NASCAR Pre-Race Media: Sunday’s YellaWood 500 (2 p.m. ET, NBC, MRN) race preview

TRACK: Talladega Superspeedway (2.66-mile oval). DISTANCE: 500 Laps — STAGE 1: 60 Laps, STAGE 2: 60 Laps, FINAL STAGE: 68 Laps, MILES (500.08 Miles)

Starting Lineup

WHO WILL WIN YellaWood 500?

Denny Hamlin

You have to take a look here. He won the Fall race last year, was fourth in the spring race a year ago too, third in the fall race in 2019 and has won three of the last six Daytona 500’s. His superspeedway finishes last year were – 1st, 4th, 3rd and 1st respectively. He’s led 42% of all playoff laps, has two victories, three top twos in four starts including five stage wins.

Brad Keselowski

You always go with Brad on a superspeedway race. He’s won six times at Talladega, including this past spring.

Joey Logano

He has four top five finishes in his last eight Talladega starts and is a three-time Talladega winner in his last 13 tries too.

Top Sleepers?

Ryan Blaney

He won the spring race last year and was ninth in this past years. He won the Fall race the year prior. He finished second in the Daytona 500 last year too. Worth a look here.

Aric Almirola

The Stewart-Haas Racing driver has eight top 10 finishes in his last 10 starts at Talladega including five of which in the top five. He won there in the Fall of 2018, was fourth and spun across the finish line to a third place result last June of 2020.

William Byron

He won Daytona last year. He won his Duel in Daytona last year too and had the top car in the qualifying race this past February. He was 11th in the Talladega spring race a year ago, runner-up in it this year and fourth in the Fall.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. 

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

Chris Buescher

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

Tyler Reddick

He won an Xfinity Series race at ‘Dega as well as having two straight seventh place finishes on the 2.66-mile track.

Michael McDowell

He won the Daytona 500 and third in the spring at Talladega.

Who To Fade?

Kyle Larson

He’s never had a top 10 in Talladega before. He’s never won on a superspeedway before at that. In fact, his last three finishes at Talladega are 39th, 40th and 40th respectively. Four of his last six results are 39th or worse.

Chase Elliott

He’s not had a top five in any of his five Fall races at the track. His finishes are 12th, 16th, 31st, eighth and 22nd respectively.

Alex Bowman

His Fall race finishes here are 33rd, 37th and 14th. He was 38th back in the spring.

Kurt Busch

He’s been 28th or worse in three of his last four Talladega results.

Kyle Busch

Not one of his better races. Busch’s last seven finishes in the Fall Talladega race have been 11th or worse including his last five being 30th, 27th, 26th, 19th and 27th respectively. He was 32nd and 18th the last two spring races too.

Martin Truex Jr. 

He’s had one top five finish at Talladega since 2007. His last nine finishes there are 40th, 35th, 23rd, 26th, 23rd, 20th, 24th, 23rd and 31st respectively.

Kevin Harvick

He’s only had two top five finishes in his last 19 Talladega starts.

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.

“It is stressful because your whole season can be decided this weekend and that may be somewhat out of your control,” Joey Logano said. “This is the round that a true championship contender can be a surprise knockout.”

His Team Penske teammate agreed.

“You have to be aware that you can get wiped out and it’s none of your doing. We’ve all been there. You’re just minding your own business and you get blindsided and you’re destroyed the next thing you know,” Blaney said. “But you can’t let that eat at you. You’ve just got to say, ‘Let’s focus and let’s do these things like we know how to do them, and go racing.’”

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 7-for-7. Do we see that again on Sunday?

5 times has a non-playoff driver won the NASCAR Cup Series’ playoff race at Talladega. It first occurred in 2005 with Dale Jarrett. It happened again a year later (2006) with Brian Vickers. Then we saw it twice in 2009 and again in 2013 with Jamie McMurray as well as 2011 with Clint Bowyer. None of them are in Cup anymore.

Plus, just twice has a non playoff driver won the fifth race of the playoffs and both of them were in Charlotte, not Talladega. McMurray (2010) and Brad Keselowski in 2013.

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 six Daytona 500’s but Austin Dillon (2nd career win),  Kurt Busch (1st and only restrictor plate win) and Michael McDowell (1st career win) won the other three. 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, McDowell 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), Ryan Blaney (2019) and Hamlin (2020). All are great superspeedway racers.

As you can see, those are all Ford drivers too minus Hamlin. The blue ovals have won 10 of the last 12 races at Talladega including six of seven in the Fall playoff race and seven of the last nine years there overall.

