There is arguably even more drama than normal for drivers in Saturday’s Sparks 300 at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway (4 p.m. ET on USA Network, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). And that’s saying a lot at NASCAR’s largest oval track.
A Playoff driver can punch an automatic ticket into the next round of championship competition and current championship leader Noah Gragson could well make NASCAR history.
Gragson already earned his automatic berth into the Playoffs’ Round of 8 competition with a celebrated victory in the Round of 12-opener at Texas Motor Speedway on Saturday. His work in the No. 9 JR Motorsports Chevrolet marked his fourth consecutive win – tying a 39-year-old high-mark set by Sam Ard in 1983.
If Gragson can take the checkered flag again this weekend, he would become the only driver in Xfinity Series history to earn five straight race wins. And Gragson goes into the race fresh off a victory there this Spring – the only driver among the Playoff 12 with a win at the famed big track.
Beyond Gragson in the points standings, Regular Season Champion A.J. Allmendinger in second holds a slim 1-point advantage over Ty Gibbs in third with Austin Hill in fourth, 43 points back from Gragson with races at Talladega and then the Charlotte ROVAL to set the eight-driver group that advances in the Playoffs.
Although he didn’t win, Hill led a race best 67 laps before crashing out of the Spring race at Talladega. Gibbs was also eliminated in an accident and finished 35th in his series debut at the 2.66-mile track.
Brandon Brown is the defending winner of this Fall Talladega race, claiming his first career race trophy at Talladega last October. Current Playoff drivers Brandon Jones, Justin Allgaier – who will be making his 400th career series start on Saturday – and reigning series champion Daniel Hemric rounded out the top-four in that race last year.
Gragson, a series-best seven race winner on the season, brings as much confidence as motivation to Talladega. He’s had three top-five and five top-10 finishes in seven Talladega starts – and obviously the win earlier this season. And Chevrolet, which he drives, has won eight of the last nine Xfinity Series races at Talladega.
“This season has just been incredible,” Gragson said. Adding of his team, “They have been amazing all year and it’s all coming together at the right time. It was a pretty wild finish last time at Talladega and it will probably be that way again this weekend.
“We’re already in the Round of 8 and that takes some of the pressure off this weekend.”
Joining the championship favorites and fulltime drivers this week are racer/NBC Sports broadcaster Parker Kligerman and 2011 Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne, along with Timmy Hill and Jeffrey Earnhardt, who finished a career-best runner-up to Gragson in April.
Qualifying for the race begins at 5:30 p.m. ET on Friday and will be aired on USA Network