The GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway marks the first race at the track with NASCAR’s Next Gen chassis. It’s also the first time Bubba Wallace revisits the oval that gave him the first victory of his Cup career. It remains a historic moment, the first time an African-American driver won at this level in nearly 60 years.
Just don’t expect the winner himself to dwell on it.
“I sit there and think about it a lot, and people put so much emphasis on the win,” Wallace said Saturday morning (April 23) at Talladega. “I just like to keep it low-key, fly under the radar. That’s how I like to roll about life.”
It’s just hard for Wallace to do that here, a track that’s also brought him controversy when a noose in the garage area was mistakenly investigated as a hate crime incident in June 2020. The driver unity surrounding Wallace that resulted from that week remains one of the sport’s finest moments, even if the presence of the rope proved to be an odd coincidence. Add in a famous co-owner, Michael Jordan, and it makes Wallace one of the sport’s well-known and highest-profile drivers off the racetrack.
It’s not a surprise, then, Talladega serves as a check-in of sorts for Bubba in the midst of his second season at 23XI Racing. A strong start to the year (second at the Daytona 500) has been followed by eight straight runs outside the top 10, dropping him to 22nd in the season standings. He’s already 57 points behind Christopher Bell for the final spot on the grid and 29 behind new teammate Kurt Busch.
That’s led to criticism over Wallace’s performance, with some even calling out his lone victory as a rain-shortened stroke of luck. The truth lies somewhere in the middle, Toyotas struggling as a whole this year with just two wins and no driver inside the top 5 in overall points. They’ve struggled for speed behind even smaller-scale organizations like Richard Childress Racing that have figured out the handling of the new Next Gen chassis much faster.
How does Wallace feel about being nitpicked over high expectations, especially about the lone win he’s got thus far?
“People inside the four walls of the sport understand and get it, and that’s what I need to wrap my head around,” Wallace said Saturday. “Instead of trying to make the others that are outside the walls that are outside looking in [understand]. We all know… how tough it is to win a Cup race, and there’s been plenty of rain-shortened races, instances where those have happened and teams have capitalized on it.
“The people that aren’t fans of yours are just going to continue to carry that to the grave, that it was rigged, or we only won because it rained. All the 40 drivers in the field knew it was going to rain. Why didn’t they win? So, you can’t spend too much time on [the internet] and feed into that.”
There’s also one easy fix to silence the critics: another victory. It’s how Toyota has clinched some playoff bids early (see: Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch) and kept themselves in the conversation while working on long-term fixes. Wallace is just one of a handful of drivers that can fix sorry seasons with their pack racing skill set: Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Michael McDowell, and even Ty Dillon come to mind.
Will Cinderella come calling at Talladega once again? Or can Wallace simply lose that label with a second victory, one that seals a first-ever postseason bid?
Strap in. Another wild race is expected at a track that rarely disappoints.
Date: Sunday, April 24
Time: 3 p.m. ET
Track: Talladega Superspeedway (Lincoln, Ala.)
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who's at the Front: Tyler Reddick
Reddick missed out on his first Cup victory after a last-lap, last-turn move by Chase Briscoe went south at the Bristol Dirt Race. As the two drivers spun out, Kyle Busch scooted by and led the final lap (his only one) for his first victory of 2022.
That left Reddick disappointed, although he handled a post-race apology by Briscoe with class. But he should look on the bright side: 196 laps led this season are fourth in the Cup Series, almost triple his career total prior to 2022. The No. 8 Chevrolet has been the fastest car in multiple races this year only to be foiled by bad luck, making that much-anticipated trip to victory lane a matter of when… not if.
Who's at the Back: Justin Allgaier
The NASCAR Xfinity Series full-timer took a rare shot at Cup with Spire Motorsports at Bristol only to crash out at the end of stage one. It’s the fourth time in five starts since leaving the series full-time after the 2015 season Allgaier has registered a DNF. Among those tough-luck moments: a 2020 fill-in opportunity for Jimmie Johnson at Indianapolis Motor Speedway (37th) that also ended in a crash.
