A Real Wild Card: Talladega Gives Playoff Drivers Chance to Rally

September 28, 2023

Might as well keep it real about the NASCAR playoffs. At some point, as Ryan Blaney says, “you’re going to find yourself behind.”

As the 2023 postseason rolls into Talladega for the second race of the Round of 12 on Sunday (1 p.m. CDT, NBC), Blaney is one of those drivers he is talking about. The Team Penske wheelman is 11 points below the cutline, in 11th place, joined by Bubba Wallace, Tyler Reddick and Kyle Busch on the outside looking in — for now.

“Whether it’s in Round 1, Round 2 or Round 3, you’re gonna find yourself behind and you’re gonna have to find a way to make up points,” said Blaney, who last week at Texas was caught up in a six-car incident with nine laps to go that left him with a 28th-place finish. “I was surprised I was only 11 points down. I thought I was gonna be way more out of it.”

Nobody is out of anything yet, and of course, the leaders certainly know anything can happen in superspeedway racing. Talladega is a standings-shuffler, with a 2.66-mile track that can create three “energy trains” of stock cars hurtling with white-knuckle momentum into its 33-degree-banked corners.

“Superspeedway racing accelerates your age in dog years,” said Ross Chastain, who sits sixth in points, 12 points above the cutline. “Surviving is the most important thing. … Those last 40 laps are just about holding onto the track position you have.”

The only sure thing right now is that William Byron is in the Round of 8. The Hendrick Motorsports competitor advanced by winning at Texas. He’s followed in the standings by Denny Hamlin of Joe Gibbs Racing, Chris Buescher of RFK Racing, JGR’s Christopher Bell and Martin Truex Jr., Trackhouse Racing’s Chastain, RFK’s Brad Keselowski and Hendrick’s Kyle Larson.

So who does Talladega favor? Speed-wise, among playoff drivers, Bell took the pole for both Talladega races in 2022. Hamlin earned the pole in this year’s spring race. Truex gained a pole in 2016 but with his previous team, Furniture Row Racing.

There are 11 active Talladega winners, six who are playoff drivers, led by Keselowski with six wins (most recently the 2021 spring race for Team Penske). Busch, Hamlin and Blaney have two wins each on the Alabama track, and Chastain and Wallace each have one.

Chase Elliott is the defending YellaWood 500 winner. Wallace won it two years ago, Hamlin in 2020, Blaney in ’19, and Keselowski in ’17.

Busch won this year’s spring Talladega race with his No. 8 Chevrolet for Richard Childress Racing, then Ford drivers took the next four spots — Blaney, Buescher, Chase Briscoe and Keselowski. Byron and Bell also finished in the top 10. Blaney and Wallace led the most laps.

Basically, it’s wide open. It’s anybody’s race. It’s Talladega.


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