NASCAR Cup Series, 500 at Talladega Preview

Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series teams are gearing up for the 500 at Talladega Superspeedway on Sunday, October 14th at 2 pm ET with coverage on NBC, MRN, and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. 

What to Watch For: Brad Keselowski’s five Talladega wins is most in the field and double that of any other driver. Kurt Busch’s 19 top-tens is most in the field.

Last week’s Dover winner Chase Elliott leads the competition with a 93.7 driver rating and a 4.0 average starting position at Talladega.

Chevrolet leads manufacturers with 40 wins at the track, Ford is next with 27, including the last six straight.

Talladega is such an unpredictable venue that five times a non-Playoff driver has won the race. The last time that happened was 2013 when Jamie McMurray won.

McMurray and 2018 Playoff drivers Clint Bowyer, Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano all have won two Playoff races at Talladega.

Martin Truex Jr.’s 13 DNFs at Talladega is double that of any other Playoff driver.

Jimmie Johnson won the 2006 title after finishing 24th – the lowest finish by a driver who went on to hoist a championship. Last year’s Cup champ Truex finished 23rd in the Talladega Playoff race.

The outside pole position is the most prolific starting position, producing 20 race winners.

The farthest back a race winner has started is 36th (Jeff Gordon in 2000).

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (2017) and Keselowski (2009) earned their first career Cup wins at Talladega.

Stenhouse leads all drivers in the field with an 11.0 average finishing position.

Jimmie Johnson leads active drivers with 470 laps led in 32 starts. The late NASCAR Hall of Famer Dale Earnhardt holds the track record with 1,377 laps led in 44 starts.

Chase is Cruising

Last week’s Dover winner, Chase Elliott, is a legitimate favorite as the series heads to Talladega Superspeedway this weekend for the 500. He won the Busch Pole position in his first-ever Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race there in 2016 and has two top-five finishes in five starts – including a third-place showing there in April.

And when it comes to the NASCAR Playoffs, the 22-year-old Elliott boasts the second-best average finish (9.0) in Playoff races. He has one win, eight top-five finishes (four of those runner-up efforts) and ten top-tens in 14 career Playoff races.

In the last 11 races, he is averaging a finish of 8.4 and he’s tied with points leader Kevin Harvick with six top-five finishes in the last 11 races.

“I think it’s nice to be able to know you’re going to move on, but you can’t get complacent in the fact that you are moving on, and you can’t let those points just sit out there and not try to go get them because those bonus points you get for winning or winning a stage, that’s huge, and you need as many as you can get,’’ said Elliott, who drives the No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet. “One or two points could be the difference in you making the Round of 4 or not.

“Just knowing that we don’t have to worry about Talladega, so excited to be able to win the first one of three and get to enjoy it all a little bit more. We are going to keep the hammer down and see what we can do.”

Harvick Back on Top in Points

Kevin Harvick reclaimed the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series points lead last weekend at Dover International Raceway with a valiant sixth-place finish and dominant 286 laps out front to take a five-point advantage over Kyle Busch heading into Sunday’s 500 at Talladega Superspeedway.

As good a season as Harvick has had in the Stewart-Haas Racing No. 4 Ford – seven wins and a series-best 25 top-tens – this is only the third time he’s topped the championship standings (also after ISM Raceway-1 and Indianapolis). And he’s never held the lead more than a week.

Harvick hopes he can sustain this week. He and regular season champion Kyle Busch each have one previous win at Talladega – both of those coming a while ago. Harvick won in the spring of 2010 while driving for Richard Childress Racing. Busch won in 2008, also in the spring.

Harvick’s best finish in the fall Talladega race is runner-up back in 2004. He crashed out in the 2017 ‘Dega Playoff race, collected in a 16-car accident with 15 laps remaining.

