NASCAR Pre-Race Media: 5 burning questions for Sunday’s YellaWood 500 (2 p.m. ET, NBC, MRN)

Will We See A 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 53 races on the 2.66-mile high banked oval. Even out of those six, a few aren’t all that flukish after all.

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 quite 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 five 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 six years but the other three winners were Austin Dillon (2nd career win), Kurt Busch (1st career restrictor plate win) and Michael McDowell (1st career Cup 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 seven playoff winners now 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.

Still, in saying that, 8 of the last 16 superspeedway race winners in Cup competition have earned either their first or second career victories in them. But, 4 of the last 9 at Talladega and 7 of the last 11 at Daytona, saw drivers won their first or second superspeedway race on them too.

4 of the last 8 at Talladega and 7 of the last 9 at Daytona, saw drivers who won their first or second superspeedway race on them too. Ryan Blaney did so in the spring race last year.

Will Talladega Shake Up Playoff Grid?

Martin Truex hasn’t had a top 10 finish at Talladega since 2015. He has one top five since 2007. His last eight Talladega finishes have all been 20th or worse. He’s +31 right now.

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 15 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. He’s +35.

Christopher Bell was 29th, 39th and 17th respectively. He’s -25.

Toyota also has just two Talladega victories since 2009. Both were by Denny Hamlin.

Then there’s Kevin Harvick. He’s finished 17th or worse in five of his last eight Talladega starts. Also, he has just two top five finishes on the track since the playoff race at Talladega in 2011 (19 starts). He’s -7.

Almost half of his last 26 Talladega starts have seen him finish 20th or worse.

Brad Keselowski should be a favorite but he’s been involved in a lot of incidents on superspeedway’s lately too. He’s only +4.

Chase Elliott has three top five finishes in six spring race starts but four finishes of 12th or worse in five fall race starts. He’s +22. Same for Kyle Larson with two straight 40th place finishes including four of his last six being 39th or worse at Talladega. He’s +57.

Alex Bowman has three finishes of 14th or worse in his last four Talladega starts. He’s -13.

As Rick Mears once said, “in order to finish first, you first must finish.”

That’s why Sunday could separate the guys solidly in the playoff standings from those not because they can go for more stage points knowing that you’ll have a solid group of drivers not.

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

Who Are The Best Superspeedway Racers Around Right Now?

Superspeedway racing is an art form in NASCAR. It’s unlike anything else that these drivers do all year. The four annual points paying races on them take a different skill set. You either have it, or you don’t.

It’s danger and thrill. It’s the closest racing all year. You’re door-to-door, inches from one another. The entire field is typically separated within a second and going at speeds near 200 mph. One slight mistake can wipe out the dozens of cars.

It’s also the great equalizer. Any one can win on any given race at Daytona and Talladega. While you tend to see some fluke winners, you also have guys that excel at this better than everyone else. Here’s my top five list of the current NASCAR Cup Series drivers that are at their best at Daytona and Talladega.

5. Ryan Newman

Yes, I chose Newman. It’s hard to believe when first seeing this that I have Newman who’s won just once on superspeeeday’s over a few other drivers that I think as you scroll down you’d expect to see on here. But, Newman has been superb lately on these tracks. He has two top five finishes and eight top 10’s over his last 16 starts. He also has seven top 10’s in his last 12 starts on them overall including 16 top 11’s in his last 23. For racing on these tracks being like a lottery, to come away with a top 11 in all but seven starts on these tracks in his last 23 tries is nothing short of remarkable. His eight top 10’s in his last 15 is tied with Denny Hamlin for most in the series in this span.

4. Aric Almirola

He’s scored two wins on superspeedway’s and a third was close a few years ago for the 2018 Daytona 500. Still, Almirola has one win, three top five finishes and six top 10’s in his last 13 and nine top 10 finishes in his last 16 on them overall. The top 10’s rank third most among all active drivers since 2018. Each year we go to Daytona/Talladega, Almirola is a threat.

3. Joey Logano

He was second on this list heading into last year but falls to third entering 2021. Over the last 14 superspeedway races, no one has led as many laps (333) as Logano has in his No. 22 Ford. He’s had one win, five top five finishes (2nd most) and five top 10’s (tied for 4th most) that span as well. He’s also had 11 top six results in his last 22 starts on this discipline of tracks and 19 in his last 34 overall. That’s phenomenal. But, last year he was only 26th, 17th, 27th and 26th respectively in his four points paying starts on superspeedways, allowing him to get passed on this list by his teammate.

2. Ryan Blaney

He’s rapidly ascended on this list. Two of Blaney’s last four wins have come on superspeedway’s. Both coming at Talladega. He was runner-up in the 2019 Daytona 500 as well. In fact, his last five superspeedway starts have seen him finish first, second, first, sixth, 25th, 30th, ninth and respectively. He’s even led 266 laps in the last 15 on these tracks, ranking third only to Logano and Hamlin. He’s rapidly becoming one of the best.

