Photo: Stephen A. Arce/ASP, Inc.

Up to Speed: Previewing the GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway

By David Morgan, Associate Editor

When the NASCAR Cup Series rolls into Talladega this weekend for the GEICO 500, it will be a bit of a throwback to the days when the 2.66-mile superspeedway was a mainstay on the summer schedule.

Originally scheduled for late April, the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed the race to June and the heat of the Alabama summer.

Since opening its doors in 1969, Talladega has been a wild card on the schedule with the unpredictable nature of superspeedway racing on full display over the past half-century, leading to some of the most memorable moments in NASCAR history.

Anyone in the field has a chance at the win as long as they can be in the right place at the right time. Sunday’s race 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 is a reason fans come from far and wide to witness racing at Talladega and that unpredictability is a big part of it.

The fans are always a big part of what makes Talladega special and though it won’t be the capacity crowds the track has drawn in the past, approximately 5,000 fans will be permitted access to the race to cheer their favorite driver on.

Sunday’s race will also have an added x-factor with new rules put in place in the wake of Ryan Newman’s frightening crash at the end of the Daytona 500. Originally NASCAR had planned one practice session for the weekend to give the teams time to feel out the changes, but that practice has since been scrapped in favor of the same show up and race format the series has been employing since returning to action last month.

The new changes, which have been put in place to make the cars and the racing safer, as well as slowing the cars down are outlined below:

  • Addition of a lower main roll bar support bar #20 / intrusion plate and upper main roll bar support bar #21 (mandatory superspeedways, optional elsewhere).
  • Elimination of aero ducts at superspeedway tracks.
  • Reduction in size of throttle body from 59/64” to 57/64” (superspeedways only).
  • Updated roll bar padding specifications (mandatory at all tracks beginning June 1).
  • Oil reservoir tank or overflow expansion tank must contain a check valve (mandatory at all tracks beginning with Talladega).
  • Slip tape must be applied along the entire length of the lower rearward facing surfaces of the rear bumper cover and extension (superspeedways only).

The reduction of the size of the throttle body should decrease the overall horsepower by 35 or 40 horsepower, according to NASCAR Senior Vice President of Innovation and Racing Development John Probst. Adding in the elimination of the aero ducts, Probst added that the likelihood of drivers being able to tandem draft should also be decreased.

“While stockcar racing is inherently dangerous, our safety experts continue to make significant strides in this area,” Probst said.  “Our work in safety is never complete.  We view that as an ongoing project for us and for all our competitors for that atter.

“Safety in general across our sport is not viewed as a competitive advantage.  When it comes to safety, the teams, engine builders, Goodyear, NASCAR, the OEMs all work tirelessly and openly in a cooperative manner to address all of our safety related initiatives.”

By the Numbers

What: GEICO 500, NASCAR Cup Series Race No. 13 of 36

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

TV/Radio: FOX, 3:00 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: 60 laps each (First two stages); 68 laps (Final stage)

May 2019 Race Winner: Chase Elliott – No. 9 Chevrolet (Started 11th, 45 laps led)

October 2019 Race Winner: Ryan Blaney – No. 21 Ford (Started ninth, 35 laps led)

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

Top-10 Highest Driver Rating at Talladega:

  1. Chase Elliott – No. 9 Chevrolet – 94.1
  2. Joey Logano – No. 22 Ford – 90.6
  3. Kurt Busch – No. 1 Chevrolet – 90.4
  4. Brad Keselowski – No. 2 Ford – 89.3
  5. Ryan Blaney – No. 21 Ford – 89.0
  6. Matt Kenseth – No. 42 Chevrolet – 86.9
  7. Jimmie Johnson – No. 48 Chevrolet – 86.4
  8. Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. – No. 47 Chevrolet – 84.4
  9. Denny Hamlin – No. 11 Toyota – 82.8
  10. Kyle Busch – No. 18 Toyota – 82.2

From the Driver’s Seat

“Talladega is one of those love-hate racetracks,” said Brad Keselowski.  “I love it when we win and hate it when we wreck.  I think you look at that and it’s been really frustrating for me as of late because it seems like we’ve been in great position and keep getting wrecked.

“I was re-watching the fall race.  Kansas didn’t go well for us in the playoffs, so the fall race probably took me out of a shot to continuing in the playoffs.  I was in the high line, drafting with Brendan Gaughan pushed him from 20th and we were taking the lead, I mean literally taking the lead when we wrecked.  I was thinking to myself halfway down the backstretch, ‘I’m gonna push Brendan.  We’re gonna get into turn three.  I’m gonna move high.  I’m gonna pass him.  I’m gonna take the lead.  This race is over.’  And in the two or three seconds I had – the time between then and when we wrecked our entire world changed.  The 18, 17 came up and hit us.  Brendan was upside-down and I was wrecked out of the race.

