The sport's most unpredictable race is primed to shake up the playoffs... again
Talladega Superspeedway sits right in the heart of Alabama, a state the hit movie Forrest Gump was based around. And, just like the main character there would say, a race here is like a box of chocolates: you never know what you’re going to get.
There could be a race like the fall of 2013, an event with just three caution flags, squeaky clean for a track known for big wrecks. Jamie McMurray broke through for the seventh and final win of his NASCAR career, the last time this event was won by a driver outside the playoff hunt.
Or it could be like the fall race from one year earlier, 2012. That event ended with Tony Stewart on his roof and virtually an entire pack of 30 cars wrecked as Matt Kenseth won his final event driving for Roush Fenway Racing.
We’ve learned to expect the unexpected here. While restrictor plates are gone, a rule put in place to lower speeds and increase parity the racing without them is not too much different at Talladega. Anyone from first to 40th has a shot at winning the race as long as they have the speed to keep up in a sprawling lead draft.
In recent years, we have seen teamwork come into play: 2019 should be no exception. Stewart-Haas Racing set a new standard with their 1-2-3-4 qualifying effort turned race domination last fall. But even then, a late series of caution flags broke up their effort, running teams out of gas while keeping Aric Almirola in front with a bit of a surprise win.
This time around, the teamwork could dig deeper as the sport’s three manufacturers (Ford, Chevrolet, Toyota) prepare to close ranks. Will one of them superglue themselves together in a way they can create a pack all their own?
Add in the pressure of some drivers auditioning for 2020 and this melting pot of potential storylines should explode into fierce competition. Ricky Stenhouse Jr., a retiring David Ragan, and a surging Matt DiBenedetto are just a few of the non-playoff names in position to pull off an upset.
Finally, did we mention there’s a chance of rain in the forecast? A shower at the right time at Daytona in July handed NASCAR Xfinity Series regular Justin Haley the most unexpected win of the century in this sport. Could another miracle from Mother Nature hand a trophy to a similar underdog?
That summer story seems more suited for Talladega. Or maybe that’s just a preview of an even wackier Sunday ahead. It’s the beauty of pack racing’s unpredictability, primed to inject a little boost into what’s been an underwhelming NASCAR playoff to date.
Time: Sunday, Oct. 13 at 2 p.m. ET
Track: Talladega Superspeedway (Lincoln, Ala.)
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who's at the Front: Kyle Larson
After two-plus years and several close calls, Larson finally broke his winless drought at Dover International Speedway last weekend. His 154 laps led were a season high, using track position to his advantage at a track where passing proved near impossible.
Quietly, Larson now has eight top-10 finishes in the past ten races, advancing to the Round of 8 and making title favorites nervous. Should he sneak into the Championship 4, Larson’s track record at Homestead-Miami Speedway makes him a force to be reckoned with. Despite a season that’s a full step behind Joe Gibbs Racing, Team Penske, and others there’s plenty of time to redeem himself.
Who's at the Back: Joey Logano
What’s going on with the reigning Cup Series champ? Logano has just one top-five finish in the season’s second half, a runner-up finish at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in early September. The No. 22 Team Penske Ford has been off for much of the postseason, getting lapped at one of their strongest tracks (Richmond Raceway) while bottoming out with mechanical problems at Dover International Speedway.
Those issues left Logano 25 laps down at the finish, tied for the eighth and final playoff spot on the cutline. He’s certainly not out of it, but vulnerable enough that one bad wreck at Talladega could become an unexpected knockout punch.
Kevin Harvick’s crew chief isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Rodney Childers signed a multi-year extension to remain as head wrench for the No. 4 Ford, a position he’s held since Harvick came over to run with Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014. Together, the pair has earned a Cup title, won 25 races and made four Championship 4 appearances in five years under the current format.
Harvick’s teammate Aric Almirola is also set for the 2020 season and beyond with SHR. Sponsor Smithfield re-upped for next year despite a disappointing 2019 that saw Almirola knocked out in the first round of the playoffs. He’s got just one top-five finish this season, a fourth at Phoenix Raceway this spring and is 13th in the season standings.
Rookie Ryan Preece will have a new crew chief for the rest of the 2019 season. Eddie Pardue will assume the role, switching from team engineer while Tristan Smith moves off the pit box. Preece has struggled during his rookie season, earning just one top-5 finish in 30 races en route to 27th in the point standings.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Lead changes at Talladega last fall, the fewest in a Cup Series race there since 1973.
The last year a driver (Jeff Gordon) swept both Cup races at Talladega. Chase Elliott will try and match that as he fights to advance in the playoffs after an engine failure left him dead last at Dover.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
It’s truly a crapshoot when it comes to Talladega pack racing. Your best bet is to go with particular teams, looking at their recent history and how much they’re able to stick together in the draft.
Toyota and Joe Gibbs Racing may have the perfect combination for a solid set of weekend performances. JGR was 1-2-3 in the Daytona 500 and Toyota’s small number of full-time teams overall (five) makes it easy for them to stay connected. Denny Hamlin is the most recent Toyota driver to win here, in 2014, and is probably your best shot at success.
You know who hasn’t won here out of that Toyota group? Martin Truex Jr. But he has little to lose, virtually assured a spot in the Round of 8 and may go aggressive to check a superspeedway win off his bucket list.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has had a miserable last couple of weeks. He’s been released from his ride at Roush Fenway Racing, effective the end of this season and remains without a top-10 finish since Charlotte Motor Speedway on Memorial Day weekend. But Talladega offers a chance at redemption, one of his best tracks and a place he’s won as recently as 2017. It’ll be a boom-or-bust weekend for him driving the No. 17 Ford but I’m thinking boom.
Austin Dillon has had a year to forget over at Richard Childress Racing but the 2018 Daytona 500 winner always seems to run well on superspeedways. A pole run at Talladega in the spring shows the No. 3 team has speed here; can they translate it into race trim?
It’s hard to bet against a driver making perhaps his final career start at a racetrack he loves. David Ragan won a race here as recently as 2013 and his Front Row Motorsports team is geared up for their Talladega grand finale together. Three top-10 finishes in his last five races here show he can still run up front.
Parker Kligerman has done an admirable job this season in a limited schedule running for Gaunt Brothers Racing. He earned a 15th-place finish in the season-opening Daytona 500 and his Toyota team should benefit from the manufacturer’s smaller group as noted above. A top-20 run would be a good way for this team to keep building as they hope for a more expanded schedule come 2020.
What Vegas Thinks
Joey Logano currently tops the board for this race with 8/1 odds. Teammate Brad Keselowski and Chevrolet’s Chase Elliott follow at 10/1.
Looking for a longshot pick? David Ragan sits at 100/1.
What I Think
I’m going to say Kevin Harvick takes home the trophy in a milestone race for him this weekend (Cup start 677, one more than the man he replaced in 2001, Dale Earnhardt). But you can put one of about 30 names here and I wouldn’t be surprised. Sunday is truly a race anyone can win.
(Top photo courtesy of @NASCAR)