup Series drivers. Really, any race on a superspeedway is more out of your control than in it.

For the 12 drivers still left in the postseason, this race can make or break your chances of advancing to the next round. Anyone can win this race and I do mean anyone. But, what’s weird is, since the win and advance format was introduced to the sport in 2014, this race has always been won by an existing playoff driver.

They’re 6-for-6. Do we see that again on Sunday?

While this is the ultimate wildcard for many reasons, for whatever reason though, Talladega hasn’t produced a lot of fluke winners. While the sister track of Talladega, Daytona, has produced some crazy winners recently with three straight years of a first time winner in the annual Coke Zero Sugar 400 to go along with a second time winner reaching victory lane in 2017, you also have some one off Daytona 500 triumphs too.

Denny Hamlin has won three of the last five Daytona 500’s but Austin Dillon (2nd career win) and Kurt Busch (1st and only restrictor plate win) won the other two. You also have Aric Almirola’s 2014 Coke Zero Sugar 400 triumph was his first career Cup win. Trevor Bayne and David Ragan each won their first career Cup races at Daytona in 2011 too.

Just look at those recent winners at Daytona  – William Byron, Erik Jones, Justin Haley and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in the ‘400 and Dillon and Busch in the ‘500.

At Talladega though, just six times since 1995 has a driver earned their first or second career wins there.

The recent Fall race winners are Brad Keselowski (2014, 2017), Joey Logano (2015, 2016), Aric Almirola (2018) and Ryan Blaney (2019). All are great superspeedway racers.

As you can see, those are all Ford drivers too. The blue ovals have won nine of the last 10 races at Talladega including six straight in the Fall playoff race and seven of the last eight years there overall.

That bodes well for playoff Ford drivers right now too.

Also, this could be the race that really tightens up the playoff standings heading to another wildcard on the Charlotte ROVAL next week.

Kevin Harvick was 10th this past spring but he’s failed to score a top five in his last 18 Talladega starts now. Martin Truex Jr. was 24th as he’s had one top five at the track since 2007. Clint Bowyer has one top five at the track since 2014. Keselowski four finishes of 19th or worse in his last five Talladega starts now.

Kyle Busch finished 10th at Talladega back last April (2019) but that and two top five finishes in the 2016 and 2017 spring races are the only top 10 finishes he’s had on the 2.66-mile oval since 2014.

His last six playoff races at Talladega have seen him finish – 40th, 11th, 30th, 27th, 26th and 19th respectively. With Toyota’s struggling with the tapered spacer package, I don’t expect much out of Busch on Sunday which could really hamper his chances of advancing to the second round.

Chase Elliott has three top five finishes in five spring race starts but three finishes of 12th or worse in four fall race starts.

Clint Bowyer has only scored one top five since 2014 at Talladega. His last three finishes on this 2.66-mile superspeedway is 29th, 23rd and 25th respectively.

The top players could Denny Hamlin, Alex Bowman, Kurt Busch and Austin Dillon this weekend.

Betting The Talladega Superspeedway

Ryan Blaney on the spring race to give Ford their ninth win on the 2.66-mile Alabama race track in the last 10 tries. Penske has won nine times now at Talladega including four of the last seven and seven of the last 10 as well. With Penske winning six of the last seven Fall races, they have to be the favorites this weekend.

Plus, the usual suspects typically thrive at Talladega too. The top drivers on the superspeedway finished where they belonged back in June. A Ford won. Blaney won the Fall race last year too and has three top two finishes in his last four superspeedway starts now.

Second place finisher that day, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., has three top five finishes in his last four spring race starts at Talladega. Furthermore, he has six top 10 finishes, five of which being in the top five, in his last eight Talladega starts overall.

Third place finisher Aric Almirola has eight straight top 10 finishes now at Talladega.

Fourth place finisher Denny Hamlin has three top four finishes in his last four Talladega starts and a top four in all three superspeeedway starts now in 2020.

Alex Bowman came home seventh for his third straight top seven at Talladega in the spring. Kurt Busch came home ninth for his seventh top 10 in his last nine Talladega starts.

It wasn’t just at the top either.

Kevin Harvick was 10th but he’s failed to score a top five in his last 18 Talladega starts now. Martin Truex Jr. was 24th as he’s had one top five at the track since 2007. Clint Bowyer has one top five at the track since 2014. Brad Keselowski four finishes of 19th or worse in his last five Talladega starts now.

Jimmie Johnson was 13th for his eighth finish of 12th or worse in his last 10 tries. He’s had just one top five in his last 14 tries there overall.

While everyone wants a fluke winner, it just doesn’t happen on this track. Since the playoff format began like this in 2014, every Fall Talladega race has been won by a playoff driver.

