The most unpredictable playoff race in the most dubious postseason is upon us for Sunday’s YellaWood 500 (2 p.m. ET, NBC, MRN) at the Talladega Superspeedway. Due to the 4th straight non championship eligible driver winning in as many playoff races run this year, 12 spots are still available for the Round of 8.
Do we see another driver outside of the playoffs win Sunday’s penultimate race of the second round?
6 times has a non-playoff driver won the NASCAR Cup Series’ playoff race on the high speed 2.66-mile Alabama oval. 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 and last year with Bubba Wallace. Only Wallace is still active in Cup anymore.
However, as you’d notice the years, Wallace’s victory in last October’s rain shortened race is the only time in the win and advance format (introduced to the sport in 2014) that the playoff race was won by an non existing playoff driver.
Playoff drivers are actually 7-for-8.
What we need to watch is the cutline. The last four Talladega playoff winners were outside the top eight in the playoff standings entering Talladega including Wallace not even being in the playoffs last year.
The 4 below the cutline currently are Austin Cindric (-7), William Byron (-8), Christopher Bell (-25) and Alex Bowman (-26).
Byron has 3 top 11 finishes in his last 5 starts at Talladega including a runner-up finish in the spring of 2021. He was 15th this past spring.
Bell was 34th and 19th at Daytona and 22nd here in April. Bowman was 24th and 14th at Daytona and 9th in the spring. Cindric has the best shot among them. He won the Daytona 500 and was 3rd in the August race there too.
What about those above the cutline?
Chase Elliott went from sitting good to sitting stressed. His mulligan is gone as he’s only +11 on the cutline. Elliott was 10th and 29th at Daytona and 7th in the spring. He’s never had a top 5 finish in 6 Fall Talladega starts with just 1 top 10 at that. He could be in peril and in a must-win at the ROVAL if he’s not careful.
Daniel Suarez has 1 career top 10 at Talladega was 18th and 24th at Daytona and 31st here in the spring. Kyle Larson has 1 career top 5 finish in 34 combined superspeedway starts. William Byron was 38th and 34th at Daytona and 15th in the spring. Each of these 4 have to be on upset alert.
Denny Hamlin was 37th and 25th at Daytona and 18th here in the spring. He does have some success here though so we’ll see what happens with him. Similar for Joey Logano (3 time Talladega winner). He was 21st and 12th at Daytona and 32nd in the spring race. Ryan Blaney (2 time Talladega winner) was 4th and 15th at Daytona and 11th in April. Counting his 2018 Daytona Duels win, he has one win in each of the last 4 years on superspeedway’s. So far, he’s been shutout in 2022. Does that change on Sunday? He’s without his crew chief.
That leaves spring race winner Ross Chastain as the one who’s looking for a sweep. That’s a rare feat that’s only happend 4 times in 38 years though with the last coming in 2007.
So who comes out unscathed in a race that could either see some drivers pull away or it could do the opposite in fact and tighten this race up even further.
Stage points are crucial but how much do you risk trying to score them? If you get caught up in a crash by the end of the second stage and get mininal, if any, stage points, you could be in a rough situation heading to Charlotte. You also could risk not getting any stage point to compromise for a better finish but could leaving points on the table put you further behind?
That’s why it’s a risk vs. reward scenario for these teams this weekend.