NASCAR Pre-Race Media: 5 burning questions for Sunday’s GEICO 500 (3 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN)

Why We Likely Won’t See A Fluke Winner?

On a season that’s been full of fluke winners, you’d think we’d see another one Sunday at the Talladega Superspeedway. 8 of the 9 races in 2022 run were won by drivers with double digit odds including 3 drivers already scoring 1st time victories this season.

2022 Winners:

Daytona – Austin Cindric (28/1)

Fontana – Kyle Larson (4/1)

Las Vegas – Alex Bowman (18/1)

Phoenix – Chase Briscoe (50/1)

Atlanta – William Byron (12/1)

COTA – Ross Chastain (25/1)

Richmond – Denny Hamlin (12/1)

Martinsville – William Byron (12/1)

Bristol Dirt – Kyle Busch (16/1)

9 of the last 15 superspeedway race winners in Cup competition having earned either their first or second career victories. Michael McDowell won his first career race at Daytona last February and Bubba Wallace at Talladega last Fall.

33% (3-for-9) of the races run this season have been won by 1st time winners. 2 of the last 3 race winners took over the lead inside of 5 laps-to-go. Half of the superspeedway races last year saw the winner lead just 1 lap all day – the final one. In fact, it happened in this very race last season. Will Sunday’s GEICO 500 produce another longer shot?

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

Since 1995, we’ve really only seen what you could consider seven “fluke” winners at the Talladega Superspeedway. That’s seven in the last 54 races on the 2.66-mile high banked oval. Even out of those seven, 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 as well.

Bubba Wallace won last Fall but it’s not like he’s been terrible on these tracks either. He was running second on the final lap at Atlanta, finished second in the last two Daytona races and won at Talladega for what should be four straight top two results on these tracks.

That’s it.

Just seven 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), Michael McDowell (1st career Cup win) and Austin Cindric (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 7 of the 8 playoff winners 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. They’re favorites for a reason and it’s paid off here.

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

Still, in saying that, 10 of the last 18 superspeedway race winners in Cup competition have earned either their first or second career victories in them. But, 5 of the last 10 at Talladega and 8 of the last 12 at Daytona, saw drivers won their first or second superspeedway race on them too.


TALLADEGA, ALABAMA – APRIL 25: Brad Keselowski, driver of the #2 MoneyLion Ford, celebrates with a burnout after winning the NASCAR Cup Series GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway on April 25, 2021 in Talladega, Alabama. (Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images)

Will Ford Dominate Again?

Ford’s have been the most dominate manufacturer on superspeedway’s lately. That didn’t change at Daytona back in February either. They went 1-2-3-4-5 in the opening practice and then 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10 in the second one. While Chevy’s flexed their muscles in qualifying, Ford’s went 1-2-3-4 and 1-2-3 in the two Duels a day later. In the Friday practice, the Ford’s were 1-2-3-4-5-6 again before being 1-2-3-4-5 in final practice.

So in the race, it’s not shocking that they put 7 cars in the top nine finishing spots including a Daytona 500 triumph.

At Talladega, they’ve won 3 out of the last 5 including 10 of the last 13 in general. In terms of the spring race, Ford has won 5 out of the last 6 years.

That’s great news for Team Penske, Stewart-Haas Racing, Wood Brothers and RFK Racing.

Penske has Joey Logano who’s not won an oval race on pavement since Oct. 2020 but is a past winner at ‘Dega. Cindric, won the Daytona 500 while Blaney won the Coke Zero Sugar 400 last August as well as taking 2 of the last 4 Talladega victories.

Harrison Burton looked good at Daytona and was even in the lead group before ending up flipped.

Brad Keselowski and Chris Buescher combined to win both Duels in Daytona with Keselowski leading the most laps in the ‘500 itself too. The last time RFK has won? 2017 at both Talladega and Daytona.

Then for SHR, they had 2 cars finish in the top five at Daytona, a third in Kevin Harvick having a top five car before being collected in a crash while racing for the win inside of 10 to go and a fourth who’s been fast lately.

I think Ford gets the job done on Sunday.