Since 1995, we’ve really only seen what you could consider six “fluke” winners at the Talladega Superspeedway. That’s six in the last 51 races on the 2.66-mile high banked oval. Even out of those six, a few aren’t all that flukish after all either.

Just six times since 1995 has a driver earned their first or second career wins at Talladega.

Top Stat

No one has swept both Cup races at Talladega in the same season though since Jeff Gordon in 2007. Dale Earnhardt Jr. did so in 2002 as well. Only three times has it happened since 1990 too.

Kyle Busch Facing Uncertainty

The last time a driver went back-to-back in terms of NASCAR Cup Series championships was Jimmie Johnson during his five year reign from 2006 through 2010. In the nine years since, seven different drivers have all won titles. Johnson (2013, 2016) and Kyle Busch (2015, 2019) are the only repeat winners in that time frame.

Furthermore, since 1995, Jeff Gordon (1997, 1998) and Johnson (2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010) are the only ones to earn back-to-back Cup titles.

Kyle Busch was hoping to be just the third driver in the last 25 years to do so this season. Unfortunately, following a strong opening half of the year, he doesn’t look like a legitimate championship contender anymore. Yes, he has a top seven of every playoff race run thus far, but he’s also nine points below the cut line too.

Busch though shouldn’t be taken lightly, but the Round of 12 could be the place where his title hopes are dashed too.

Busch, finished 10th at Talladega back last April (2019) but that and two top five finishes in the 2016 and 2017 spring races are the only top 10 finishes he’s had on the 2.66-mile oval since 2014.

His last six playoff races at Talladega have seen him finish – 40th, 11th, 30th, 27th, 26th and 19th respectively. With Toyota’s struggling with the tapered spacer package, I don’t expect much out of Busch on Sunday which could really hamper his chances of advancing to the second round.

He finished sixth last Sunday in Las Vegas to put him (-9) in the playoff standings.

Toyota also has just one Dega victory since 2009 and only three overall. Busch, may need a mulligan this weekend but he doesn’t have the luxury to do so this season compared to the past. He was 32nd in the spring race.

Keselowski Once The Superspeedway King, But Will He Back Up July’s Message?

Poll anyone and they’d say that Brad Keselowski is still among the superspeedway kings. While he has arguably the most talent in the field, he has also grown frustrated with how the new racing on these tracks have become which has left him sending messages.

In the 2018 Coke Zero Sugar 400, Keselowski was running up front but was collected in a big crash early on in the race when he tried to avoid a blocking William Byron. That sparked a melee in Turn 3.

In final practice for the final July race at Daytona last year, the two came together again, this time it was Keselowski backing up his words at Daytona after his crash a year ago.

With about 15 minutes to go in final practice that day, Keselowski got into the left rear quarter panel of Byron’s No. 24 Chevrolet in Turn 3 which sent Byron’s car out of control. Luckily, Byron was able to keep control of his car enough to not come back up the banking and take several other drivers out. But, it was a move that look intentional on Keselowski’s behalf.

Why make a move like he did in practice? Well, go back to last year, remember?

Byron was leading last year’s race but switching lanes from top to bottom. He moved low to block Keselowski, an incident that ended with the No. 2 Ford spinning high and smashing the wall.

“I need to wreck more people so they’ll stop throwing bad blocks,” Keselowski said that night.

On the Fourth of July incident in 2019, Keselowski blamed Byron for putting him in that exact same position again, this time, Keselowski didn’t back down.

“Just had a big run,” Keselowski told NBCSN when he brought his car back to the garage. “He put me in a position where I had to lift, and I keep telling these guys I’m not lifting. Just trying to send a message. I’m not lifting.

“I’m tired of getting wrecked at these (superspeedway) tracks,” he added. “They’re all watching. They know. I’ve been put in positions these last few plate races – not just by William (Byron) but a handful of other people too where I’ve had to make a decision to risk myself on being loaded up on the trailer and watching the end of the race or drive through the guy in front of me. I’ve been too conservative and ended up watching too many of these plate races from the back of the trailer and that is not the responsible thing to do for my team. I’m not going to do that anymore. I’ve made that commitment. If you’re going to make that commitment, then you make that commitment today and make that commitment in the race as well.”

Will those words come back this weekend? It’s a playoff race and you know more pushing and shoving could ensue.

Keselowski finished 32nd, 33rd, 36th and 27th in the four superspeedway races in 2018. He was 12th, 13th, 39th and 25th last year. So far in 2020, he’s came home 36th, 19th and 10th respectively. Furthermore, nine of his last 16 superspeedway starts have seen him finish 30th or worse.

Keselowski, heads to Talladega this weekend with some momentum on his side though. He won the Richmond race last round, finished in the last race at Vegas and is +16 in the standings right now.