He has five top-ten finishes in the last nine races at the track and led laps in seven of those. This three-race second round Playoff stage (at Dover, Del., Talladega, and Kansas), however, looks favorable for the 2014 champion. He won at Dover and Kansas earlier this year and won the pole position at both Talladega and Kansas. After leading a race-best 286 laps at Dover last Sunday, he had a pit road issue late in the race and still rallied to finish sixth – best among the ‘Big Three’ (also including Busch, who finished eighth and Martin Truex Jr., who finished 15th)

Talladega’s Tough Legacy

For all their excellence in 2018 – all four Stewart-Haas Racing drivers are still racing in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs – the organization hopes to raise the bar this weekend and score the championship team’s first-ever Talladega Superspeedway trophy.

Since the team’s 2009 inception, it has won 49 races, 42 pole positions and a pair of Cup championships. But it has never won on the notorious 2.66-mile Talladega high banks.

Kevin Harvick has a win on the track – something he scored back in 2010 while racing for Richard Childress Racing. Clint Bowyer has two Talladega trophies – earning them in back-to-back fall races (2010-2011), also driving for RCR.

SHR teammates Kurt Busch and Aric Almirola have been close. Busch started second and finished runner-up to Joey Logano at Talladega this spring – his best-ever showing. Almirola’s best work was a fifth place, also this spring.

And Busch has some other stats on his side. Despite being 0-for-25 at the superspeedway, he leads all active drivers in top-five (eight, tied with Jamie McMurray) and top-ten (19) finishes.

“More than any other place we go, you have to be focused at Talladega because its 500 miles of mind games,” Bowyer said. “It’s all about making good, quick, decisions by all of the team – the guys in the pits, my spotter and me in the racecar. If we can do that, we will be in a great position to get another Talladega win and hopefully advance in the NASCAR Playoffs.”

“We got ourselves in a hole right now, points-wise, but we’ve been there before and know what we have to do. We’ll go to Talladega and do our best to get some stage points and win the race.”

Penske Powerful At Talladega

Take a glance at recent results from NASCAR’s largest track, Talladega Superspeedway, it’s obvious that Team Penske has developed a special relationship with the facility – winning five of the last six races and six of the last eight. Its Ford power plant has won the last six-straight.

Penske driver Brad Keselowski is the defending winner of the Talladega Playoff race and teammate Joey Logano won at the track earlier this year. Six of the last eight Talladega races, including the last four Playoff races – have been won by the two Team Penske teammates.

Keselowski, who scored his first career Monster Energy Series win at the track in 2009, won the 2014 and 2017 Playoff races there and the spring 2016 race. Logano won the 2015 and 2016 Playoff races as well as this year’s spring 500-miler.

As with Stewart-Haas Racing, the Penske team still has perfect attendance in the Playoffs. All three of the team’s drivers continue to be championship-eligible and currently ranked among the top-eight in the standings. Logano is ranked fifth, Keselowski and the team’s newest Cup addition, Ryan Blaney, are ranked seventh and eighth, respectively.

Keselowski won the Playoff opener at Las Vegas and Blaney won at the Charlotte Road Course two weeks ago.

Kyle Busch Looking for ‘Dega Redemption

Kyle Busch, who has three top-eights in the four Playoff races to date, would like to return to winning form at Talladega – but he has had mixed results in recent races.

Busch was 13th at Talladega this April and has two top-five finishes in the last five races there, including a runner-up showing in the 2016 spring race. But it’s his results in the Playoff races at the track that he’d really like to improve. He crashed out in 2017 and finished 30th in 2016.

His 233 career laps led at Talladega is his lowest total at a track on the schedule, except for the Sonoma, Calif. road course where he’s led 110 laps.

“I think you approach it the same way no matter where you are in the points,’’ said Busch, who trails points leader Kevin Harvick by five points entering the Talladega race.

“I’ve been in front and been a part of a wreck and I’ve been riding in the back and been taken out, too. There’s really no place that’s safe.

“With this race being the second race of the round, you have to try and run up front and hope that you don’t have some bad luck and just bring home a solid finish. We’ll do the best we can this weekend with our M&M’S Camry and see where the points fall for us afterward, then focus on what we need to do at Kansas.”


