Sunday's GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway marks the first superspeedway race for the NASCAR Cup Series since February’s season-opening Daytona 500. So much has happened since then in this sport: a two-month suspension due to COVID-19, Kyle Larson's firing for a racial slur, and a confederate flag ban in response to the #BlackLivesMatter movement.
It's easy to forget, four months ago, how different this NASCAR season could have been. How a minor miracle kept Ryan Newman from tragedy in the final few seconds of the Great American Race. Take a moment with me and relive what had everyone holding their breath.
Newman was knocked out in the crash and had to be cut out of the car. Rushed to the hospital, he suffered a bruised brain and sat out the next three races before the COVID-19 pandemic gave him a chance to heal.
Before Corey Lajoie got busy feuding with Denny Hamlin, he was living a nightmare as the driver who slammed into Newman's driver-side door. Before Ryan Blaney was leading NASCAR's #BlackLivesMatter support, he was living the nightmare of one ill-fated tap that could have devastated a driver's life.
It was an ugly 48 hours for the sport, one they hope never to repeat. But that's difficult to assure at their two biggest tracks, Daytona and Talladega, where pack racing can produce disaster at any moment. Forty cars superglued together, running two and three abreast at speeds approaching 200 miles an hour? It's hard to go 500 miles without a mistake.
That said, NASCAR hopes to learn from Newman's lucky break, arguably the scariest Cup wreck since Dale Earnhardt Sr.'s fatal wreck in 2001. Autoweek's Matt Weaver has an excellent article detailing the safety changes put in place designed to make Talladega safer this Sunday.
The cliff notes are the adjustments, such as the elimination of aero ducts and reduction of throttle body size, should reduce horsepower down to 500. The addition of slip tape should make it harder for cars to spin out after the dangerous bump drafts that have become so popular in recent years. Less horsepower means slower speeds, putting the cars under a mythical 200 mph barrier NASCAR feels like significantly increases the chance a wrecked car will leave the ground and start flipping.
But those safety enhancements are still a mystery with not a single team able to test them. NASCAR chose not to have even a 15-minute session at Talladega, continuing their COVID-19 policy of limiting time at the racetrack. It means the first lap drivers will deal with this new package will be under race conditions, at speed, with 39 others jostling around them.
It's just another risk for a sport that's always on the ragged edge with this type of racing. If they make the setup too safe, single-file racing ensues while both fans and drivers bore of what becomes a 500-mile parade with a crazy-turned-catastrophic ending. But if they get too aggressive? Drivers are human, after all, and get forced to make moves from the very first lap which ultimately put the entire field at risk.
"Drivers have short-term memory problems," Cup driver Brendan Gaughan said Thursday. "When it's bad, we forget, and when it's great, we remember. I know that I've never felt invincible in my life in a race car. I've also never raced with the words 'no fear' and I've known a few drivers that did.
"We have healthy fears... you need to use knowledge and intelligence to do some of these things."
We're about to see where this field of 40 drivers falls on the spectrum. Typically, we see a much cleaner superspeedway race the first time drivers return after this type of serious scare. But the outside events of the world make that crash feel like a decade ago... not just four months. Will the lure of competition and the unknowns of a brand new package leave us with a pile of smoldering sheet metal once again?
"When the checkered flag is out for the Daytona 500," NASCAR senior vice president of innovation and racing development John Patalak said, "The opportunity for accidents is high. I think the changes you see here that we've put forward, it's to ensure that once a chain of events like that is set into motion, we have all the safety mechanisms in place to mitigate the... negative outcomes."
Time: 3 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Track: Talladega Superspeedway (Lincoln, Ala.)
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who's at the Front: Joe Gibbs Racing
Denny Hamlin became Cup's first three-time winner this season, chasing down and passing Chase Elliott in the closing laps at Homestead-Miami Speedway. This year's Daytona 500 winner could easily add to that total in another superspeedway place this weekend.
But he's not alone. Martin Truex Jr. broke into the win column a few days earlier at Martinsville Speedway. Kyle Busch, while winless in Cup, won the Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series race at Homestead and has picked up the pace with three top-six finishes the last four races.
Overall, JGR has four wins as a team despite Busch's underperformance and a poor season thus far by Erik Jones. Well, that's still tied for the lead among NASCAR ownership with Team Penske (four). So if JGR's just starting to get its act together as a whole? Watch out.
