TALLADEGA, Ala. (AP) — Denny Hamlin is already through to the third round of NASCAR's playoffs with nothing to worry about at Talladega Superspeedway.
His championship rivals? Not so much.
NASCAR's challenging second round of the playoffs — three wildly different circuits — moves Sunday to the behemoth 2.66-mile Alabama superspeedway where luck is as important as skill. The white-knuckled race falls between Las Vegas, a traditional 1.5-mile speedway where Hamlin won last week, and the twists and turns of the hybrid oval/road course at Charlotte Motor Speedway next week.
The unpredictability expected this week and next has the 11 drivers vying for seven remaining playoff slots slightly on edge.
“You can’t freak out and try any harder because I’m already trying as hard as I can,” said Alex Bowman, who narrowly raced his way through to the second round only for Las Vegas to drop him right back to 11th out of 12 in the standings.
“We’re not in a great spot and we’re going to a place that’s a huge wild card,” he said. "We’ve just got to wait and see how it shakes out. If it works out for us, it does. And if it doesn’t, it doesn’t.”
Hamlin, who automatically advanced to the third round with his Las Vegas victory, is the defending race winner, and Brad Keselowski scored his only win of the season at Talladega in April. Keselowski returns to the track only four points above the cutline, a mere two points separating him and teammate Joey Logano.
“It is stressful because your whole season can be decided this weekend and that may be somewhat out of your control,” said Logano, who has never been eliminated before the round of eight.
“This is the round that a true championship contender can be a surprise knockout.”
The four drivers below the cutline headed into Talladega are William Byron, Kevin Harvick, Bowman and Christopher Bell. Harvick is 1 for 41 at Talladega and his fourth-place finish in April was only his third top-10 in nine races, a span that included two race-ending crashes.
“It’s been a destruction derby over the last couple of years,” Harvick said. "It’s one of those places where you want to race up front and race hard all day. ... 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.”
Ryan Blaney, a two-time Talladega winner who is above the cutline alongside his Team Penske teammates Keselowski and Logano, said drivers need the same mindset for this playoff race as any other event.
“You have to be aware that you can get wiped out and it’s none of your doing. We’ve all been there. You’re just minding your own business and you get blindsided and you’re destroyed the next thing you know,” Blaney said. "But you can’t let that eat at you. You’ve just got to say, ‘Let’s focus and let’s do these things like we know how to do them, and go racing.’”
LARSON TRIPLE CROWN
Kyle Larson is probably the only driver as relaxed as Denny Hamlin, even though he’s winless in 13 career Cup starts at Talladega Superspeedway.
The regular-season champion has a 57-point cushion above the cutline. He has opened the playoffs with four consecutive top-10 finishes, and another one Sunday could push him into the third round on points.
Larson understands he can only control so much at Talladega. Because the drivers are typically clumped into a pack for 500 miles, a wrong move can lead to disaster for any driver unable to dart their way through the wreckage.
“It’s just a totally different race and you’re just kind of stuck in a draft all the time,” Larson said. “You definitely study, don’t get me wrong, but I feel like there’s less stuff to study as far as drivers making an impact.”
ODDS AND ENDS
Denny Hamlin is the 9/5 favorite to win Talladega, according to FanDuel. ... Since the start of the playoffs in 2004 the winner of the Talladega playoff race has never gone on to win the Cup title. The Talladega winner did finish second in the final standings, twice. ... The worst a driver has finished at Talladega and still won the championship was 24th by Jimmie Johnson in 2006. Chase Elliott, the reigning Cup champion, finished fifth last season. ... A non-playoff driver has won Talladega five times in 17 races. ... Martin Truex Jr. is 0 for 66 at Talladega with 10 consecutive finishes of 20th or worse.
WDUN will carry live MRN Radio coverage of Sunday's NASCAR Cup Series YellaWood 500 from Talladega Superspeedway beginning at 1 pm on 102.9 FM and streaming live on AccessWDUN.
NASCAR Cup Series
Talladega Superspeedway - Talladega, AL
YellaWood 500 - October 3, 2021
Sunday's Starting Line Up
Pos Car Driver Team Time Speed
1. 11 Denny Hamlin (P) FedEx Express Toyota 0.000 0.000
2. 18 Kyle Busch (P) M&M's Toyota 0.000 0.000
3. 9 Chase Elliott (P) Adrenaline Shoc Chevrolet 0.000 0.000
4. 12 Ryan Blaney (P) Menards/Maytag Ford 0.000 0.000
5. 5 Kyle Larson (P) Cincinnati Chevrolet 0.000 0.000
6. 19 Martin Truex, Jr. (P) Bass Pro Shops Toyota 0.000 0.000
7. 2 Brad Keselowski (P) Discount Tire Ford 0.000 0.000
8. 22 Joey Logano (P) Shell Pennzoil Ford 0.000 0.000
9. 4 Kevin Harvick (P) Busch Light #Hunt4Busch Ford 0.000 0.000
10. 24 William Byron (P) Axalta Chevrolet 0.000 0.000
11. 48 Alex Bowman (P) Ally Chevrolet 0.000 0.000
12. 20 Christopher Bell (P) Rheem Toyota 0.000 0.000
13. 8 Tyler Reddick Realtree Chevrolet 0.000 0.000
14. 1 Kurt Busch Monster Energy Chevrolet 0.000 0.000
15. 21 Matt DiBenedetto Quick Lane Tire & Auto Center Ford 0.000 0.000
16. 3 Austin Dillon BREZTRI Chevrolet 0.000 0.000
17. 14 Chase Briscoe # Rush Truck Centers/Mobil 1Delvac Ford 0.000 0.000
18. 99 Daniel Suarez Good Sam Chevrolet 0.000 0.000
19. 23 Bubba Wallace McDonald's Toyota 0.000 0.000
20. 10 Aric Almirola Smithfield Ford 0.000 0.000
21. 47 Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. SunnyD Chevrolet 0.000 0.000
22. 34 Michael McDowell Love's Travel Stops Ford 0.000 0.000
23. 42 Ross Chastain Clover Chevrolet 0.000 0.000
24. 17 Chris Buescher Violet Defense Ford 0.000 0.000
25. 6 Ryan Newman Kohler Generators Ford 0.000 0.000
26. 43 Erik Jones US Air Force: Special Warfare Chevrolet 0.000 0.000
27. 37 Ryan Preece Kroger/Velveeta Chevrolet 0.000 0.000
28. 41 Cole Custer Autodesk/HaasTooling.com Ford 0.000 0.000
29. 7 Corey LaJoie Schluter Systems Chevrolet 0.000 0.000
30. 38 Anthony Alfredo # Ford 0.000 0.000
31. 51 Cody Ware(i) Nurtec ODT Chevrolet 0.000 0.000
32. 78 B.J. McLeod(i) NASCAR 21 Ignition Ford 0.000 0.000
33. 77 Justin Allgaier(i) BRANDT Chevrolet 0.000 0.000
34. 52 Josh Bilicki Junction Fuels Ford 0.000 0.000
35. 00 Quin Houff 8 Ball Chocolate Whiskey Chevrolet 0.000 0.000
36. 53 Joey Gase(i) Sparks Chevrolet 0.000 0.000
37. 15 Garrett Smithley(i) Boom Mobile Chevrolet 0.000 0.000
38. 16 Justin Haley(i) LeafFilter Gutter Protection Chevrolet 0.000 0.000
39. 66 David Starr Toyota 0.000 0.000
40. 96 Landon Cassill(i) Carnomaly Toyota 0.000 0.000