By David Morgan, Associate Editor
TALLADEGA, Ala. – The Round of 12 comes down to one race.
Following the conclusion of Sunday’s YellaWood 500 at Talladega Superspeedway, the picture has become clearer for the drivers not yet locked into the next round of the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs.
Among the 10 drivers still hoping to punch their ticket to the Round of 8, there are some that just need a solid day on the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL, while others will need a win or some help to be able to make it through.
Ryan Blaney and William Byron have already locked themselves into the next round after winning at Talladega and Texas, respectably.
Behind them, Denny Hamlin is in the best position of those drivers still not locked in, carrying a 50-point surplus into next week, followed by Christopher Bell (+22), Chris Buescher (+19), Martin Truex Jr. (+17), and Kyle Larson (+15).
From eighth on back, it’s a free-for all.
Here’s how it all breaks down:
Brad Keselowski – No. 6 RFK Racing Ford (+2 over the cut-off line)
Keselowski, a six-time winner at Talladega, came into the day hoping to add a seventh to his resume and move on to the next round of the Playoffs, but when he found himself mired back in traffic and needing to make up some ground on the leaders, an untimely shove brought his day to an early end.
As the field came through the tri-oval on Lap 162, Keselowski was lined up behind Carson Hocevar on the outside lane and a nudge to the back bumper of Hocevar’s Chevrolet sent it around, collecting Keselowski and a number of other cars in the process.
Keselowski’s car briefly got airborne in the incident before setting back down, with the impact causing too much damage to be able to fix and his race would be over. He would be credited with a 33rd place finish when all was said and done.
Given his finish, only losing six points to where he was entering the day could be considered a win. As long as he doesn’t have another bad day at Charlotte, he’ll be in the mix to transfer.
“It was one of those Talladega deals,” Keselowski said. “We had a really really good Ford Mustang and we were up front for a while. We led the second stage and won the second stage, so that felt good. We got shuffled there a few laps before the incident and was trying to claw our way back in the third lane. The 42 pulled up in front of me and I just gave him a push and it kind of instantly spun out on him. It’s unfortunate, but part of the deal.”
Tyler Reddick – No. 45 23XI Racing Toyota (-2 points)
Despite a 17th place finish on the day at Talladega, Tyler Reddick was able to keep the status quo in the points standings, gaining a point over the cut-off line compared to where he started the race.
Though he would have liked to bring home a better finish to make things easier on himself and his team at Charlotte, he was stuck in a Talladega traffic jam in the waning laps and just didn’t have the time or space to be able to advance forward.
As the Cup Series heads to Charlotte, Reddick will look to parlay past road course success into a berth in the next round of the Playoffs. Reddick already has one road course win this season, having won at COTA earlier this season and has finished in the top-10 in the last two races on the Charlotte ROVAL.
“Outside by two is not really bad for us, I don’t think, as long as we left better than we came in, I felt good about our chances,” Reddick said. “It’s pretty straight forward right. I think we will have to go after stage points, but that is okay. If we can get 20 there, I’m sure we can salvage a good finish and make it to the round of 8.”
Ross Chastain – No. 1 Trackhouse Racing Chevrolet (-9 points)
Chastain, who came into the day with a 12-point advantage over the cut-off line, just needed a clean race to be able to keep that gap and remain in the top-eight, but at the end of Stage 1, everything came crashing down around him.
As the field stormed into Turn 3 on the final lap of the stage, Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. ran out of fuel ahead of Kyle Busch just as Chastain was attempting to make a move around another car, leading to Chastain and Busch making contact, which sent Chastain into the wall.
The damage was too much to be repaired and Chastain limped his car back to the garage, ending his day just 60 laps in. As a result, he would be credited with a last place finish.
“It’s just the way it goes. Nothing personal with it,” Chastain said. “I don’t take any of this personally here (Talladega Superspeedway). I could have stayed on the bottom a few laps earlier probably and would have been safer. I just had a couple of cars land in my lap there and I went for the gap. Obviously, I wish I would have lifted now, but I’ll study that and be better next time.”
After finishing dead last on the day, the damage to Chastain’s points position could have been much worse, but he’ll head to Charlotte with a manageable nine-point gap to make up.
However, he’ll have to turn the tide on his past luck on the oval/road course hybrid if he has any chance of moving on. In four starts on the Charlotte ROVAL, Chastain has struggled, with a best finish of 22nd coming in 2019.
“Lefts and rights, and living my dreams. Whatever our team brings next week, we’ll put our best foot forward. As long as I’m getting to drive these rocketships that Trackhouse Racing brings me, I’m living my dream and we’ll keep fighting.”
Bubba Wallace – No. 23 23XI Racing Toyota (-9 points)
Bubba Wallace came into Talladega just needing to hold serve or not lose a ton of ground in the standings and despite a 24th place finish, he is still very much alive in the battle for the Round of 8.
Wallace had hoped to put his superspeedway prowess to good use on Sunday, but as he found himself mired back in traffic in the waning laps, there was just no path forward to move up the leaderboard and improve his points outlook.
To make matters worse, he would be collected in the final crash of the day, a multi-car melee that broke out as the field raced toward the finish line.
“I made a wrong call there. I cost us and the 45 [Reddick] a lot of positions and a really good day. Didn’t make the right moves there at the end, just trying to make up for what we had lost on track position wise.”
Now it all comes down to the ROVAL, which Wallace has had a love/hate relationship with throughout the entirety of its existence, but with improved performance on road courses this season, good days may still lie ahead for the No. 23 team.
“Just another race to go out and execute,” Wallace said of his mindset for Charlotte. “Keep all four fenders on it and all four tires on the race track and we’ll see what happens.”
Kyle Busch – No. 8 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet (-26 points)
Win or go home.
The Round of 12 has been rough for two-time Cup Series champion Kyle Busch, with a crash at Texas a week ago that put him behind the eight-ball to start the round and Talladega just piled on more agony that has left Busch in a must-win position heading to Charlotte.
Early in the race, Busch was involved in a crash with Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. after Stenhouse ran out of gas and Busch ran into the back of him, causing damage to his Chevrolet.
Busch’s team was able to get the car back in decent aerodynamic shape and Busch climbed back toward the front on a few occasions, but just found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time at the end, leaving him with a 26th place finish.
“The car was fine,” Busch said. “When I could make moves, get in good positions and put myself in good spots, I could get up towards the front. My chess match is apparently horrible or I get hung-out every time it comes down to the end and we just lose spots.”
Given the ground in the standings he will need to make up next weekend, it’s either score the walk-off win and advance or shift focus to 2024.
“That’s our last shot, so we’ll see what we get.”