He said the superspeedway packages is one of the packages to where they’re great. Can his recent slide in performances on superspeedway’s turn on Sunday?

Bowman Can Shine

Not many predicted Alex Bowman would advance out of the first round of the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs. The Hendrick Motorsports driver had just six top 10 finishes in the last 22 races of the regular season. Furthermore, he had one top five result over the final 22 races too.

But, once he got into the postseason, his No. 88 Chevrolet team has turned things around for a second straight year. He heads to the Talladega Superspeedway on the heels of five top 10 finishes in his last six starts on the season.

Bowman, was sixth in Darlington, ninth in Richmond and 16th in Bristol in Round 1. To kick off the Round of 12, he came home fifth in Vegas.

Now, it’s to Talladega to where he has three top eight finishes in his last five starts including a seventh place run back in June. Following that is the Charlotte ROVAL to where he came home second in 2019 too.

Bowman could be sitting pretty now.

Logano A Favorite?

Joey Logano has reached victory lane twice already this season. Now, he’s going for five coveted playoff points and third trip to victory lane by virtue of a victory in Sunday’s Yellawood 500 (2 p.m. ET, NBC, MRN).

It’s realistic to think so too.

Logano, has six top five finishes in his last 11 tries on superspeedway’s including being very strong at Talladega. His last six Talladega finishes in fact have been fourth, first, fifth, fourth, 11th and 17th respectively. He won the spring race in 2018 and has led at least 10 laps in six of those eight races as well.

He’s even been good at Talladega in the XFINITY Series in scoring seven top three finishes in eight tries, two of which being wins and three more being runner-ups.

Also, since 2015, Logano has five wins and four runner-ups on superspeedway’s in NASCAR’s premiere series.

While that’s all good, there’s still the chance he could get taken out in someone else’s mess. That always weighs on every race car drivers’ mind heading to Daytona or Talladega.

He should have a shot though as Ford has won six straight years in the Talladega Fall race, five of which seeing a Penske driver celebrating in victory lane and three of the last five in the Spring event.

Logano has eight top 10 finishes in his last 11 starts on the season including a pair of third place finishes to kick start the playoffs off with.

His nine race streak of top 10’s in Vegas ended last weekend though. He only finished 14th. That’s because of that contact with Kyle Busch on Lap 87 which left his No. 22 Ford with a left rear tire rub. They’d have to pit for repairs on Lap 89 and would fall from third to 32nd, -1. It took him until the Lap 249 caution to finally get back on the lead lap. He’d end up going from 24th to 14th though to make up 10 points in the end. That took him from -1 to +11 heading to Talladega Sunday. Those 10 points to be vastly needed.

Hamlin A Speedway Race Now

Denny Hamlin is a big stick and ball sport fan. So, to say that he’s a student of the game in NASCAR, would resonate well within the Virginia native. For Hamlin, he went from a struggling superspeedway racer to arguably the best in the NASCAR Cup Series today.

Back in February, Hamlin became just the sixth driver in the history of the sport to win the Daytona 500 three or more times. What’s even more impressive is, all three wins have come in the last five years. Counter that with his best finish in his first six Daytona 500 tries being 17th and you get a complete turn around from the start of his career to now.

“I don’t know what it is, but I think I started studying more about superspeedway racing around that time because I had been so unsuccessful for a very long time,” Hamlin said a week after his Daytona win. “We went a long time and I’ve won a lot of the Clashes and Duel races. It just seems like it’s that seven or eight years ago that the car came around and whatever techniques I use or I’ve adapted to this car have seemed to work.”

Hamlin’s Joe Gibbs Racing teammate of Kyle Busch may have two championships compared to Hamlin’s none, but Busch is envious of Hamlin’s three Harley J. Earl trophies in his collection.

“Denny has really gotten way better ever since this car,” Busch said of Hamlin’s superspeedway abilities in the Gen 6 car, the current model. “He was always an aggressive plate racer, one that would make moves that you’re kind of, ‘Man, if he would just stay in line, I think this would turn out better.’

“He still does that today, but he’s making it work for himself, that not staying in line is better for Denny. I think since this car came though, he’s been a real good plate racer.

“He’s been fantastic at the game, he’s understood it, he’s made moves that I sometimes wouldn’t make that have worked, he’s able to pass a guy to get in line. … He’s very knowledgeable and skillful In making his moves and passes.”

Hamlin, is now searching for his second win at Talladega and seventh on the year. His last came in the spring race of 2014. But, it’s not like Hamlin has been off on the 2.66-mile superspeedway either.

He finished fourth in the spring race this past June. He was third in the playoff race last year. He has four straight top six finishes in this very playoff race and three finishes on superspeedway’s in 2020 were – 1st, 4th and 3rd respectively.