Kyle Busch raised eyebrows Saturday when he made clear his future at Joe Gibbs Racing is uncertain beyond this season. The only active Cup driver to win two or more championships, the 36-year-old Busch is still seeking primary sponsorship after M&M’s/Mars announced they’ll leave the sport after the 2022 season is complete. “I’m not getting antsy about it,” Busch said. “If it happens, it happens. If it don’t, it don’t. Goodbye.” When asked if leaving JGR is an option, he was curt: “Ask Joe Gibbs.”
Larry McReynolds’ return on top of the pit box ended up just short of victory lane. The 23-race Cup Series winner jumped on board a one-race deal with Richard Childress Racing to crew chief Jeffrey Earnhardt in the NASCAR Xfinity Series. Dale Earnhardt’s grandson wound up contending all day, in position to win on the final lap before ultimately finishing runner-up to Noah Gragson. It’s unknown after the strong effort whether future races will be planned with Earnhardt and the No. 3.
Noah Gragson is breaking in a new NASCAR sponsor this weekend at Talladega: Wendy’s. The fast-food chain is advertising its $5 Biggie Bag on the No. 62 Chevrolet that only runs the traditional pack racing tracks on the NASCAR schedule (Daytona and Talladega).
NASCAR by the Numbers
Total lead changes in the last two Cup races combined.
Lead changes in the two Cup pack races held so far this year (Daytona and Atlanta Motor Speedway, which is using a Daytona-style package after being repaved).
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
I say it all the time: Talladega carries the biggest risk of any roster you create. No number of expert opinions can override the luck needed here to be successful, multi-car wrecks often wiping out the fastest cars long before the checkered flag.
Ryan Blaney has a solid track record here, winning two of the last three ‘Dega races. He’ll start 22nd and has the potential for both position differential and fastest lap bonuses. Teammate Joey Logano has led double-digit laps in nine of his last 11 starts here, a stretch that includes two wins and a third-place finish as recently as last fall. I’d argue despite Toyota’s speed deficit Denny Hamlin remains the most talented pack racer not named Keselowski; he won from the pole here in the fall of 2020.
That said? Any of those drivers could get swept into a wreck out of their control at any moment. It’s really a matter of finding 2-3 top-tier drivers from Hendrick Motorsports, Team Penske, Joe Gibbs Racing and… hoping for the best.
You’ve got to feel like Brad Keselowski views Talladega as one of his best chances to make the playoffs. His six wins here lead all active drivers and Keselowski understands a victory is needed to make the postseason after his 100-point deduction. Expect the No. 6 to be up front early and often after leading a race-high 67 laps at Daytona.
Fifth at Daytona and a former Talladega winner? He’s down the list of drivers you think of but that’s a resume to make Aric Almirola a contender. Running his final full-time season for Stewart-Haas Racing, Almirola would like to earn one more Cup victory and knows races like Talladega are his best chance with the No. 10 Ford. The results at this place have been underwhelming as of late (three straight runs outside the top 10) but with the way Talladega luck yo-yos back and forth? He’s due.
Keep an eye on Noah Gragson and a part-time Beard Motorsports car plenty capable of running inside the top 10. Wendy’s sponsorship, support from Richard Childress Racing and Gragson’s NASCAR Xfinity Series victory Saturday make him a dark horse contender. Just keep in mind the risk: Beard has four career top 10s with its No. 62 in 18 Daytona/Talladega starts but also has seven DNFs.
David Ragan, a former Talladega winner, brought the No. 15 Rick Ware Racing Ford home eighth in the Daytona 500. He’s back in the saddle this week as part of a limited schedule and is a cheap option to add to any lineup. Starting 36th, there’s nowhere to go but up for a driver who knows how to manage the draft and be there at the end.
What Vegas Thinks
Vegasinsider.com has Ryan Blaney the Talladega favorite with +1000 odds to win. Joey Logano (+1200) is close behind followed by a plethora of drivers (over a half-dozen) at +1400. The major gambling outlets know what’s up here, understanding the chance of an upset winner is higher here than any other track.
Who’s got the best odds among those? Ty Dillon has never finished lower than 17th in any Talladega Cup race. His odds to win are +9000 (90/1). You could do worse!
What I Think
I’m going to pull the upset card, to a degree, and say Brad Keselowski gets it done for his first victory as an owner/driver. To put the No. 6 in victory lane the month after such a devastating penalty would be a major accomplishment.
— 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.
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