Photo: Tim Bradbury/Getty Images

Up to Speed – Alabama 500 at Talladega Preview

By David Morgan, NASCAR Editor

Talladega may not be the Round of 12 elimination race any longer, but the mammoth 2.66 mile superspeedway is still a huge wild card and will go a long way toward determining which drivers will be in position to move on to the next round of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs.

Racing at Talladega has always been crazy from the time the track opened back in 1969. From the driver boycott of the first race that led to unknown driver Richard Brickhouse scoring his one and only win in the Cup Series to all of the crazy finishes that have happened since then. To name a few, there was Ron Bouchard sneaking by Darrell Waltrip for the win in 1981, Bill Elliott making up two laps on the field in 1985 to win, Bobby Allison taking out a section of fencing but not going into the grandstand in 1987 to start the restrictor plate era, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. winning four Talladega races in a row, Brad Keselowski spinning Carl Edwards to win in 2009, Jimmie Johnson beating Clint Bowyer to the line by .002 seconds in 2011, and David Ragan taking his underdog Front Row Motorsports team to victory lane back in 2013, along with many others.

The point is, racing at Talladega is unpredictable and anyone in the field has a shot at the win as long as they can be in the right place at the right time. This weekend’s Alabama 500 should be no different, while there will be favorites, any of the cars still running in the closing laps could pull off the win. There’s a reason fans come from far and wide to witness racing at Talladega and that unpredictability is a big part of it.

Sunday’s race will also be the last race at Talladega for six-time winner Dale Earnhardt, Jr. as he looks to add one more win to his resume at the track before hanging up his helmet as a full-time driver in the Cup Series at the end of the season.

By the Numbers

What: Alabama 500, Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Race No. 31 of 36

Where: Talladega Superspeedway – Talladega, Alabama (Opened: 1969)

TV/Radio: NBC, 2:00 pm ET / MRN and Sirius XM NASCAR Channel 90

Track Size: 2.66 mile tri-oval (Turns banked 33 degrees, Tri-oval banked 16.5 degrees)

Race Length: 188 laps, 500.08 miles

Stage Lengths: 55 laps each (First two stages); 78 laps (Final stage)

May 2016 Race Winner: Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. – No. 17 Ford (Started on pole, 14 laps led)

October 2016 Race Winner: Joey Logano – No. 22 Ford (Started 16th, 45 laps led)

Track Qualifying Record: Bill Elliott – 44.998 seconds, 212.809 mph – April 30, 1987

Top-10 Highest Driver Ratings:

  • Chase Elliott – No. 24 Chevrolet – 91.4 (Best finish: 5th)
  • Dale Earnhardt, Jr. – No. 88 Chevrolet – 91.0 (6 wins)
  • Brad Keselowski – No. 2 Ford – 88.7 (4 wins)
  • Kurt Busch – No. 41 Ford – 88.4 (Best finish: 3rd)
  • Jimmie Johnson – No. 48 Chevrolet – 88.1 (2 wins)
  • Matt Kenseth – No. 20 Toyota – 87.1 (1 win)
  • Joey Logano – No. 22 Ford – 84.6 (2 wins)
  • Ryan Blaney – No. 21 Ford – 84.3 (Best finish: 4th)
  • Denny Hamlin – No. 11 Toyota – 84.2 (1 win)
  • Kevin Harvick – No. 4 Ford – 81.5 (1 win)

Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoff Standings:

  1. Martin Truex Jr. (Advances to Round of 8 – Charlotte win)
  2. Kyle Larson (+29 above elimination cut-off)
  3. Kevin Harvick (+26)
  4. Chase Elliott (+16)
  5. Denny Hamlin (+13)
  6. Kyle Busch (+12)
  7. Jimmie Johnson (+8)
  8. Jamie McMurray (+1)
  9. Matt Kenseth (-1 below elimination cut-off)
  10. Brad Keselowski (-2)
  11. Ryan Blaney (-5)
  12. Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. (-10)

From the Driver’s Seat

“It’s so difficult to predict Talladega,” said Kurt Busch. “You can ride around in the back, or charge up front all day and, either way, your day can end with your car on the hook. You just hope to have Lady Luck guide you to a good finish. Restrictor-plate races have turned into this pattern that it is hard to have any type of advantage over any other team. It just comes down to being in the right place at the right time.”