Without a lot of drafting help available from the lower car count by Toyota’s in comparison to the other two makes on Sunday, Hamlin knows that he just needs to survive the first 160 laps and put himself in position where people have to work with him in the end.

He’s proven he can do that. He’s not had the best of playoffs so far with two problems with pit road (coming to pit road at Darlington, penalty at Richmond) in the first two races of the postseason, but the speed is still there. What better way to not have to worry about the ROVAL than to win on Sunday in Talladega.

He was third last weekend and can be conservative if he wants now.

Talladega Could Be Harvick/Truex Jr’s Mulligan

It’s no secret, Martin Truex Jr. isn’t a good superspeedway racer. He’s actually never won a race at either Daytona or Talladega before on the Cup level. That’s why he’s proud to be sitting +15 in the playoff standings heading into Sunday’s YellaWood 500 (2 p.m ET, NBC, MRN) at the Talladega Superspeedway.

More than likely, Truex will need a mulligan this weekend. Being that many points up, he will more than certainly leave the 2.66-mile Alabama oval on Sunday evening on the good side of the playoff standings with one race to go in the Round of 12. But, just how far up is the question.

Truex hasn’t had a top 10 finish at Talladega since 2015. He was fifth in the spring race that year and seventh in the playoff race. That fifth place run is his only top five at Dega since 2007.

His last seven Talladega finishes have all been 20th or worse. In fact, his last six playoff races at Talladega have seen him finish – 27th, seventh, 40th, 23rd, 23rd and 20th respectively. So, for him, this year he hasn’t had all of those playoff points banked like he normally has. While he has finished 22nd, second, 24th and fourth respectively this postseason and has scored 11 top four finishes, four runner-ups and five third place runs included, in his last 14 starts on the season, Talladega could be a place that could make the ROVAL next week ever more stressful.

So could Kevin Harvick. He’s +61 on the playoff bubble but has finished 20th or worse in four of his last six Talladega starts. Also, he has one top five finish on the track since the playoff race at Talladega in 2011.

Nearly of his last 25 Talladega starts have seen him finish 20th or worse.

This could be a spot to where both are using mulligans.

Harvick though can withstand it. Truex may be in a bit more worrisome situation.

Does anyone new bump their way back in?

Kurt Busch knows that he’s advancing onto the Round of 8 by virtue of his Vegas win. Kevin Harvick (+61) and Denny Hamlin (+58) now look to be joining him. They have a mulligan left in them, but if they just play it safe at Talladega on Sunday, they’ll be good to have an easy race on the ROVAL next week.

Everyone else is nervous. Brad Keselowski went from +30 to +16. Martin Truex Jr. gained four points from +11 to just +15 though. Joey Logano went from +17 to +11 while Chase Elliott dropped from +16 to +10. 

I think all four of them expected to be further up from the bubble leaving Vegas. Instead, they head to Talladega to where they could easily drop out of the top eight of the standings too. 

Alex Bowman holds the final spot at +9 over Kyle Busch. This is now really a fight among those nine with Clint Bowyer (-20), Aric Almirola (-27) and Austin Dillon (-32) all likely having to dominate the final four stages and maybe even steal a win. 

Busch, hasn’t won since last year’s season finale. Bowyer, hasn’t won in his last 87 starts now (6/10/2018). Almirola, hasn’t won since Talladega in 2018 (71 starts) either. Dillon, won at Texas back in June, so he’s the only one in the bottom five to have won recently. 

The question is, can anyone of those four out get back in?

Busch, is the best bet with seven top seven finishes in his last 10 starts including a top seven in all four playoff races. But, Bowman has five top 10’s in his last six starts on the year too. Plus, Bowman was seventh this past spring in Talladega and has three top eight’s in his last five ‘Dega starts overall. On top of that, he was fourth and second in his two ROVAL tries. 

Busch meanwhile, has just two top fives as both are his only top 10’s since 2014 at Talladega. His two ROVAL starts saw him finish 32nd and 37th respectively. 

Then you have Bowyer who has one top five since 2014 at Talladega himself. He does have six top six finishes in his last nine road course starts though. By that point, is it win or go home?

Almirola, is at his best at Talladega and not so much on road courses. Same for Dillon. Next week may be must wins for them. 

Elliott and Truex are the opposite. They’re so good on road courses, not so much on superspeedway’s. But, their gaps may be enough due to how everyone else behind them runs on these tracks. 

What about Truex, Hamlin and Harvick in terms of stage points? Do they elect to be aggressive and risk a crash to score them early without knowing what can happen later? Or, do they give them up to keep it conservative and ride around in the back in order to be there in the end?

Chevy Power?

Prior to the tapered spacers being used on the Cup cars, the Ford’s had the most power on restrictor plate tracks. Ford drivers had won three straight spring races at Talladega and has also won five consecutive years in the Fall race too.

