DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — It’s hard to imagine the popular and frantic racing at Talladega Superspeedway being more intense than it naturally presents, but with the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoff stakes on the line in this Sunday’s 1000Bulbs.com 500 (2 p.m., NBC, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio), the chances for drama couldn’t be higher.
Stewart-Haas Racing’s Aric Almirola won last year’s Playoff version of the Talladega 500-miler, leading only the last lap en route to his first win since 2014 — only a mere 0.105 seconds ahead of his SHR teammate Clint Bowyer.
It was an especially tough pill to swallow for veteran Kurt Busch, who led a race-best 108 laps on the day but finished 14th. He’s tied with three-time Talladega winner Joey Logano for most top-five finishes (eight) among all active drivers and he has the most top-10 runs (20) at the track — but Busch is still looking to take home his first Talladega trophy.
Last year’s race was a typically frantic finish and the 500-miler this May was a similar crowd-pleaser with Talladega’s favorite “son,” Chase Elliott, earning his first win at the storied track. He tallied a race-best 44 laps out front and led his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Alex Bowman across the line as the race finished under caution.
Elliott could use some more of that Talladega good fortune this weekend as he suffered a rare DNF at Dover last weekend, putting him into a championship-points deficit heading into this weekend’s race and ultimately next week’s Playoff Round of 12 finale at Kansas Speedway.
Elliott is ranked 11th of the 12 drivers still championship eligible — seven points behind his Hendrick teammate William Byron in the eighth-place “cutoff” position. The top eight drivers following the Kansas race will move forward to the next round of Playoff contention.
Talladega is known as a wild card, in general, for its dramatic finishes and close racing. And drivers tend to really like the style of racing of close-quarter racing or not. If you’re in the Playoffs, however, there is little choice. The only driver who doesn’t have to worry about his Talladega fortune is Kyle Larson, who won at Dover last week and has earned an automatic bid into the Round of 8.
Points leader Martin Truex Jr., who has an impressive two wins and a runner-up finish in the four Playoff races to date, has not had the best luck at Talladega. The six-time 2019 race winner has only two top-five finishes in 29 starts at Talladega. And he has more DNFs (13) than top-10 finishes (eight). There is reason to remain optimistic, however, as the driver of the No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota won at Talladega in both of his NASCAR Xfinity Series championship seasons, 2004 and 2005.
Truex holds a 15-point edge over his JGR teammates Denny Hamlin, who won at Talladega in 2014, and Kyle Busch, the 2019 regular season champion who won at Talladega in 2008. Stewart-Haas Racing’s Kevin Harvick, who is ranked fourth in points, 21 points behind Truex, won at Talladega in 2010.
Team Penske driver Brad Keselowski, who is currently ranked sixth in points, is the winningest active driver at Talladega with five trophies. His teammate Logano has the second-most victories (three) and will need to tap into that positive history this weekend for sure.
Logano suffered a mechanical problem before taking the green flag at Dover and finished 34th. He’s now tied with Byron in points, but sits behind him in ninth in the standings — one spot outside the cutoff — based on the tie-breaker. Their teammate, Ryan Blaney, has yet to win at Talladega but will need some good fortune as well. He’s ranked 12th among the 12 drivers fighting to advance in the championship, 22 points behind eighth-place Byron.
In the past, manufacturers have made an effort to work together at Talladega regardless of team affiliation. And they expect that to play into strategies this weekend as well. The bottom line is several season-long championship favorites need a strong showing at the big track this weekend.
“We made a pretty conscious effort with our manufacturer of Chevrolet to try and do a better job of working together,” Elliott said. “It worked at Talladega (in May). A lot of us crashed but at least a Chevrolet still won the summer race at Daytona (too).
“Hopefully it works out. That’s the thing, we can put as much effort as we want or as little effort as we want, but it’s never going to guarantee that you aren’t going to crash or have a bad day there. I expect we’ll do our part on our end to try and make as good of a day as we can out of it, but no guarantees.”
GANDER TRUCKS BACK ON TRACK
After a three-week break, the NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series begins the second round of Playoff competition with Saturday’s Sugarlands Shine 250 at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway (1:30 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
Defending series champion Brett Moffitt — a four-race winner in 2019 — holds a 17-point edge on Austin Hill and an 18-point edge on Ross Chastain. Both Hill and Chastain have three wins each and lead a motivated field of six championship-eligible drivers that also includes dirt ace Stewart Friesen, 18-year-old Tyler Ankrum and two-time series champion Matt Crafton.
The 2.66-mile Talladega track presents a unique challenge for the race field. The only former winners entered in the race are Alabama native Grant Enfinger and his ThorSport teammate, two-time series champion Johnny Sauter, who were eliminated from title contention in the last race at Las Vegas, but are eager to rebound with a strong season statement.
Among the six drivers still in title contention, Chastain has the best superspeedway record of the season, however, the 26-year old Floridian hasn’t competed in a truck race at Talladega since 2016. But the driver of the No. 45 Niece Motorsports Chevrolet finished third at Daytona in the Gander Trucks season opener and won the NASCAR Xfinity Series race with Kaulig Racing at Daytona in July.
The superspeedway should make for a compelling storyline. The title favorites have varying track records. Moffitt, who drives the No. 24 GMS Racing Chevrolet, made his Talladega debut last year and finished 17th. His best finish at the Daytona track is 22nd. Hill, driver of the No. 16 Hattori Racing Enterprises Toyota scored his Playoff ticket with a victory in the Daytona season opener and finished 10th at Talladega last year.