Truex Jr. Looking for Talladega Turnaround

It’s a reasonable expectation that the one venue in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoff schedule that raises Martin Truex Jr.’s heart rate is Talladega Superspeedway. It has been a challenging track for Truex since his earliest days in the Cup series. Only two years ago, it was the site of great heartbreak when his title hopes ended with an engine failure and 40th-place finish in the second round of the 2016 Playoffs– a championship he was considered a favorite to earn.

Truex has 13 DNFs in 27 Talladega starts – including his first three starts and eight of his first ten races at the track. He’s had DNFs in his last four races there as well, including that gut-wrenching, championship-eliminating circumstance in 2016. His best finish in 27 starts is fifth in the 2010 spring race.

This season, Truex has finished 18th (Daytona 500), 26th (Talladega, spring) and runner-up (Daytona, July) at the restrictor plate tracks. And the defending Monster Energy Series champion comes to Alabama with a pair of third-place finishes in the Playoffs (at Las Vegas and Richmond) and was leading at the Charlotte Road Course when he tangled with Jimmie Johnson within sight of the finish line. Last week, he was running in the top-five when he was caught up in an accident with less than 10 laps remaining at Dover.

The effort has given him a 36-point cushion among the Playoff field and he is ranked third behind Harvick and Kyle Busch amongst the drivers without a win in the Round of 12.

“Last two weeks were indeed frustrating but you can’t look back – you need to move on,” Truex stated. “Just too many variables to deal with. You keep plugging away and give it your best shot and hopefully, something good will happen. So many times it’s out of your control.”

Making Up Ground

Ironically for two of the bottom-four-ranked drivers following the second-round race at Dover last week, they were in contention for top-five finishes when a late-race accident derailed their place in the standings.

Aric Almirola led 63 laps (second only to Kevin Harvick’s 286 laps out front) and was challenging for the win when he was involved in a five-car accident toward the front of the field that also eliminated Alex Bowman, Brad Keselowski, Martin Truex Jr., and Ryan Blaney from a shot at the trophy despite great afternoons.

The accident with two laps remaining dropped Almirola to ninth place in the standings, ten points behind eighth-place Blaney with eight drivers moving on after this three-race round. Almirola’s SHR teammate Clint Bowyer, who had late-race tire troubles, is also now ten-points behind Blaney with a 25th-place finish at Dover.

Kyle Larson, who finished 12th on Sunday, is ranked 11th – 12 points out of the top-eight – and Bowman is 12th in the standings, now 34-points behind the cutoff mark as Talladega this week and Kansas Speedway next week determine the eight drivers that advance in the Playoffs.

Larson finished 40th at Talladega this spring, crashing on lap 71. Bowman had his best career restrictor-plate finish (eighth) in that Talladega race, starting second and leading 26 laps. 

Rookies and Restrictor Plates

While the thought of the unpredictable racing, the “big one” pileups and dramatic last-lap passes are a formidable concept for even many of NASCAR’s best, Sunoco Rookie Bubba Wallace has quickly likened to this restrictor plate form of racing – even scoring his best finishes of the year at the previous three restrictor-plate races of 2018.

His runner-up finish in the season-opening Daytona 500 was emotional and remains the best effort of his rookie Monster Energy Series season. He followed it up with a 16th at Talladega in the No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports Chevrolet and a 14th-place finish in the Daytona summer night race.

In fact, Wallace is one of the only Cup drivers looking forward to this weekend’s Talladega 500-miler, intent to change the recent course of his season showings. His last top-20 finish was at the Daytona summer race (14th). And he’s had four finishes of 36th or worse in the last seven races before Talladega.

His rookie counterpart, Hendrick Motorsports driver William Byron, has had the opposite results at restrictor plate tracks, with finishes of 23rd (Daytona 500), 29th (Talladega, spring) and 32nd (Daytona night race). He’s 22nd in the points standings and eager to turn around a stretch that’s included three DNFs in the last six races. His last top-ten finishes were back-to-back showings at Pocono (sixth) and Watkins Glen (eighth) this summer.