They did win the playoff race last Fall for their sixth straight year of doing so, but the Chevrolet’s have been vastly improved too.

It already came to an end back in April 2019 when Chase Elliott won the GEICO 500 on the 2.66-mile Alabama oval. Chevy drivers took five of the top six finishing spots that day. That was the first race with the tapered spacer on a superspeedway.

The return trip to Daytona in July was with the tapered spacer too as the Daytona 500 run back in February was with the old package. Chevy took spots 1-2-3-4 in the rain shortened event. They went 1-2 and 1-2-5 in that same race this past August.

For the Daytona 500, Ford’s did take five of the top six finishing spots, but a Toyota won. For the Spring Talladega race, Ford’s took two of the top three. Chevy had eight of the top 15.

Chevy has won three of the six tapered spacer races on superspeedway’s. Ford has won two with Toyota the other one.

Now, who they dominate again on Sunday in the fourth and final superspeedway race of the season?

Thrilling Race? The Spring One Was

We wondered how all the unknowns were going to be answered in June’s GEICO 500 at the Talladega Superspeedway. With some major adjustments to the racing package and having no practice time to test them out, how would the GEICO 500 look?

It was actually one of the more thrilling races we’ve seen in awhile. We saw 43 lead changes in last year’s race, but 13 more on the Monday rain delayed event for a total of 56 lead changes up front in Monday’s rain delayed race.

19 of the 40 starters led at least one lap. We saw the third closest finish in Talladega history with minimal crashes.

ncs_dega_track_062220

That’s how a race is supposed to look.

“Yeah, the runs did seem a little slower,” said third place finisher Aric Almirola. “The other thing I noticed was with the cars going a little bit slower, we didn’t get the typical single file out right around the fence.  We kind of stayed more packed up and together, which to me, I thought there was going to be more wrecks because of it.  Early in the race I saw what I had in my racecar, I thought I had a really fast car.  I chose to kind of ride around and survive.

“These races usually have a lot of attrition, a lot of wrecks, the big one.  I thought our strategy was to make sure we were there at the end.  We did that.  The package seemed to keep the cars a lot closer together.  Nobody really broke away.”

Second place finisher Ricky Stenhouse Jr. agreed.

“I thought it was great racing,” said the JTG Daugherty Racing driver. “You had to work really hard to form your line and really work the side draft, pushing cars, getting cars to push you.  You had to work hard for it.

“I thought that was great racing.  I felt like everybody kept their cars in control.  We had some big saves out there.  I saw I think the 12, the 11, 22, myself a couple times, get pretty sideways, but gather it back in.

“The third lane I felt like with this package got hurt the most.  It seemed like you could get some runs going, but it would stall out pretty quick.  Seemed like the bottom and middle were the way to go.  It kind of took the top lane out of it, which in turn a lot of times we run single file around the top and the race can get kind of stale.

“I thought overall the package was really good.  I don’t think any driver is going to have any complaints about it.”

This is all great news as NASCAR continues to adapt with this package. They didn’t want tandem racing and they got none of it. They wanted to slow the cars down and they succeed in that. Everything they tried to do, panned out.

Kudos to their engineering team in doing this. Now, what happens with a more aggressive playoff race this weekend?

Manufacturers Teamwork

Toyota started it in 2016, Ford perfected it there after and Chevrolet brought it to a head in last year’s Daytona 500. What “it” is, is manufacturer alliances on superspeedway’s.

For the 2016 Daytona 500, the Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota’s knew that they didn’t have strength in numbers compared to their car count vs. the Ford’s/Chevy’s, so they teamed up only with each other. It panned out for a 1-2 finish in the Daytona 500 that year.

After that race, Ford took notice and had their powerplant line up together and draft with one another during the four combined annual stops at Daytona and Talladega. Ford, already had good motors for these tracks, but throw in teamwork and you get domination in the form of 13 of the last 20 races won when using the restrictor plates.

They were in everyone’s head. So, for last year’s Daytona 500, the Toyota’s knew that they didn’t have the numbers to contend for the win. Hendrick Motorsports, a Chevrolet team, knew that the other Chevy cars weren’t good enough to hang with them to challenge the Ford’s. So, we saw an unlikely tandem for the ‘500 – Joe Gibbs Racing’s Toyota’s and their alliance car at Leavine Family Racing and the Hendrick Motorsports’ Chevy’s.

TALLADEGA, AL – APRIL 26: Kurt Busch, driver of the #1 Monster Energy Chevrolet, leads a pack of cars during practice for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway on April 26, 2019 in Talladega, Alabama. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Combined, that’s nine very good race cars that with even the smallest bit of help from any other Chevy team, could work together and break up the Ford party up front.