Friesen, driver of the No. 52 Halmar Friesen Chevrolet, was sixth at Talladega last fall, his best finish in two starts. Crafton, driver of the No. 88 ThorSport Racing Ford, has really struggled at the speedway. He has only one top-five finish in 13 Talladega starts — fourth place in 2010. His last top 10 — of four career top 10s at the track — was a ninth place in 2017.
The final member of this elite six, Kentucky race winner Ankrum, has a blank slate to start Saturday’s race. This will mark his superspeedway debut because he only reached the mandatory age requirement of 18 in March, so he was not permitted to race in the Daytona season opener.
Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series
Next Race: 1000Bulbs.com 500
The Place: Talladega Superspeedway
The Date: Sunday, Oct. 13
The Time: 2 p.m.
Radio: MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
Distance: 500.08 miles (188 laps); Stage 1 (Ends on Lap 55),
Stage 2 (Ends on lap 110) and Final Stage (Ends on lap 188)
2018 Race Winner: Aric Almirola
What to Watch For: Among active drivers, Kurt Busch and Joey Logano hold the top mark for top-five finishes (eight) and Kurt Busch holds the mark for top-10 finishes (20). The late Dale Earnhardt holds the all-time record with 23 top fives — including a record 10 wins and 27 top 10s at the track. ... Eight drivers currently ranked among the top-16 in the championship standings have never won at Talladega. ... Four drivers have multiple Cup wins including Brad Keselowski (5), Joey Logano (3), Clint Bowyer (2) and Jimmie Johnson (2). ... Dave Marcis and NASCAR Hall of Famer Terry Labonte share the record for most Talladega starts (61). Kurt Busch and Kevin Harvick hold the mark among active drivers at 37 races. Busch has the most starts without a win. ... Chase Elliott leads active drivers in best average starting position (5.143) and while Ricky Stenhouse Jr. leads in best average finishing position (11.8). ...Seven different drivers have won back-to-back Cup races at Talladega, but no current driver has. .... Johnson has led the most laps (470) at the track in this week’s field. ... The outside front row starting position (second) has produced the most winners (20). ... The deepest on the grid a winner has started is 36th (Jeff Gordon, Spring, 2000). The deepest on the grid an active driver has started and won is 34th (Denny Hamlin, Spring, 2014). ... No Talladega Playoff race winner has gone on to win the Cup championship in the same year during the Playoff era (2004-present). ... Chase Elliott holds the record for youngest pole winner in history set on May 1, 2016, when Elliott was 20 years, five months and three days. ... The youngest race winner in history was Bobby Hillin Jr., who won on July 27, 1986 at the age of 22 years, 1 month and 22 days. ... Hendrick Motorsports has the most wins (13) . ... Ford has won seven of the last eight races but Chevrolet (41 wins) leads the overall victory tally. Ford has 28 wins and Toyota has 3. ... The late Buddy Baker and three-time Cup champion Tony Stewart are tied for most runner-up finishes at Talladega with six each. Johnson and Harvick have the most (three) among active drivers. ... The race in May finished under caution. ... Two-time Talladega winner Clint Bowyer has been involved in two of the four closest race finishes. He lost to Johnson by 0.002 seconds in April, 2011 in the closest race in Talladega history. Bowyer beat Jeff Burton by 0.018 seconds that fall in the track’s fourth-closest Cup race. ... Bill Elliott holds the qualifying record of 212.809 mph (set in April, 1987). His eight poles is a record too. Only Harvick has won multiple poles (2) among this week’s field. ... No active driver won his first pole position at Talladega. Brad Keselowski (Spring, 2009) and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (Spring, 2017) are the only active drivers who scored their first career Cup win here.
Gander Outdoors Truck Series
Next Race: Sugarlands Shine 250
The Place: Talladega Superspeedway
The Date: Saturday, Oct. 12
The Time: 1:30 p.m.
Radio: MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
Distance: 200 miles (94 laps); Stage 1 (Ends on lap 20),
Stage 2 (Ends on lap 40) and Final Stage (Ends on lap 94)
2018 Race Winner: Timothy Peters
What to Watch For: Timothy Peters’ victory last year was his third (2014, 2015, 2018) making him the winningest series driver at Talladega ... This is the first Playoff race in the Round of 6 and Brett Moffitt holds a 17-point advantage over Austin Hill. Third place Ross Chastain is 18 points behind Moffitt. ... Johnny Sauter (2013) and Grant Enfinger (2016) are the only two drivers entered this week with previous victories at Talladega. ... There have been 13 different pole winners in 13 previous Talladega truck races. David Gilliland won the pole position in the last race, October, 2018. ... Alabama native Enfinger led the most laps (31) in the race last year, but finished 19th. It’s the second consecutive year, the driver who led the most laps did not win the race. ...Tyler Reddick is the only driver to earn his first career pole position at Talladega (2014). ... Cole Custer is the youngest pole winner in series history at Talladega — only 18 years, eight months, 29 days when he claimed the top starting spot in 2016. ... Of the six drivers still championship eligible — only Tyler Ankrum has not won a pole position. This weekend marks the newly turned 18-year old’s first truck race at Talladega Superspeedway. ... Brett Moffitt leads all drivers with three poles in 2019. ... Toyota leads all manufacturers with nine Talladega race victories, including five of the last seven. ... Sauter has the most top fives (three) and most top 10s (five) of the drivers entered this week. ... Reigning series champ Brett Moffitt has only one previous start at Talladega, finishing 17th last October. ... No driver has won this race and the series championship in the same season . ... Three drivers have won this race in back-to-back years — Todd Bodine (2007-08), Kyle Busch (2009-10) and Peters (2014-15). ... Parker Kligerman is the only other multi-time winner (2012, 2017).
--Holly Cain, NASCAR Wire Service. Special to Field Level Media