“That just tells you that Talladega is still Talladega.  You can make all the right moves, be in the right place and end up in the trash heap.  It seems like that’s been worse as of late.  I don’t know why that is.  Well, I do know why that is, but I don’t agree with why that is, but we’ll just try to survive if you can survive.  Certainly, I feel like we have as good a chance as anyone else to win, if not better.”

Last Time at Talladega

Pushed to Monday due to a Sunday rain-out, October’s 500 at Talladega didn’t disappoint.

An 11-car pileup in the late stages of the race, highlighted by Brendan Gaughan going airborne, set up a two-lap dash to the finish. With a berth in the next round of the Playoffs on the line, it was anyone’s guess on who would come away with the trophy and the chance to christen Talladega’s new Victory Lane.

Ryan Blaney led the field to green on the restart, but quickly lost the lead to the tandem of Ryan Newman and Denny Hamlin. Down, but not out, Blaney rallied back on the final lap with help from fellow Ford driver Aric Almirola, side-drafting Newman and Hamlin and breaking apart their tandem at just the right time.

Surging ahead as they crossed the finish line, Blaney was able to capture the win in a photo finish, beating Newman by a nose and moving on to the next round of the Playoffs. The finish would wind up being the sixth-closest finish in Cup Series history.

“It was an amazing effort the last two days to be honest with you,” Blaney said. “We spun out early yesterday and missed some big ones today. We were able to weave our way through. I can’t thank Aric Almirola enough for helping me out there at the end.

“That big push that Newman and the 11 got I knew I wasn’t going to be able to block it. They were coming so fast and they wanted to split me. I wanted to stay to the bottom and kind of pulled the 11 off the 6 and then had a big enough run to get to the six. We kind of hit above the line and that pushed me below the line. That is a big judgement call. You never know. I definitely wasn’t going to go below the line before we made contact.

“I can’t say enough about this Dent Wizard team. It has been super fun the last couple of days. We are moving on! This is super cool.”

Starting Lineup (Random Draw)

Courtesy of a random draw that took place on Thursday night, Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Martin Truex, Jr. and Denny Hamlin will lead the field to green on Sunday afternoon. The entire starting lineup is as follows:

  1. Martin Truex Jr. – No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
  2. Denny Hamlin – No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
  3. Kyle Busch – No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
  4. Jimmie Johnson – No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
  5. Kevin Harvick – No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford
  6. Brad Keselowski – No. 2 Team Penske Ford
  7. Kurt Busch – No. 1 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet
  8. Alex Bowman – No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
  9. Joey Logano – No. 22 Team Penske Ford
  10. Clint Bowyer – No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford
  11. Chase Elliott – No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
  12. Ryan Blaney – No. 12 Team Penske Ford
  13. Matt Kenseth – No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet
  14. Ryan Newman – No. 6 Roush Fenway Racing Ford
  15. Aric Almirola – No. 10 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford
  16. Tyler Reddick – No. 8 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet
  17. Austin Dillon – No. 3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet
  18. Erik Jones – No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
  19. William Byron – No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
  20. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. – No. 47 JTG Daugherty Racing Chevrolet
  21. Chris Buescher – No. 17 Roush Fenway Racing Ford
  22. John Hunter Nemechek – No. 38 Front Row Motorsports Ford
  23. Matt DiBenedetto – No. 21 Wood Brothers Racing Ford
  24. Bubba Wallace – No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports Chevrolet
  25. Corey LaJoie – No. 32 Go Fas Racing Ford
  26. Michael McDowell – No. 34 Front Row Motorsports Ford
  27. Brennan Poole – No. 15 Premium Motorsports Ford
  28. Cole Custer – No. 41 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford
  29. Gray Gaulding – No. 27 Rick Ware Racing Chevrolet
  30. BJ McLeod – No. 77 Spire Motorsports Chevrolet
  31. Ryan Preece – No. 37 JTG Daugherty Racing Chevrolet
  32. Quin Houff – No. 00 StarCom Racing Chevrolet
  33. Ty Dillon – No. 13 Germain Racing Chevrolet
  34. JJ Yeley – No. 53 Rick Ware Racing Chevrolet
  35. Christopher Bell – No. 95 Leavine Family Racing Toyota
  36. Joey Gase – No. 51 Petty Ware Racing Ford
  37. Daniel Suarez – No. 96 Gaunt Brothers Racing Toyota
  38. Timmy Hill – No. 66 Motorsports Business Management Toyota
  39. Brendan Gaughan – No. 62 Beard Motorsports Chevrolet
  40. Garrett Smithley – No. 78 B.J. McLeod Motorsports Chevrolet

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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.