See, Ford’s knew that if they lined up in tow, go up to the high line and pull each other around the 2.5-mile track, it didn’t matter how many Chevy’s or Toyota’s lineup, no one could stop them.

So, HMS and the Toyota’s teamed up and ran up there with them, then would use the draft to take air off the Ford’s and break them apart.

It worked.

Toyota finished 1-2-3 in the ‘500, Ford’s grew frustrated with one another and the Chevy teams were pissed that HMS sought out a late hour deal with a rival manufacturer.

In turn, Chevy had a closed door meeting afterwards and made sure that this didn’t happen again. Chevy teams could only work and draft with other Chevy teams. No more helping the competition.

Ford teams would still try and do the same. The Toyota’s? Well they were hung out to dry.

Chevy was the biggest beneficiary of this. HMS would finish 1-2 in the first race with the tapered spacer last April in Talladega including Chevy going 1-2-3 overall and taking five of the top six finishing positions.

In the July race at Daytona, Chevy went 1-2-3-4 this time.

But, in the second stop to Talladega last October, the Ford’s found a way to get back to prominence. They’d lead 125 of the 188 laps run and take a 1-2 finish and four of the top five. Chevy, took spots 6-8-10.

February’s Daytona 500 saw this play out all race, so how will Sunday play out? Is manufacturer teamwork still as strong? Is it stronger?

The Toyota’s had just one car in the top 18 at Talladega in April and three in the top 10 in October. In the July Daytona race, they had just two cars in the top 21 overall too. They will need some help this weekend.

With manufacturer help for the playoffs being even more important, what do we see this weekend?

Winless Droughts That Could End

We’ve got to talk about it. Can a winless drought end on Sunday? It’s Talladega week and with the ultimate wildcard race, anything can happen. Here’s a list of the notable winless droughts heading in.

Ryan Newman (134 races, 131 attempts)

Last win: Phoenix 3/19/2017

Stats: Has four top 10’s in his last six Talladega starts. He was second in last year’s playoff race and was leading heading to the checkered flag back in February at Daytona before his frightening crash.

Jimmie Johnson (125 races, 124 attempts)

Last win: Dover 6/4/2017

Stats: 33rd and 38th last year. Has one top five in his last 13 Dega starts and has seven finishes of 12th or worse in his last 10 tries.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (121 races)

Last win: Daytona 7/1/2017

Stats: The Daytona 500 pole sitter has a chance to earn his first victory in nearly two years. Stenhouse, has four top 10 finishes in his last five Dega starts and is driving a car that finished well with AJ Allmendinger in it too. Allmendinger, had three top 10 finishes in four superspeedway starts in 2018. Ryan Preece drove it to an eighth place run in last year’s Daytona 500. This may be a car to beat when it’s all said and done.

Matt Kenseth (103 races – 42 attempts)

Last win: Phoenix 11/12/2017

Stats: Not typically a very good superspeedway race. He has just four top 10 finishes since 2007 at Talladega.

Clint Bowyer (87 races)

Last win: Michigan 6/10/2018

Stats: Just one top five since 2014.

Aric Almirola (71 races)

Last win: Talladega 10/14/18

Stats: Probably the top sleeper. Almirola, was ninth and fourth respectively in the two Talladega race last year. Furthermore, he has eight straight top 10’s there including a win in the 2018 playoff race.

Never Won

Michael McDowell (0-for-351)

He finished fifth in last year’s Daytona 500 as well as fifth in last year’s Talladega playoff race too.

Matt DiBenedetto (0-for-206)

He’s never really had good race cars at Talladega before. That’s why he has four straight sub 26th place finishes and five in his last six tries. Now, he has a Wood Brothers Ford with Penske power.

Ty Dillon (0-for-156)

He’s a big sleeper on superspeedway’s. Dillon, was sixth and fourth respectively at Daytona in 2019. He was 17th and 10th at Talladega. In fact, in six Talladega starts, he’s finished outside the top 15 just once.

Corey LaJoie (0-for-123)

He was eighth in February’s Daytona 500. He was 11th in the spring race at Talladega and seventh in the Fall race in 2019 too.

Bubba Wallace (0-for-106)

He nearly won the Daytona 500 a few years ago. The Petty cars used to be pretty good on superspeedway’s. A decent shot on Sunday to gain his first trip to victory lane in his home state of Alabama.

Tandem Drafting The Winning Move

Superspeedway racing has been vastly improved over the last couple of years. While dangerous on one side of the coin, it’s been thrilling on the other. Most of the races ran in the traditional pack, with the end of them seeing guys move towards tandem drafting.  We saw how well it worked during Speedweeks back in February at Daytona.

At the end of the Busch Clash, a wrecked race car of Denny Hamlin, who was a lap down by the way, pushed his teammate, Erik Jones, who had another badly damaged race car to the win on the final lap. Two crashed race cars faster than a couple of other clean cars.