1. Denny Hamlin

How can I not choose him? No one has as many wins on superspeedway’s since 2018 as Hamlin’s three. He also has eight top five finishes in that span with the next best being Logano’s five. His 341 laps led make he, Blaney and Logano as the only drivers to lead at least 200 laps in the last 15 races as well. Hamlin, has won two of the last three Daytona 500’s and three of the last six overall. On superspeedway’s last year, he was first, fourth, third and first respectively. He’s got five career superspeedway wins which is two shy of Brad Keselowski for most in the series today.

Honorable Mention

I’ve got to have Ricky Stenhouse Jr. a close sixth. He has two wins, both coming in 2017. He’s as good as they come but his aggression can sometimes get the best of him. That’s also what it takes to win though, so he’s on that fine line of being from sixth to arguably at the top.

Brad Keselowski just barely misses out here too. Yes, he has the most superspeedway wins (7) as anyone in the sport right now. But, all but one came with the old restrictor plate. He’s not won since the Busch Clash in 2018. His last points paying superspeedway win came back in 2017 at Talladega. He’s had two top fives in his last 19 tries on them. 13 of his last 20 have seen him finish 17th or worse. That’s why he’s slid out.

What Kind Of Work Do Manufacturers Do When They’re Also Fighting Each Other For A Championship?

In order to win a superspeedway race, you need drafting help. These days, the drafting help now comes from your manufacturer. Just look now further on how this affects races than the ending of the Daytona 500. It was a perfect storm per say.

Denny Hamlin had the car to beat in that race. He led a race-high 98 of 200 laps and well on his way to becoming the first three-peat champion in the races 63 year history.

Then the final pit sequence happened.

The Toyota’s hit pit lane last among the three manufacturers. It cost them.

The Fords were lined up and the Toyota’s couldn’t get formed quick enough to stay ahead.

Hamlin, had too big of a lead over teammate Kyle Busch and neither were close enough to use each other as drafting help. The Ford train was coming and blew right by them with 25 laps-to-go.

“We were too far out front (on the final pit stop),” Hamlin said then. “We got on-and-off pit road too good. I was just too far ahead of the pack.”

The pack would go single file and run at the top of the banking all the way around until a few to go. There wasn’t enough energy built up for the Chevrolet’s or Toyota’s to make any ground. They knew it would take a lot for them to break up the five Ford’s up front.

If you go to the bottom line, you need enough cars to build some energy. There just wasn’t enough.

“I figured the Chevys would make a move from two or three to go, because they are not going to win on the last lap from fifth or sixth,” Hamlin continued. “I was able to gain some positions. I think I was 12th and everybody was running single file, so it handcuffed me. I couldn’t really do anything. I hoped once I got to eighth as long as they make a move with two to go, I’m in the energy – in the area where I can make something happen. Dominant car, just a dominant car. Just one of those things that execute too good.”

How does this play into it? We know teammates will work together again as will manufacturers.

Manufacturers and teammates work together almost exclusively on superspeedway’s now. These two are going to have moments where they’re working together.

Toyota started it in 2016, Ford perfected it there after and Chevrolet brought it to a head in the 2019 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 the 2019 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.

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 in April 2019 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 in the Fall that year, 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.

Last year and Daytona this year was the same way. That’s why with what’s at stake, I think you immediately lineup with teammates and run single file up top for a while.

That also means you’re likely going to be battling a teammate for the win in the end too. How do you race a teammate in the end with the ultimate goal of wanting to win and doing everything in your power to do so, but your teammate could block you. It’s not like you can lift. That causes mayhem with the old package, but what about the changes now that were made.

So, if we’re in the same position again, Logano-Keselowski and they’re 1-2 in any order on the final lap, how does this play out where they don’t both wreck and one of them wins?

That’s why with this being a playoff race, how hard will it be in the end pushing a teammate but also trying not to take him out while also thinking championship and this may be a driver you have to beat later?

Is Denny Hamlin The New Championship Favorite?

Heading into the playoffs, Kyle Larson was the driver to beat for this years championship. Now that we’re nearing the midway mark, I think that’s shifted. I think the new favorite is Denny Hamlin.

The Joe Gibbs Racing driver just scored his second win in four races after being shut out in the previous 31 races. Hamlin, has led 42% (645-for-1,534) all laps led this postseason including having three top twos in the playoffs to go along with five stage wins. He’s been in the top four in every stage at that.

The speed is there. With his Las Vegas win, he’s Round of 8 bound. That’s scary for the competition in the sense that Hamlin won at Texas a couple of years ago, has two wins in his last four at Kansas and led nearly half the race at Martinsville this past spring in a third place effort. He’s had four top fives in his last six on the Virginia paper clip.

I think he’s the new favorite.

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