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 and the Charlotte 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, Kurt Busch, is truly safe heading into the 188-lap event, which kicks off at 2:00 pm ET Sunday. Denny Hamlin will lead the field to the green, with Busch lining up alongside him on the front row.
The remainder of the top-10 will be comprised of Martin Truex, Jr., Alex Bowman, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, Clint Bowyer, and Chase Elliott.
Aside from the Playoff implications, Sunday’s race will also mark the final time seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson competes at the 2.66-mile superspeedway, along with Brendan Gaughan making his final Cup Series appearance for Beard Motorsports.
“We’ve got a job to do and that’s to still to go out and try and win the race,” Gaughan said of making his final start. “That’s what we show up to do every time we roll that No. 62 Beard Oil Distributing/South Point Chevy Camaro off the hauler. That’s the first thing – to try to get the job done. After that, you think about the other things.
“I did not expect to have these last four years in NASCAR. The Beard family gave me something that was completely unexpected. They gave me this last little bit of fun and it’s been phenomenal. I want to go try and win one. I’ve got one more shot to win a Cup race and I’m going to do my damndest to do it.”
By the Numbers
What: Yellawood 500, 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: 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 2019 Race Winner: Ryan Blaney – No. 12 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:
- Ryan Blaney – No. 12 Ford – 91.7
- Joey Logano – No. 22 Ford – 91.1
- Kurt Busch – No. 1 Chevrolet – 90.3
- Chase Elliott – No. 9 Chevrolet – 90.3
- Brad Keselowski – No. 2 Ford – 89.5
- Jimmie Johnson – No. 48 Chevrolet – 86.5
- Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. – No. 17 Ford – 86.2
- Matt Kenseth – No. 42 Chevrolet – 85.3
- John Hunter Nemechek – No. 38 Ford – 84.1
- Denny Hamlin – No. 11 Toyota – 83.8
NASCAR Cup Series Points Standings
- Kurt Busch (Locked into next round – Las Vegas win)
- Kevin Harvick (+61 over cut-off)
- Denny Hamlin (+58)
- Brad Keselowski (+16)
- Martin Truex, Jr. (+15)
- Joey Logano (+11)
- Chase Elliott (+10)
- Alex Bowman (+9)
- Kyle Busch (-9 below cut-off)
- Clint Bowyer (-20)
- Aric Almirola (-27)
- Austin Dillon (-32)
From the Driver’s Seat
“I think that we obviously know that we can win there, it’s just a lot of it is circumstances, a lot of it is kind of putting yourself in the right place, which you don’t always know what that place will be,” said Denny Hamlin. “It’s historically – the playoff race in Talladega – is pretty wild, because you have probably two-thirds of the field has been eliminated that’s really not racing for much except trying to win and you have some other ones that are going to be fighting tooth and nail for stage points. I suspect it will be pretty wild again, but I’m confident that all of our cars are good enough to win every time we go there. It’s just sometimes it is a number game. As Toyota as an organization, we are short on numbers from everyone else. We just kind of count on people getting selfish at the end and use them.”
“I don’t think it will be any different than – I mean we have seen crazy races at Talladega with a lot of wrecks, and we’ve seen some that don’t have a lot of wrecks. I just think that it depends. I don’t think anyone has a certain mode that they can switch to that will make them do something that they haven’t done before. I think that everyone kind of knows how everyone drives at this point and you kind of plan around that. You have to be aware of who you are racing around and how aggressive they typically are and just try to put yourself in the best spot. This race is unpredictable. It could be no cautions. It could be 12 cautions. We just don’t know.”
Last Time at Talladega
Pushed to June due to the COVID-19 pandemic and then delayed again due to inclement weather, the GEICO 500 began with a show of force by the driving corps, rallying around Bubba Wallace after a supposed noose was found hanging in the garage area the previous night.
Though the noose was found to not be an intentional act toward Wallace, it remains as one of the lasting images of the season as nearly every driver joined up to push Wallace’s car to the front of the grid and remaining by his side during pre-race festivities.
Once the race got underway, it was typical Talladega, with wild action throughout the event. As the race began to wind down, it was Wallace’s long-time friend, Ryan Blaney, who would be the star of the show when the checkered flag flew.
The race would get pushed to overtime and things got wild in a hurry in the final dash to the finish. Kevin Harvick and Chris Buescher would get the jump over Blaney on the final restart, but heading down the backstretch for the final time, Blaney was able to get the shove he needed from Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. to force his way back to the lead in Turn 3.
While a crash broke out behind the leaders, the race was allowed to play out and Blaney would be on defense the rest of the way home, juking and jiving to block all lanes. As the field stormed through the tri-oval, the leaders got put into a three-wide sandwich before chaos erupted as they crossed the finish line.
Erik Jones and John Hunter Nemechek made contact and went into the outside wall, collecting Aric Almirola in the process.
Meanwhile, Blaney and Stenhouse were in a dead heat at the finish, with Blaney beating him out by .007 seconds to claim his second straight Talladega win, having also won in a photo finish last fall.
Almirola would finish third as he spun sideways across the line, followed by Denny Hamlin, Jones, Buescher, Alex Bowman, Nemechek, Kurt Busch, and Harvick rounding out the top-10.
“Definitely a good ending to the day for sure on our end, being able to inch them out there at the line,” Blaney said. “But the start of the day, all the drivers on pit road pushing Bubba’s car, showing their support, it was just an honor to be a part of that. Not only the drivers, but the crew members and the fans that were in attendance as well, NASCAR. That’s something I think everyone will remember for a long time.
“It showed how much we support not only Darrell. That was the main reason we were doing it, to support Darrell. But everybody that has been oppressed not only for the past two weeks but for a long time.
“What happened yesterday was disgusting. I don’t understand how a person or people can have that hatred in their heart for someone who just looks different than they do. Never something I’ll understand. It almost brought me to tears when Bubba told me yesterday what happened. He doesn’t deserve that. No one deserves that.
“But I think the good thing is us as a community came together, showed our support. I know he really appreciated it. It was the least we can do to show we’re behind him 100%. I’m obviously going to be behind him 100%. I have been for 15 years, I hope to make it 50 more years supporting him every step along the way. That was definitely a special moment to be a part of before the race.”