That bodes well for playoff Ford drivers right now too.

The bad news is, none of the seven drivers to have won this race has gone on to win the championship in that given season either.

Which is why there’s even more reason to roll with a Ford this weekend because the odds on favorites to make up the Championship 4 next month are the Hendrick Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing camps. Neither are Ford’s.

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 and fourth in the past two spring races, but he’s had just one top five in his last 19 Talladega starts now.

Martin Truex Jr. has had one top five at the track since 2007 and 0-for-66 here. Keselowski has finishes of 18th or worse in five of his last six Talladega starts now. He did win in April but the odds of a yearly sweep are low.

Talladega Sweeps:

2007 – Jeff Gordon

2002 – Dale Earnhardt Jr.

1999 – Dale Earnhardt

1990 – Dale Earnhardt

1982 – Darrell Waltrip

1975 – Buddy  Baker

To only happen four times in the last 37 years doesn’t bode well for Keselowski on Sunday. Neither does the fact that he has one top five finish in the last 11 races on the season or two in the last 19 at that. 

Kyle Busch has two top five finishes in the 2016 and 2017 spring races and 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, 19th and 27th 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 six spring race starts but four finishes of 12th or worse in five fall race starts. Same for Kyle Larson with two straight 40th place finishes including four of his last six being 39th or worse at Talladega.

Alex Bowman has three finishes of 14th or worse in his last four Talladega starts. Christopher Bell was 29th, 39th and 17th in his three Talladega starts.

“You can’t freak out and try any harder because I’m already trying as hard as I can,” said Alex Bowman, who narrowly raced his way through to the second round only for Las Vegas to drop him right back to 11th out of 12 in the standings.

“We’re not in a great spot and we’re going to a place that’s a huge wild card,” he said. “We’ve just got to wait and see how it shakes out. If it works out for us, it does. And if it doesn’t, it doesn’t.”

The top players could Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano, Ryan Blaney and William Byron this weekend.

He was fourth and first respectively at Talladega last year and was third, sixth, fourth, third and first respectively in his last five Fall race starts here.

Also, this is the sixth time in his NASCAR Cup Series career he has advanced out of the second round of the Playoffs (2014, ’16, ’17, ’19, ’20, ’21). Now the 40-year-old from Chesterfield, Virginia, can focus on racking up more Playoff points and wins with little regard for his postseason status; which doesn’t bode well for the competition as he is also the defending winner of last season’s Talladega Playoff race.

This season, Denny Hamlin has posted two wins (Darlington, Las Vegas), 16 top fives and 21 top 10s. His average starting position this season is 7.1 and his average finish is 8.3. He has led the second-most laps this season at 1,366 laps led; his second consecutive season and fifth season overall in his Cup career he led more than a 1,000 laps in a season. He is also ranked second in season-to-date Driver Rating with a 110.3; just behind series leader Kyle Larson at 111.6.

Hamlin is one of nine active drivers this weekend at Talladega with a previous victory at 2.66-mile facility. He has made 31 series career starts at Talladega posting two wins (2014, 2020 Playoff race), nine top fives and 13 top 10s. He has also led 389 laps at Talladega – second-most among active drivers.

The thing is, just once in this playoff format (2014-present) has someone won the first two races of the Round of 12. Joey Logano did that in 2015 when he swept all three races. That doesn’t bode well for Hamlin then.

Talladega Superspeedway Playoff Race Winners Since 2014
Track Race Winner Clinch Status Heading Into ‘Dega Date
Talladega Denny Hamlin 2nd in Points Sunday, October 4, 2020
Talladega Ryan Blaney 12th in Points Sunday, October 13, 2019
Talladega Aric Almirola 9th in Points Sunday, October 14, 2018
Talladega Brad Keselowski 10th in Points Sunday, October 15, 2017
Talladega Joey Logano 8th in Points Sunday, October 23, 2016
Talladega Joey Logano Clinched On Wins Sunday, October 25, 2015
Talladega Brad Keselowski 10th in Points Sunday, October 19, 2014

The last three winners were outside the top eight entering Talladega, so that would then put this into a Byron, Harvick, Bowman and Bell race to win.

Harvick, fits the mold in being a Ford driver too.

Top Stat

Ford has won 10 of the last 12 races at Talladega and took the win back in February at Daytona and again in August as well as Talladega in the spring. They’ve won 4 of the last 5 points paying Speedway races.

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