By David Morgan, Associate Editor
After a three-race stretch of short tracks, the second quarter of the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series schedule begins with a visit to Talladega Superspeedway for Sunday’s running of the GEICO 500.
The first nine races of the season have embodied unpredictability, with eight different winners in the first quarter of the season. That trend is likely to continue this weekend as superspeedway racing, especially at Talladega, is all about unpredictability.
Since opening its doors in 1969, the 2.66-mile track just off Interstate 20 in Eastern Alabama 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.
Defending Talladega winner Denny Hamlin will start the 188-lap race from the pole, with Joey Logano starting alongside. Hamlin’s Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Martin Truex, Jr. will roll off third, followed by William Byron, Alex Bowman, Christopher Bell, Ryan Blaney, Chase Elliott, Kyle Busch, and Brad Keselowski to round out the top-10 starters.
By the Numbers
What: GEICO 500, NASCAR Cup Series Race No. 10 of 36
Where: Talladega Superspeedway – Talladega, Alabama (Opened: 1969)
TV/Radio: FOX, 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: 60 laps each (First two stages); 68 laps (Final stage)
June 2020 Race Winner: Ryan Blaney – No. 12 Ford (Started 12th, 63 laps led)
October 2020 Race Winner: Denny Hamlin – No. 11 Toyota (Started on pole, 26 laps led)
Track Qualifying Record: Bill Elliott – 44.998 seconds, 212.809 mph – April 30, 1987
Top-10 Highest Driver Rating at Talladega:
- Joey Logano – No. 22 Team Penske Ford – 91.7
- Chase Elliott – No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet – 90.7
- Ryan Blaney – No. 12 Team Penske Ford – 90.6
- Kurt Busch – No. 1 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet – 90.0
- Brad Keselowski – No. 2 Team Penske Ford – 89.9
- Denny Hamlin – No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota – 83.6
- William Byron – No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet – 83.4
- Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. – No. 47 JTG Daugherty Racing Chevrolet – 82.2
- Cole Custer – No. 41 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford – 81.7
- Kyle Busch – No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota – 81.1
From the Driver’s Seat
“To me, superspeedway races at Talladega, just as much as Daytona is, are such a coin flip,” said Chase Elliott. “There’s no way of really knowing the right place to be at the right time all the time. I feel like there are guys that seem to have a better feel for it than others and know when to be in certain positions and know when something doesn’t feel right. I’ve tried to learn that over the years. I haven’t done a great job of it, but it’s just about positioning yourself in the right place at the right time. Also, having patience and taking runs when you have the opportunity.
“I also think what makes the guys who are really good at those tracks great is that they know when to quit putting up a fight, when to not throw that big block, knowing they might have another opportunity on the back end rather than crashing. Showing patience in big moments at those tracks are really hard to do, but I think that’s a piece that the guys who win there do all the time.”
Last Time at Talladega
Last October, Denny Hamlin scored his second win at Talladega to secure his spot in the penultimate round of the Cup Series Playoffs, but instead of being his usual aggressive self on the superspeedway, Hamlin elected to go the safe route, riding around in the back for much of the race, waiting for the typical Talladega attrition to play out.
With four laps to go, a caution for debris from James Davison’s car pushed the race into overtime, but the field wouldn’t make it back to the white flag, as a crash on the frontstretch collected five cars brought out the second red flag of the race.
After a nearly 11-minute wait under the red flag, Chase Elliott and Matt DiBenedetto would lead the field back to the green, but it was déjà vu all over again when a nine-car crash in Turn 4 brought out the 13th and final caution of the day.
As the cars cycled under caution, fuel mileage became a concern, with Elliott, DiBenedetto, and others riding around on the apron to make sure they didn’t run out, while Hamlin was good to go to the finish. Elliott would elect to pit, leaving DiBenedetto and Hamlin on the front row for the subsequent restart.
When the green flag flew for the final time, DiBenedetto was able to take over the lead with help from Chris Buescher. After a bit of jockeying for position, Erik Jones took over the job of pushing, but heading into Turn 4, everything fell apart for DiBenedetto. After losing his drafting partner, he went to throw a block on William Byron, forcing him below the yellow line.
Byron’s Chevrolet headed back up the track, but Hamlin had a head of steam behind him and elected to dip below the yellow line himself to pull alongside Byron heading through the tri-oval. Meanwhile, DiBenedetto was charging toward the finish line on the high side, setting up a three-wide photo finish.
When the checkered flag flew, Hamlin had edged ahead of DiBenedetto by inches, but it might as well have been a mile as NASCAR would wind up penalizing DiBenedetto for pushing Byron below the yellow line in Turn 4, dropping him from runner-up to 21st.
“It was certainly uneventful for 490 miles for us,” Hamlin said. “We didn’t do a whole lot. We led the first part of it. Once we got shuffled there and I put — we came off pit road I think fifth, we came out fifth. I didn’t want to put myself in a position where I could get wrecked early. I didn’t want a mid-30s finish. I would have taken mid-20s, but not mid-30s.
“In my mind I needed to pick up about 20 points over the next two weeks to lock myself into the top eight. I just kept watching as the wrecks were happening, kind of counting points.
“I hate that’s the way I had to do it. You got to play the game the way it’s designed to be played. We put ourselves in a good position there. Got really fortunate where the wreck didn’t seem like it was going to happen. We were in the 20s I think on the first green-white-checkered. Come in, let’s get fuel just in case there’s more green-white-checkereds. At that point we were just kind of punting hoping that we were going to get somewhere in the top 15.
“It just kept wreck after wreck. Made it to where we didn’t have to worry about fuel. Everybody else did. Just things worked out for us. We made the right move at the right time.”