By David Morgan, Associate Editor
The final two races that make up the second round of the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs will be a gauntlet for the drivers still in championship contention with races at Talladega Superspeedway and the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval set to wreak havoc on the Playoff field.
Sunday’s Yellawood 500 at Talladega is the first wild card race that will have to be dealt with, as the unpredictable nature of superspeedway racing will likely throw a wrench into even the best laid plans and leave some of the Playoff drivers in dire straits heading into Charlotte.
Of the 12 Playoff drivers, only last week’s winner, Denny Hamlin, is truly safe heading into the 188-lap event, which kicks off at 1:00 pm ET Sunday. The two-time Talladega winner will lead the field to the green, with his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch lining up alongside him on the front row.
The remainder of the top-10 will be comprised of Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney, Kyle Larson, Martin Truex Jr., Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, Kevin Harvick, and William Byron
Ford has been dominant over the last six years at Talladega, with drivers sporting the Blue Oval winning 10 of the last 12 races at the track, with the Team Penske trio of Blaney, Keselowski, and Logano combining to win eight of those races.
Only Elliott in a Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet and Hamlin in a JGR Toyota have been able to break through the Ford blockade and make it to Victory Lane in the last 12 Talladega races.
By the Numbers
What: Yellawood 500, NASCAR Cup Series Race No. 31 of 36
Where: Talladega Superspeedway – Talladega, Alabama (Opened: 1969)
TV/Radio: NBC, 1:00 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)
April 2021 Race Winner: Brad Keselowski – No. 2 Ford (Started 10th, 1 lap 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:
- Ryan Blaney – No. 12 Team Penske Ford – 91.1
- Brad Keselowski – No. 2 Team Penske Ford – 91.0
- Joey Logano – No. 22 Team Penske Ford – 90.9
- Kurt Busch – No. 1 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet – 89.2
- Chase Elliott – No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet – 88.1
- William Byron – No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet – 85.7
- Cole Custer – No. 41 Stewart Haas Racing Ford – 84.4
- Denny Hamlin – No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota – 83.8
- Kyle Busch – No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota – 81.5
- Ryan Preece – No. 37 JTG Daugherty Racing Chevrolet – 80.6
NASCAR Cup Series Points Standings
- Denny Hamlin (Locked into next round – Las Vegas win)
- Kyle Larson (+57 over cut-off)
- Kyle Busch (+35)
- Martin Truex, Jr. (+31)
- Ryan Blaney (+24)
- Chase Elliott (+22)
- Joey Logano (+6)
- Brad Keselowski (+4)
- William Byron (-4 below cut-off)
- Kevin Harvick (-7)
- Alex Bowman (-13)
- Christopher Bell (-25)
From the Driver’s Seat
“For me, it’s been a destruction derby over the last couple of years,” said Kevin Harvick. “We’ve run really well at Talladega, but that’s just kind of the phases you go through when you go to Talladega. I’m doing worse than 50-50 on whether you crash or finish the last few years, but it’s one of those places where you want to race up front and race hard all day because you have to try to win stages.
“I believe you have better odds at the front of the pack when it comes to staying out of a wreck if you can keep that track position all day. You’re going to race in a pack – three-wide at times – and you’re going to get pushed and have to push at times. You just never know what’s going to happen because Talladega is its own animal. It’s hard to finish a race there. As we’ve seen over the past however many years, you try to put yourself in the right position and hope you have a little bit of luck on your side that particular day.”
Last Time at Talladega
When it comes to racing at Talladega, Brad Keselowski joined some of the greats back in April when he tied Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. with six wins at the track for a three way tie in second on the all-time Talladega wins list.
To get there he would have to get past another Ford driver in Matt DiBenedetto, who was looking to finally get the monkey off his back and make it to Victory Lane for the first time in his Cup Series career after leading 28 laps on the day.
Despite DiBenedetto being in the catbird seat as the laps wound down with a convoy of Fords behind him, the carcass of a tire from Martin Truex, Jr’s car came off and was resting in the tri-oval, forcing NASCAR to throw the caution. As they say, that changed everything.
The caution pushed the race into overtime, with DiBenedetto and Keselowski lining up on the bottom lane, while Ryan Blaney took the top lane with Kevin Harvick behind him to push on the ensuing restart.
DiBenedetto and Keselowski got the early jump on the restart, but their draft broke apart off Turn 2, allowing Blaney and Harvick to charge ahead momentarily. All hope was not lost as Keselowski came back to DiBenedetto’s rear bumper down the backstretch with a head of steam, pushing the duo back out front.
The push from Keselowski gave DiBenedetto some separation from the rest of the field, leaving him to have to make a choice, stay on the bottom with Keselowski or move up top and jump in front of Ryan Blaney, who had won two of the last three Talladega races.
DiBenedetto made the choice to move up in front of Blaney as the field crossed the line to take the white flag and from there, his fate was sealed.
The low lane with Keselowski, Michael McDowell, and Harvick had the momentum over he and Blaney, but DiBenedetto held steady as the field headed down the backstretch for the final time, staying even with Keselowski as Blaney tried to regain the lost track position between he and DiBenedetto.
It looked as if DiBenedetto and Blaney would have help from Tyler Reddick to strengthen the top lane, but Reddick attempted to pass Blaney instead of helping push, causing the draft between them to fall apart, leaving DiBenedetto without sufficient assistance to fend off Keselowski and the others.
From there, it was all Keselowski to the finish as he led the only lap that mattered – the last lap, scoring his first win at the track since the fall of 2017.
William Byron finished the race in second, followed by Michael McDowell and Kevin Harvick. After losing the lead on the last lap, DiBenedetto fell to fifth at the finish.
“We’ve been so close here and it just didn’t want to come together here the last few years and I’ve been on kind of a four-year drought here, but it’s nice to get number six,” said Keselowski. “I would have never dreamed I’d tie Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. here. That’s something. Those guys are really legends. I’m just really proud of my team.
“I never thought I’d even have that chance,” he added of tying Gordon and Earnhardt. “It’s tremendous to me. I grew up loving the sport, still love the sport. We fight sometimes, like husband and wife, but I still love the sport. I love the challenge every day of getting up, trying to find excellence, reinventing yourself as the rules change, people change around you.
“It’s hard. It’s a hard sport. Any success you have means the world. So I think to have my name on any list that has Dale Earnhardt, Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. at Talladega, that’s a pretty big deal. I’m super happy and super proud to be there with them.
“The word ‘surreal’ comes to mind. I never thought that would have been the case.”