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

Will We See A Playoff Winner Or Non Playoff Winner Sunday?

On a season that’s been full of fluke winners, you’d think we’d see another one Sunday afternoon at the Talladega Superspeedway. All 4 of the playoff races so far were won by a non-playoff driver. This race last year was won by a non-playoff driver too.

However, I just don’t think we see it in the middle race of the 2nd round though.

Yes, we’ve seen Bubba Wallace (Talladega last year), Austin Cindric (Daytona 500), Ross Chastain (Talladega this year) and Austin Dillon (Coke Zero Sugar 400) win the last 4 superspeedway races. However, this streak has got to end at some point as we’re running out of fluke drivers to reach victory lane.

10 of the last 17 superspeedway race winners in Cup competition at either Daytona or Talladega having earned their first or second career victories in the process.

However, Daytona more so than Talladega, produces more random winners.

What I mean by that is, since 1995, we’ve really only seen what you could consider 8 “fluke” winners at the Talladega Superspeedway. That’s seven in the last 58 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 2 of the last 3 Daytona races and won at Talladega for what should be four top two results in his last 6 starts on these tracks.

Then Ross Chastain this past April.

That’s it.

Just 8 times since 1995 has a driver earned their first or second career wins at Talladega. Wallace last year was just the 12th driver to pick up his 1st career win at Talladega joining Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (2017), Brad Keselowski (2009), Brian Vickers (2006), Ken Schrader (1988), Phil Parsons (1988), Davey Allison (1987), Bobby Hillin Jr. (1986), Ron Bouchard (1981), Lennie Pond (1978), Dick Brooks (1973) and Richard Brickhouse (1969).

Also, under this win and advance playoff format that first debuted in 2014, 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.

FORT WORTH, TEXAS – SEPTEMBER 25: Martin Truex Jr., driver of the #19 Bass Pro Shops Toyota, spins into the wall after an on-track incident that Kyle Larson, driver of the #5 Chevrolet, avoids during the NASCAR Cup Series Auto Trader EchoPark Automotive 500 at Texas Motor Speedway on September 25, 2022 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images)

Can We Get A Non Chaotic Playoff Race?

This has been an otherwise disastrous 2022 postseason thus far. Between the chaos in the Southern 500 that saw two race leaders drop out in the end due to mechanical failures not of their doing to a playoff driver seeing his car spontaneously combust while running in the top 5.

The last 3 weeks have seen a lot of tire problems. It started at Kansas, carried over to Bristol to where the Ford drivers struggled with their tires and Toyota’s with their powersteering then to Texas to where we witnessed a race that went green at 3:49 p.m. ET, ended after 9 ET and witnessed 16 cautions for 91 laps.

Now we head to Talladega to where it was originally slated as the most chaotic playoff race on the schedule.

Can we get through the weekend without chaos?

So far, this year’s playoffs have been more of a fight of survival and eliminating damage than showing an outright force.

DAYTONA BEACH, FLORIDA – AUGUST 28: Joey Logano, driver of the #22 Shell Pennzoil Ford, Chase Elliott, driver of the #9 A SHOC Chevrolet, Harrison Burton, driver of the #21 Dex Imaging Ford, Martin Truex Jr., driver of the #19 Bass Pro Shops Toyota, and Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 Interstate Batteries Toyota, race during the NASCAR Cup Series Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona International Speedway on August 28, 2022 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by Meg Oliphant/Getty Images)

Is There Still An Art To Superspeedway Racing?

One thing that’s been a noticeable trend at the annual Daytona and Talladega stops now is that most of the top drivers in the sport struggle on these tracks.

Daytona hasn’t had a NASCAR Cup Series champion win there since the 2017 Daytona 500 (Kurt Busch). In fact, the only driver to have won a championship in this playoff era that we’re in now (since 2014) and a race at Daytona since 2011 even is Joey Logano and Jimmie Johnson.

That’s it.

Kevin Harvick won the 2014 Cup Series title but since that season, he’s 0-for-35 at Daytona/Talladega. He does have 3 wins but that came in 86 starts.

Kyle Busch won the 2015 and 2019 Cup titles. Since 2014, he’s also 0-for-35.

Jimmie Johnson took home the championship in 2016. He’s not won in that same time frame with his last Daytona win coming in 2013 and Talladega in 2011.

Martin Truex Jr. (2017 champion) has never won a superspeedway race. He’s 0-for-70 with only 6 career top 5’s in those races.

Joey Logano (2018 champion) probably has the most success with a 2015 Daytona 500 win and 3 Talladega victories. However, his last win came in the spring race of 2018 too.

Chase Elliott (2020 champion) has 1 win (spring Talladega in 2019) while Kyle Larson (2021 champion) is like Truex in that he’s winless in 32 career starts on them himself with just 1 top 5 finish.

As you can see, the champions of the sport aren’t thriving on these tracks which in turn has opened the door for others to steal wins away.