TALLADEGA, ALABAMA – APRIL 25: Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 FedEx Ground Toyota, Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Busch Dog Brew Ford, Joey Logano, driver of the #22 Autotrader Ford, Chase Elliott, driver of the #9 NAPA Auto Parts Chevrolet, Cole Custer, driver of the #41 HaasTooling.com Ford, Martin Truex Jr., driver of the #19 Bass Pro Toyota, and Bubba Wallace, driver of the #23 DoorDash Toyota, race during the NASCAR Cup Series GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway on April 25, 2021 in Talladega, Alabama. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Will Talladega Shake Up Playoff Grid Again?

We’ve seen 8 different winners in the first 9 races run this season. 3 of of the 8 were 1st time winners at that. So, will Talladega further shift this further up the column?

60% of the last 10 Cup races at Talladega have seen the victor earning either in their first or second career victories. Its actually happened in at least 1 of their 2 annual races for 5 straight years now.

This weekend, 12 of the 39 drivers entered in Sunday’s GEICO 500 are still looking for their first NASCAR Cup Series victory. Those drivers are – Corey LaJoie, Tyler Reddick, Daniel Hemric, Harrison Burton, Todd Gilliland, Ty Dillon, JJ Yeley, Cody Ware, Noah Gragson, Landon Cassill, BJ McLeod and Daniel Suarez.

Yeley is 0-for-336, Cassill is 0-for-329, Dillon is 0-for-175, LaJoie is 0-for-173, Suarez is 0-for-188, McLeod 0-for-92, Reddick 0-for-83, Ware 0-for-64, Hemric is 0-for-41, Burton is 0-for-10, Gilliland is 0-for-9, Grala 0-for-6 and Gragson is 0-for-2.

Then you have guys with long winless droughts too.

David Ragan (240 starts), Chris Buescher (204 races), Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (172 races), Greg Biffle (132 starts), Justin Haley (99 races), Erik Jones (92 races), Cole Custer (64 races), Austin Dillon (63 races), Kevin Harvick (52 races), Michael McDowell (44 races), Christopher Bell (43 races), Joey Logano (38 races) and Brad Keselowski (35 races) are riding streaks of a year long.

Keselowski hasn’t won since this race a year ago. Logano hasn’t won since Bristol Dirt last season. McDowell and Bell won the first two races of 2021 at Daytona. The rest haven’t seen victory lane since 2020 or prior.

Which gives? Do you get a first time winner on the season, a first career winner or a usual suspect?

Out of the drivers who’ve won this season (Austin Cindric, Kyle Larson, Alex Bowman, William Byron, Ross Chastain, Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch and Chase Briscoe), only 2 of them have won at Talladega before. Larson has 0 top 5’s in his career there. Busch’s last eight finishes in the Fall Talladega race have been 11th or worse including his last six being 30th, 27th, 26th, 19th, 27th and 27th respectively. He was 32nd and 18th the last two spring races too as well as being 10th or worse in 4 straight spring races.

Something has to give.


TALLADEGA, ALABAMA – OCTOBER 04: Bubba Wallace, driver of the #23 McDonald’s Toyota, leads Kurt Busch, driver of the #1 Monster Energy Chevrolet, and Christopher Bell, driver of the #20 Rheem Toyota, during the NASCAR Cup Series YellaWood 500 at Talladega Superspeedway on October 04, 2021 in Talladega, Alabama. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Must Wins for Keselowski/Wallace On Sunday?

Both Brad Keselowski and Bubba Wallace won the two Talladega races last year. In the return trip this weekend, are each facing a must win?

The thing is, Talladega could be a place where Keselowski (6 wins) gets his much needed victory. RFK Racing has looked much like Roush Fenway Racing of years past Keselowski, has elevated them a bit but with the massive points penalty after Atlanta, they’re in a huge hole and likely need to win to secure a spot into the postseason.

He has 1 top 10 all season. It came in Daytona.

Keselowski and his teammate Chris Buescher won the Duels in Daytona though and had great cars in the Daytona 500 itself too. Keselowski, was rather aggressive with his pushes in Daytona but that’s likely because he knows that his best shots of a win in 2022 are on these types of tracks.