Tandem drafting worked. It was shaping up that way at the end of the Daytona 500 too. Prior to the last restart, Hamlin and Ryan Newman worked well in tandem, and if not for a caution, they would have ran that way until the end.

At one point earlier last decade, tandem drafting was the quick way around Daytona and Talladega. It was dangerous, but you’d see cars separate from big packs and pair up to make runs on everyone. It was two cars working as one. It almost looked borderline ridiculous.

So, NASCAR came in and made changes to the cars that wouldn’t allow for tandem drafts anymore which set up a move back to the traditional packs.

Now, tandem drafting isn’t outlawed in the Cup Series as drivers can pair up if they so choose, but the way that these cars are designed, they can’t tandem for too long or they’ll overheat.

But, in wake of Ryan Newman’s incident at the last lap of February’s Daytona 500, NASCAR is hoping that a recent change in the aero package on superspeedways, won’t allow for any tandem racing on Sunday.

“Right here, right now, sitting here today, I would say that this should eliminate it,” said John Patalak, senior director, safety engineering at NASCAR before the June Talladega race. “I also know they will all be working to try and get back to some form of it.  I’ve done this long enough to know that I will not make any bold, blanket statements that would challenge them to prove me wrong.

“I think with the reduction in power, the aero ducts going away, that will make sort of a smaller hole, if you will, that should make it much more difficult to get into that configuration.”

Tandem drafting was one of four “bucket list” items NASCAR hoped to alter in this new package. With adjustments made, it could make life difficult to those who try. That’s what they’re getting at.

“When you look at the goal of slowing the cars down, obviously the restriction from 59 64ths to 57 64th is an expected horsepower loss of somewhere between 35 and 40 horsepower, which general rule of thumb the teams use is 30 horsepower per second.  With the 40 horsepower, we’d expect the cars to slow down by over a second compared to what they would have run.

“As far as reducing the likelihood of tandem drafting, the elimination of the aero ducts at the superspeedway tracks were removed to try to mitigate the likelihood that cars could tandem draft.  Then also the reduction of the power would likely reduce the likelihood of tandem as well.”

So, without any practice on Saturday, there’s a large unknown on whether these rules will actually work. It worked back in June but this is an entirely different race. Will anyone dare to try a tandem draft at the end? With this being the quickest way around the track, wouldn’t it be used for a last lap pass for the win?

Well, it certainly could, but think about the damage that it could cause too. To tandem draft, it’s an art. The second car is blind to the front. All he can see if the bumper and spoiler of the car in front of him. If the car in front of him moves, he has to move with it. A slight bobble or mistake and not staying locked on a move would cause the car in front to spin.

So, tandem drafting can cause a big crash if the car leading the charge moves to the high or low lane and the car behind doesn’t move quick enough to stay locked. It can also cause carnage if the group or groups of cars in front move to block. The lead car has to counter the block and if the guy behind doesn’t follow suit, the lead car gets spun. If he does follow suit and the cars in front keep blocking, then they’ll get run over and cause a big crash too.

Tandem drafting and blocking is what causes 95-percent of the crashes at Daytona these days. That’s why we see so many cars wadded up.

That’s why NASCAR is trying to eliminate the need and use for it. They don’t want to see another Newman like crash on Sunday at Talladega. Tandem drafting and the speed of the cars are two very large areas that NASCAR felt that they needed to address and they did just that.

In order to do this, NASCAR did a thorough investigation of the wrecked race cars from the last lap melee in Daytona and adjusted as follows.

“This begins at the track.  As we’ve talked about before, any time there’s an incident, whether the vehicle is driven or towed back to the garage, the NASCAR officials begin a crash investigation, which includes taking pictures outside of the vehicle as well as the driver area, looking at the driver’s restraint system and removing some of the equipment we have in the cars, like the incident data recorder, and our high-speed video camera.  All of that information goes back and is uploaded to the NASCAR crash database.

“This process was followed for the 6 and the 32 cars at Daytona as well as the other vehicles involved in the crashes during that event.

“In this case both the 6 and the 32 were transported back to the R&D center where full inspections on both vehicles were complete.  The inspections included documenting, disassembling, examining all the pertinent parts of the vehicle systems, including the driver’s restraint systems.  All of this information that was found from those inspections was compared to the available data and video sources in order to create a step-by-step understanding of the crash sequence.

“During this process, we met several times with Ryan and Roush here at the R&D center, worked with them and the industry to identify these updates that John has talked about.”

If these updates were in place for Daytona, would we have seen a wreck like Newman’s?

“I think obviously when we go to superspeedways, as we said, any of our races, what we do is inherently dangerous.  Stopping a wreck from happening, that would be pretty difficult.

