Tuesday May 28th, 2024 4:11AM

NASCAR preview: Uncertainty of Talladega gives hope to many looking for a win

By Holly Cain NASCAR Wire Service

For the second consecutive week, Hendrick Motorsports driver Kyle Larson holds the NASCAR Cup Series driver standings lead. This Sunday, the 2021 series champion will try to do something he’s never done: win a NASCAR Cup Series race at the iconic Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway in the GEICO 500.

Live coverage of the GEICO 500 will be broadcast on WDUN AM 550 & FM 102.9 and streamed at accesswdun.com beginning at 2:30 p.m.

Neither Larson nor his closest championship challenger, Joe Gibbs Racing’s Martin Truex Jr., have won on the Talladega high banks, which consistently present a one-of-a-kind challenge for the series’ very best, no matter the pedigree.

Drivers have shared the victory hardware this season, with six winners through the opening nine races. But Talladega is a big opportunity for those still looking to hoist their first trophy in 2024. Seven different winners have been in the last seven races at the 2.66-mile track.

Seven of the nine former Talladega race winners entered this weekend – Ryan Blaney, Kyle Busch, Ross Chastain, Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Bubba Wallace – are racing for their first win of the season. Blaney, Keselowski and Logano are also hoping to give Ford its first win of the season.

Busch, driver of the No. 8 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet, is the defending race winner. Blaney, the driver of the No. 12 Team Penske Ford, was runner-up to Busch in this spring race last year, then came back in the Fall to claim his third victory at the big track. He’s won races at Talladega in all three of NASCAR’s premier series.

Keselowski, who earned his best finish (runner-up) of the season at Texas Motor Speedway last weekend, has six Talladega wins – most among active drivers. He scored his very first NASCAR Cup Series win here in 2009. His last Talladega win came in 2021. A victory this weekend would be both sentimental and crucial to a championship run for the 2012 series champ.

“Talladega has been a special track for me, and I look forward to going there,” said Keselowski, who is still looking to earn his first victory as an owner-driver for the Roush Fenway Keselowski (RFK) Racing team.

“I think we will have cars that can compete for the win. There are a lot of peripheral circumstances that would add to how special that would be if we were able to do that. From Mustang’s 60th birthday to where we are as a company to where I am at in my career. So, it would be special to be able to win.”

Fellow Ford driver and reigning NASCAR Cup Series champion Blaney is openly optimistic that Talladega Superspeedway represents a good bet – perhaps the best yet – for a Ford Mustang to be celebrated in Victory Lane. Ford has won four of the last nine races at Talladega and powered Blaney to his crucial Playoff win last Fall.

“The speedways have been pretty good for the Fords for a while,” said Blaney. “Ever since I’ve been in the Cup Series, I feel like we’ve always been super strong and really been able to compete and try to control the race.

“It helps when you have fast cars, and Ford has brought fast cars,” Blaney continued, adding, “I thought we were really strong at Daytona, and I’m sure Talladega is going to be the same way. We’ll all be really strong, so you just hope that you can be there at the end of this race and have a shot of winning. I have no doubt about the speed; it’s just about how you execute and try to get through the day.”

Two opposing motivations are fueling Truex and Hendrick Motorsports’ Chase Elliott—both with potentially huge positive ramifications. Truex is 0-for-38 at Talladega, and the 2017 series champion is more than ready and capable of ending this futility at the big track.

Elliott is a two-time Talladega winner, and the Dawsonville, Ga. native is unquestionably the ‘Dega fan favorite. Having earned his first win since 2022 last week at Texas, Elliott would love nothing more than to carry that positive momentum into the weekend. He’s ranked fourth in the driver standings – the highest he’s been ranked since the 2022 season finale.

Qualifying is set for Saturday at 10:30 a.m. ET (on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin – a two-time Talladega winner – won the pole position for this race last year.

It’s anyone’s race in the Xfinity Series at Talladega this weekend

When it comes to racing on the 2.66-mile Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway's high banks, everyone on the grid typically feels like they stand a chance to hoist the big trophy. This brand of all-out, pedal-down racing is a specialized artform for the drivers, and Saturday’s Ag-Pro 300 (4 p.m. ET on FOX, MRN, and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) is always a fan favorite, must-see event.

Only two former race winners are on the season’s NASCAR Xfinity Series championship field. Kaulig Racing’s A.J. Allmendinger won in 2022, and Jordan Anderson Racing’s Jeb Burton is a two-time winner, including last Spring when he triumphed over Sheldon Creed in a tremendously exciting overtime finish.

Both Allmendinger and Burton arrive in Alabama highly motivated, racing for their first victories of the year. In Burton’s case, he’s competing for his first top-10 finish of the season after several hard-luck finishes.

As so often happens racing on superspeedways, the finishes in this race are typically wide-open with an anyone-can-win feel. That may be a good thing for several of the 2024 championship leaders, who have not typically fared particularly well at ‘Dega.

Joe Gibbs Racing’s Chandler Smith brings a 19-point advantage atop the Xfinity Series driver standings over reigning series champion Stewart-Haas Racing’s Cole Custer. He has a 33-point lead on Richard Childress Racing’s Austin Hill and is 56 points ahead of JR Motorsports’ Justin Allgaier.

Smith, driver of the No. 81 JGR Toyota, has crashed out in both of his previous starts at Talladega with finishes of 38th and 25th-place. Custer, driver of the No. 00 SHR Ford, is batting .500 with two top-10 finishes in four starts. He finished fourth last year.

Hill has been a victim of Talladega aggressiveness with zero top-10 finishes in four starts – twice he’s crashed out. His best finish was 14th place in 2022. However, Hill has started on the front row in the last three races and won pole position in the last two.

The sustained qualifying achievements certainly show Hill – who has three wins at the series’ other big track, Daytona International Speedway – knows his way around a superspeedway. He is optimistic about his chances on Saturday working with rookie teammate Jesse Love, who won pole position in the Daytona season opener that Hill won.

“So, I think that going into this weekend, a lot of guys are going to do all they can to split the 2 (Love) and the 21 (Hill) up and try to keep us from leading the field,” said Hill, a two-race winner this season. “Because if we’re leading the field, him and I both, we do a really good job of stringing the line around. Yes, we have fast race cars, but we know what to do with them as well.”

This week marks the third race of the season’s Dash 4 Cash incentive program. Last week’s Texas winner, Sam Mayer (No. 1 JR Motorsports Chevrolet), his Texas runner-up Ryan Sieg (No. 39 RSS Racing Chevrolet), Allgaier (No. 7 JR Motorsports Chevrolet) and Allmendinger (No. 16 Kaulig Racing Chevrolet) will compete for the money this week. The highest finishing driver among this quartet pockets an extra $100,000 check. The top four eligible finishers will then qualify for the final leg of the Dash 4 Cash program next week at Dover (Del.) Motor Speedway.

There is no practice session for the field at Talladega. Qualifying is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. ET on Friday (FS1).

  • Associated Categories: Sports, NASCAR News, NASCAR Cup, Xfinity Series, Top Sports Stories
  • Associated Tags: nascar, nascar xfinity series, Chase Elliott, NASCAR Cup Series
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