“You’ve got to be able to know the draft, understand the draft, use the draft, block other guys, find holes, make holes. It’s definitely a chess game because you’re always thinking three or four steps ahead. It’s tough to get caught up when you make a mistake. You’ve got to quickly get rid of that and put together a new plan. At the end of the race, everybody is saving their best for the end. Cars are just going everywhere. The plan you thought you had, you’ve got to make a new one. You’ve got to go on the fly.”

Last Time at Talladega

Restrictor plate tracks are considered the great equalizer, with anyone in the field having a shot at the win and back in May, the checkered flag went to Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., a driver not many would have picked to win entering the race weekend.

“It’s been a long time coming,” said Stenhouse. “We’ve run really well here at Talladega. This is the closest race track to home. I got a lot of cheers riding around here today and the fans were awesome. We had a lot packed in here at Talladega and it felt old-school. Man, to finally get that win for Jack (Roush) and everyone on our team is really special.”

Stenhouse kicked things off on the right foot as he powered his way to the pole, besting six-time Talladega winner, Earnhardt, Jr., for the right to lead the field to green in front of a crowd nearing 100,000 that filled the Talladega grandstands on race day.

Even though he had won the pole, that was no clear indication that race day would end with the No. 17 team in victory lane as a driver had failed to do so since Jeff Gordon in 2007.

Stenhouse led the first 13 laps before trash on the grille of his car forced him to give up the lead to Brad Keselowski. Even as he fell back to 18th, Stenhouse meticulously worked his way back toward the front of the field by the end of the first stage, finishing second to Keselowski in that first 55-lap segment.

After a four-tire pit stop and adjustment under the stage break, Stenhouse returned to the track in fourth place.

The second 55-lap stage was less fruitful for Stenhouse, as he got shuffled out of the lead pack shortly after the restart, falling all the way back to 17th place and then dropped back to 30th as the stage was winding to a close, deciding to move there to avoid the inevitable “Big One” that looked like it was going to happen.

Though Stenhouse had his work cut out for him over the final 78 laps, he methodically worked his way forward, breaking back into the top-10 with 60 laps to go.

However, with 26 laps to go, Stenhouse got into Ryan Blaney after he checked up while the field was trying to pass a lapped car, sending Blaney for a spin and causing some damage to the front end of Stenhouse’s car. After repairs, Stenhouse restarted the final 23 laps all the way back in 32nd.

Despite the restart deep in the field, that turned out to be Stenhouse’s saving grace when a huge 18-car crash broke out on the backstretch with 18 laps to go. Avoiding the smoke and spinning cars, Stenhouse drove right through the crash, coming out in 10th place when the red flag flew to get the wreck cleaned up.

From that point on, Stenhouse used his Roush horsepower to his advantage, powering his way into the top-five with a clear shot to the lead. As he was well on his way toward the front, the final caution of the day came out with two laps left, setting up overtime and a shootout to decide the winner of the race.

Restarting on the front row alongside Kyle Busch, Stenhouse just missed out on leading the first lap of overtime, but on the final lap, that’s when Stenhouse really shined, blowing past Busch and setting sail from that point on. Busch never had enough help to get back to Stenhouse.

Weekend Schedule (All Times Eastern)

Friday, October 13

  • MENCS Practice (1:00 pm to 1:55 pm – NBC Sports Network)
  • MENCS Final Practice (3:00 to 3:55 pm – NBC Sports Network)

Saturday, October 14

  • MENCS Qualifying (4:15 pm – NBC Sports Network)

Sunday, October 15

  • MENCS Alabama 500 at Talladega (2:00 pm – 188 laps, 500.08 miles – NBC)

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David Morgan is the Associate Editor for Motorsports Tribune. A 2008 graduate from the University of Mississippi, David has followed NASCAR since the early 90’s and became hooked at an early age after attending his first race at Talladega Superspeedway in 1993. He has traveled across the country since 2012 to cover some of the most prestigious events both IndyCar and NASCAR have to offer, with an aim to only expand on that in the near future.