“I would say that slowing the cars down surely should and would help from an aero liftoff standpoint.  I would say our findings from the Ryan Newman crash, his liftoff was not due to an aero event but from him getting into the wall.  The idea there is reducing the speeds of the car, slowing them down.  We would expect speeds under the 200 mile-an-hour barrier here.  So from that standpoint slowing the cars down, keep from having as violent wrecks.

“Like I said, I mean, when the checkered flag is out for the Daytona 500, any of our races for that matter, the opportunity for accidents is high.  I think the changes you see here that we’ve put forward, it’s to ensure that once a chain of events like that are set into motion, we have all the safety mechanisms in place to mitigate the outcome, negative outcomes, I should say.”

So, will these changes work? NASCAR is betting on it.

Fluke Winner?

It seems like every time we go to a superspeedway that we have to talk about the potential for fluke winners. In reality though, the wiser bets for Talladega are on the usual suspects that normally run up front instead of a hot longshot.

Since 1995, we’ve really only seen what you could consider six “fluke” winners at the Talladega Superspeedway. That’s six in the last 51 races on the 2.66-mile high banked oval. Even out of those six, a few aren’t all that flukish after all.

Chase Elliott leads Alex Bowman during the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway on April 28, 2019 in Talladega, Alabama.

Bobby Hamilton’s win was. Brian Vickers’ win in 2006 would fall under that category as well. Brad Keselowski’s win in 2009 would too but he’d later become one of the greats on superspeedway’s, so looking back on it, it’s not as much as a fluke now as it was then. David Ragan’s win in 2013 would be one, but that’s about it. You could throw Ricky Stenhouse Jr’s win in 2017 as one but he’d win later in Daytona that season too. Same for Aric Almirola’s in 2018 as both of his wins have come on superspeedway’s.

That’s it.

Just six times since 1995 has a driver earned their first or second career wins at Talladega.

What about Daytona? It’s the opposite actually.

They’ve had more fluke winners than Talladega in recent years. Just look at their recent winners in fact.

For the Coke Zero Sugar 400, three of the last four winners have earned their first career Cup victories. The other was just his second.

2020 – William Byron (1st career win in August’s Coke Zero Sugar 400)

2019 -Justin Haley (1st career win)

2018 – Erik Jones (1st career win)

2017 – Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (2nd career win)

2014 – Aric Almirola (1st career win)

2011 – David Ragan (1st career win)

For the Daytona 500, Denny Hamlin has won three of the last five years but the other two winners were Austin Dillon (2nd career win) and Kurt Busch (1st career restrictor plate win).

The fluke winners come at Daytona for whatever reason, but that hasn’t been the case for Talladega.

I mean under this win and advance playoff format that first debuted in 2014, all six playoff winners at Talladega were playoff drivers.

So, if you’re looking for a wise wager on Sunday’s race, I’d throw money the way of the favorites.

The problem is, the top drivers haven’t fared real well at Talladega or superspeedway’s in general recently either.

Martin Truex hasn’t had a top 10 finish at Talladega since 2015. He was fifth in the spring race that year and seventh in the playoff race. That fifth place run is his only top five at Dega since 2007.His last seven Talladega finishes have all been 20th or worse.

Kyle Busch is a past Talladega winner. But, that victory was way back in 2008. He does have two top three finishes in his last five Spring race starts and three top 10’s in the same time frame, but if you throw in the Fall race, Busch has three top 10 finishes in his last 13 overall Talladega starts as well. Busch, finished 10th at Talladega back last April of 2019 but that and two top five finishes in the 2016 and 2017 spring races are the only top 10 finishes he’s had on the 2.66-mile oval since 2014.

Toyota had just one car in the top 18 of the Spring race at Talladega back in April of last year and three in the top 10 last Fall. They had just two cars (8th, 14th) in the top 21 of the Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona back in July of 2019 and one in the top 17 this past February.

Toyota also has just one Dega victory since 2009 and only three overall.

Then there’s Kevin Harvick. He’s finished 17th or worse in four of his last six Talladega starts. Also, he has one top five finish on the track since the playoff race at Talladega in 2011 (18 starts).

Almost half of his last 25 Talladega starts have seen him finish 20th or worse.

His teammate Clint Bowyer has just one top five finish since 2014 there. Jimmie Johnson has seven finishes of 12th or worse in his last 10 Talladega starts and one top five in his last 14 Talladega starts overall.

Brad Keselowski should be a favorite but he’s been involved in a lot of incidents on superspeedway’s lately.

7 of the last 12 superspeedway race winners in Cup competition have earned either their first or second career victories in them. But, 4 of the last 7 at Talladega and 6 of the last 8 at Daytona, saw drivers won their first or second superspeedway race on them too.

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