What will happen this weekend?

He’s the defending race winner and needs a victory. So could Buescher. So could someone like Stenhouse Jr. What about a sleeper like Corey LaJoie? Erik Jones looked racy in Daytona so he and Ty Dillon could steal a victory too.

Translation?

We could get an unlikely winner stealing a playoff berth on Sunday.

That’s why he and even someone like Bubba Wallace are maybe facing must wins.

Wallace, like Keselowski, has 1 top 10 all season himself. It also came in a runner-up effort in the season opening Daytona 500 too. The thing is, his last three top five finishes have all come on these types of tracks. He was runner-up in last August’s Coke Zero Sugar 400. He won the Fall Talladega race. He was running in second at the white flag in Atlanta last month for which was a similar package to Daytona/Talladega.

What makes him so good here?

Did he learn anything from how Daytona and Atlanta ended on if he’s in a similar situation again on Sunday?

He could use a victory. He’s 22nd in points and a win this year would do wonders for his chances in the playoffs.


Will Racing Be Treacherous?

Daytona was almost like a return to old superspeedway racing. The cars were harder to drive and slipping and sliding all over the place.

Side drafting is vastly different meaning the cars in the corners are way more sketchier than in years past. Plus, not only are speeds slower, the days of the high speed train forming a single file conga line type parade on the high line of the track are probably gone.

“The cars are built symmetrical. Last year’s car was built asymmetrical, and so this car is built symmetrical, and specifically how that affects it is when the cars were asymmetrical the side draft off the right side was really, really sensitive and the side draft off the left side was not sensitive at all — well, it was minimally sensitive,” Keselowski said. “So you never really wanted to expose your right side. If somebody got underneath you, you could come back down and grab their right rear quarter panel and just stop them.

“So that naturally created this kind of gravitation towards the top lanes at all the plate tracks. With this car being symmetrical and that not being the case, I think the racing will be significantly better because that high lane freight train won’t be there.

“I felt like early in the race I was behind Ryan Blaney for a while early in the race, and I was ready to go, and he stayed calm, which was smart on his part, I guess. He stayed calm but I felt like we could have pushed and made the second lane work. I think all of us wanted to get through that pit stop and stretch our legs out and take it from there.”

In saying that, it’s easier to lose the draft if you get too sideways or out of the throttle at some point trying to save your car.

So is pit strategy.

Just look further on how this affects races than the ending of last year’s 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.”

This time around, the low lane is the preferred lane and could take a lot of energy to build up the high line.

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

It happened in the Duels. The Chevys blinked first in the opening Duel. The Fords came a lap later. The Fords flipped ahead of them after.

If you have any sort of sloppiness during your pit stop, you honestly ruin it for the whole group. The larger the group of cars to draft with the more energy and speed you gain. By breaking a group up while another remained in form entering and exiting pit lane, well it doesn’t take a top engineer to know which group will cycle ahead.

So, with this being a 500 mile race and featuring several pits stops throughout the day, the ones who have the best efforts on and off pit road will be the ones who succeed the most in track position.

That leads to the main question of how many cars do we wad up? When you look at the box scores over the last five years, you’d see a lot of torn up equipment on there.

That’s why if once you get to the closing laps at Daytona or Talladega, due to the attrition rate being so high late in the race, the odds of being caught up in a wreck are substantially higher than actually crossing the finish line unscathed. So, you have to be aggressive as a result of that.

If you’re still around and have evaded some of those big crashes towards the end, you have to take advantage as this could be you’re one and only opportunity of cashing in.

“You typically go to Daytona and even Talladega expecting to crash,” said Brad Keselowski. “The odds are more favorable for carnage than a win.”

That’s why the aggression really ramps up in the final laps. You have to. There’s too much at stake.

The thing is, how will the racing overall look? Last year, we saw a pair of 35 lead changes in each race. In 2020, it was 57 and 58 respectively. For the Daytona 500, we saw 35 lead changes among 13 drivers.

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