Photo: Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images

Up to Speed: Hellmann’s 500 at Talladega

By David Morgan, NASCAR Contributor

The Round of 12 all comes down to this. After races at Charlotte and Kansas to set the stage for Sunday’s elimination race, the 10 drivers not locked into the next round will battle the massive 2.66 mile superspeedway for the right to be able to advance to the Round of Eight when the checkered flag falls on Sunday.

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, 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.

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 Hellmann’s 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.

By the Numbers

Opened: 1969

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

Race Length: 188 laps, 500.08 miles

May 2016 Race Winner: Brad Keselowski – No. 2 Ford (Started seventh, 46 laps led)

October 2016 Race Winner: Joey Logano – No. 22 Ford (Started 10th, 20 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 – 101.3
  • Matt Kenseth – No. 20 Toyota – 89.2
  • Jimmie Johnson – No. 48 Chevrolet – 88.6
  • Kurt Busch – No. 41 Chevrolet – 88.3
  • Brad Keselowski – No. 2 Ford – 87.1
  • Denny Hamlin – No. 11 Toyota – 82.9
  • Joey Logano – No. 22 Ford – 81.9
  • Kevin Harvick – No. 4 Chevrolet – 80.9
  • Jamie McMurray – No. 1 Chevrolet – 80.7
  • Ryan Blaney – No. 21 Ford – 80.7

Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Standings:

  1. Jimmie Johnson (Charlotte winner)
  2. Kevin Harvick (Kansas winner)
  3. Matt Kenseth (+29 over Chase cut-off)
  4. Kyle Busch (+27)
  5. Carl Edwards (+24)
  6. Kurt Busch (+17)
  7. Martin Truex, Jr. (+13)
  8. Joey Logano (Tied for final Chase transfer)
  9. Austin Dillon (Tied for final Chase transfer)
  10. Denny Hamlin (-6 from Chase cut-off)
  11. Brad Keselowski (-7)
  12. Chase Elliott (-25)

From the Driver’s Seat

“Survive. You rub the Buddha, you find lady luck, you say all your prayers and you hope you can get through,” said Kurt Busch on how to approach Talladega.

“This one is tough because it’s a Chase race. Winning versus finding a consistent finish is such a razor-blade edge versus wrecking. We can’t have a wreck take us out of advancing through the Chase.”

“It’s a matter of just trying to understand your surroundings early in the race. If people are getting crazy, you’ve got to get out of there, or you’ve got to get up front and be in that top-three. Where the congestion point is, it’s about fourth to eighth. Everybody wants to get out of that box and go forward, but that is where the guys are blocking really hard. It’s a tough balance. If there is a ‘big one’ and you are not in it, then that helps with understanding there are going to be fewer cars that are going to be competitive up toward the front. Honestly, though, lady luck is really the dictator of how well you are going to do at Talladega.”

Last Time at Talladega

With rain in the area threatening May’s GEICO 500, the already intense racing that normally happens at Talladega was cranked up ten-fold as drivers all wanted to be out front when the impending rainstorms set in around the 2.66 mile superspeedway.

Though the rains never came during the 188 lap event, things got crazy as the laps wound down, with three and four wide racing becoming the order of the day, and big crash after big crash leaving only a few drivers unscathed at the end of the race.

Of those that were still running at the end, Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch were able to separate themselves from the madness behind them, with Keselowski setting sail out front ahead of Busch and Austin Dillon.

While Keselowski was well on his way to the win, another big wreck broke out in the trailing pack involving Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex, Jr., Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., AJ Allmendinger and others, bringing out the caution just shy of the finish line. When the caution flew for the final caution, Keselowski, Busch, and Dillon would finish 1-2-3. Chase Elliott and Jamie McMurray would round out the top-five.

The win was Keselowski’s second win of the season, along with his fourth win at Talladega, the site of his first career win back in 2009.

“I didn’t have a great frame to see what happened to everyone else.  The guys at Team Penske gave me a great Miller Lite Ford and this Fusion was hauling it.  One of the best tickets to stay out of the wrecks at Talladega is if you can stay up front, and you’ve got a great shot of not getting wrecked.  But this No. 2.  Daytona didn’t go the way we wanted it to go.  We thought we were gonna be better than that, but we just didn’t show the speed in the 500 and the guys went to work and they brought me a really strong care here for Talladega.  I’m so proud of everybody at Team Penske.  To be back in Victory Lane with two wins this year, and we feel like we can get a lot more.  We’re growing as s team.  We made a lot of changes at Team Penske and this feels really good, really good,” said Keselowski.

The race was slowed by 10 cautions, with several big names involved in those crashes, one driver taking a hair-raising barrel roll down the backstretch, and several big hits into the SAFER barriers that surround the track. By the end of the day, a total of 33 of the 40 cars that started the race wound up with some sort of damage incurred in a wreck.

Who to Watch

  • Chase Elliott – Elliott may enter Talladega as the last driver in the Chase in a must-win situation to be able to advance, but the rookie doesn’t seem to be fazed by the daunting task of tackling Talladega’s high banks. In his first start at the track in May, Elliott started on pole and led 27 laps on the day en route to a fifth place finish, so he definitely has the potential to pull off a win.
  • Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. – For Mississippi native Stenhouse, a first win in the Cup Series could not come at a better place than to be surrounded by family and friends at his home track. In six prior starts at Talladega, Stenhouse boasts the best average finish in the Cup Series garage among the drivers with multiple starts with an average finish of 12.8, which comes as a result of one top-five finish and three top-10 finishes in those six starts.
  • Brad Keselowski – At the track where he scored his first win and the win back in May, Keselowski comes into the weekend hoping to add to his win total at the track and add a third restrictor plate win to his 2016 resume. In 15 prior starts, Keselowski has four wins (2009, 2012, 2014, and May 2016), six top-five finishes, nine top-10 finishes, 91 laps led, and an average finish of 13.9.
  • Kevin Harvick –After 15th place finishes in each of his last two starts at Talladega, Harvick heads back to the track looking to rebound and capture his fifth win of the season. With Harvick already secure in the Round of Eight, we’ll see whether he plays it conservatively or if he goes all out for the win in the hopes of keeping someone else out. Harvick has just one win at the track in his career (2010), along with six top-five finishes, 13 top-10 finishes, one pole, 187 laps led, and an average finish of 15.3 in 31 starts.
  • Kurt Busch – Of the nine tracks that Busch has yet to win at, Talladega is one of those nine, but could this be the weekend he kills two birds with one stone, scoring his first Talladega win and clinching a berth in the Round of Eight? In 31 starts, Busch has six top-five finishes, 16 top-10 finishes, 150 laps led, and an average finish of 16.3.

Weekend Schedule (All Times Eastern)

Friday, October 21

  • NSCS Practice (2:00 pm to 2:55 pm – NBC Sports Network)
  • NSCS Final Practice (4:30 pm to 5:25 pm – NBC Sports Network)

Saturday, October 22

  • NSCS Qualifying (4:00 pm – NBC Sports Network)

Sunday, October 23

  • NSCS Hellmann’s 500 at Talladega (2:00 pm – 188 laps, 500.08 miles – NBC Sports Network)

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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.

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