Who's at the Back: Alex Bowman
Bowman finds himself safely in the postseason after a March win at Auto Club Speedway. He's also the recipient of a contract extension at Hendrick Motorsports through 2021. But that early excitement, peaking with a second-place finish at Darlington Raceway in May, has faded with the start of summer.
Homestead marked just an 18th-place finish and zero laps led for a driver who appeared to have intermediates figured out. It's his fourth run outside the top 10 in the last five races, a stretch that includes a crash at Bristol Motor Speedway and a 31st at Charlotte Motor Speedway after starting on the outside of the front row.
Australian open-wheel racer James Davison will have to wait until Pocono Raceway next weekend to make his Cup Series debut. Davison was replaced by B.J. McLeod in the Spire Motorsports No. 77 Chevrolet after NASCAR did an about-face on his approval to race. There were concerns about the Indianapolis 500 veteran jumping in with this new package without any practice inside the draft.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., Mike Stefanik and Red Farmer were announced as the three inductees for the 2021 NASCAR Hall of Fame this week. Earnhardt, the sport's perennial Most Popular Driver before retiring in 2017, is a two-time Daytona 500 winner and current NBC analyst. Stefanik was a seven-time champ in the sport's Whelen Modified Tour. And Farmer racked up hundreds of short track wins as one of the original members of the sport's legendary Alabama Gang. Former R.J. Reynolds executive Ralph Seagraves was selected for the Landmark Award. Seagrave's efforts helped bring Winston to NASCAR as the sport's Cup Series sponsor from 1971-2003.
Best wishes to 1999 Cup Series champion Dale Jarrett who tested positive for coronavirus. The current NBC analyst, 63, made the announcement during the network's Hall of Fame coverage Tuesday. Jarrett, thankfully, is self-quarantining after experiencing only minor symptoms.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Max points scored by Denny Hamlin in his Homestead win. It's the first time this season a driver has swept all three stages in a Cup event.
Drivers who have six top-five finishes thus far in 2020 to lead the series. They are Ryan Blaney, Kyle Busch, Chase Elliott, Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
Put 40 balls in a bingo cage, turn the handle and see what numbers come out. That's pretty much the strategy at Talladega, where the rules create parity to the point a title contender everywhere else can be shuffled back to 35th at a moment's notice.
That said, Brad Keselowski has a history of success at 'Dega. His five wins lead all active drivers and Keselowski is due for a run of good luck here; he's got four straight results of 13th or worse.
Chase Elliott is the defending Talladega winner and has two straight top-10 finishes here. He'll be a popular pick and his recent run of momentum everywhere makes it hard to pick against him. But three straight top 10s? Or a second win in three races? That would be a minor miracle with danger lurking at every turn.
Back in 2017, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. looked ready to on a superspeedway streak of sorts. A win at Talladega sparked a summer triumph at Daytona as he looked to replace a retiring Dale Earnhardt Jr. as the sport's top racer at this type of track. That hasn't happened. But three top-10 finishes in the last five 'Dega races could make him a good value play.
Ryan Newman? Really? Yes, really. Remember, the Roush Fenway Racing veteran came two turns from Daytona 500 glory before that awful wreck turned his 2020 season upside down. He was seventh and second at 'Dega last year and has an unheard of four top-10 finishes in the last five races here.
Ah, the value of these small-team picks. It's one of the few times all year underfunded and overmatched teams can sneak away with top-10 finishes. Brendan Gaughan is a rather obvious selection, making his second start of the year for Beard Motorsports. Retiring after the 2020 season, he was seventh in the Daytona 500 for a team that focuses exclusively on superspeedways. Just beware; Gaughan is aggressive. He's not running for points so a boom-or-bust proposition is likely here.
Corey Lajoie has been feuding with Hamlin, a beef that appears to be settled entering ‘Dega. But the underdog has a rare opportunity to up a 2020 three-time winner at a place he's been 11th and seventh in his last two starts.
What Vegas Thinks
Chase Elliott has the edge with 8/1 odds at Talladega. Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano are right behind at 9/1. Denny Hamlin sits fourth at 10/1 in the latest numbers posted at vegasinsider.com.
Corey Lajoie is one heck of a longshot, sitting at 1000/1. But Talladega has gifted plenty of Cup drivers their first wins before. It's not an insane proposition.
What I Think
Insert name here? Talladega is truly an unpredictable race. So I'll go sentimental and root for Ryan Newman to avenge his Daytona nightmare with some heartwarming redemption at 'Dega.
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and the Majority Owner of NASCAR Web site Frontstretch.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.