Which leads to the question, is there an art to superspeedway racing anymore? In the past, you’d see names like Earnhardt, Gordon, Irvan, Jarrett, Marlin and a handful of others win these races. They made it look almost easy on how dominant they were.

Some say Earnhardt could see the air which is why he was so good as maneuvering his way through the draft.

But now-a-days, it’s almost like it’s a lottery to win one of these races. There’s a higher chance of getting caught up in a crash than there is winning, let alone even finishing a race at these places.

Is it a byproduct of all these big named drivers racing up front then all crashing together? That’s part of it. But they know the rules going in and they know that you have to be there in the end to win it.

“Do we need more superspeedways?” Joey Logano asked Saturday. “Is that the type of racing fans want to see? Because when you look at the way that people have finished up front in these superspeedways lately, (they) are the ones that are riding around in the back.

“Do you believe that you should be rewarded for not working? Because that’s what they’re doing. They’re riding around in the back not working, not going up there to put a good race on. They’re riding around in the back and capitalizing on other people’s misfortune for racing up front trying to win. I don’t think it’s right. That’s not racing. I can’t get behind that.”

Did stage points on the line affect it?

Could be. It would make a lot of sense because up until that point, it was Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson and a few others winning these races. Since really 2016 on, outside of Denny Hamlin, the names you’re seeing winning these races are Justin Haley, Michael McDowell, Austin Cindric, Austin Dillon, William Byron, Erik Jones, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Ross Chastain, Bubba Wallace and Ryan Blaney.

Are they just playing the game better than the rest? Are they more skilled even? Or is this just a product now that when we go to these tracks it takes way more luck than it does skill?

“As a race car driver, that’s what you want,” said Daniel Suarez. “You want that ability to run around and to show your skills. In superspeedways … everyone is bumping, everyone is pushing, and you can not show your skills as much.”

In the past, no one would argue that restrictor plate racing was an art. It was like dirt racing. The best always had an advantage. Now, it’s almost like it’s so even that there is no advantage when coming here. It’s the same opportunity for everyone.

TALLADEGA, ALABAMA – APRIL 25: Chase Elliott, driver of the #9 NAPA Auto Parts Chevrolet, Alex Bowman, driver of the #48 Ally Chevrolet, and William Byron, driver of the #24 Liberty University Chevrolet, spin into the infield grass during the NASCAR Cup Series GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway on April 25, 2021 in Talladega, Alabama. (Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images)

What Happened To Hendrick Motorsports’ Speedway Program?

At one point Hendrick Motorsports was the top team on restrictor plate tracks. At Talladega, they had 6 wins in an 8 race span. They’ve won 3 of the 29 Talladega races since with Chase Elliott’s spring race in 2019 being their only trip to victory lane here since this Fall race in 2015.

For Daytona, Hendrick Motorsports is tied with the Wood Brothers for most wins there in the NASCAR Cup Series. Each have 15. Both have also won those 15 races with 7 different drivers. However, HMS’ once dominance prowess has since cooled at the World Center of Racing too. They won 11 races between 1995 and 2015. In fact, 7 of those 11 occurred from July 2004 and July 2015. They’ve won the Coke Zero Sugar 400 race 6 times.

Since 2016 there, they have just 1 win. What’s bizarre is, it’s not like they’ve not shown up down here without speed. They’ve arguably had the fastest cars off the truck. It’s just that they’ve not had race day speed to correlate with race day handling.

Hendrick Motorsports teammates Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott shared the front row at Daytona back in August. It’s was actually the 4th straight HMS pole at Daytona and 12th in the last 16 tries on the high banked 2.5-mile Florida superspeedway. The only 4 poles that they didn’t win was Greg Biffle (July 2016), Joey Logano (July 2019), Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (February 2020) and Kevin Harvick (Aug. 2020). However, 2 of the 4 weren’t won on speed. Logano’s pole in 2019 was on points. Same for Harvick in 2020 as we didn’t qualify that year. However, they failed to win with having just 1 win in the last 13 Daytona races now. Elliott led the most laps (31) but none of them even scored a top 10.

Can they turn this tide around this weekend in Talladega?

The “Big One” occurs on Lap 137 of Sunday’s Coke Zero Sugar 400

Denny Hamlin/Joey Logano?

At one point, Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano were the top drivers on these types of tracks. They’ve got 9 superspeedway victories between them.

Since though, they’ve not had the best of success.

Logano was 32nd in Talladega this spring with finishes of 21st, 9th, 32nd, 26th and 12th on superspeedways this season. Last year, he was 12th and 23rd at Daytona and 39th and 3rd at Talladega. In 2020, he was 26th and 27th at Daytona and 17th and 26th at Talladega. His final 2 superspeedway starts in 2019 were 25th and 11th.

That’s just 1 top 5 and 2 top 10’s in the last 15 superspeedway starts and no wins on these tracks since the 2018 spring race here.

Hamlin is always a threat on superspeedway’s but his finishes on them this year are 37th, 29th, 18th, 25th and 25th too.

Did they lose their advantage or is this just a case of bad luck?

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