The 2021 NASCAR Cup Series holds its final pack race of the season on Sunday as they head to 2.66-mile Talladega Superspeedway for the YellaWood 500. The Round of 12 toils on at the sport’s largest oval track, a facility where the field often stays superglued together in a 40-car draft due to the rules package at this track type.
The two, often three-wide competition that results in such close quarters is a high-drama, high-risk proposition. The Big One can spark at any time, multi-car wrecks that can wipe out a dozen cars or more as there’s no time or space to react to cars spinning out in front of you at nearly 200 miles per hour.
Drivers have to make a choice about how to handle their strategy. Will they try and run up front all day, hoping any crashes happen behind them? Or will they hang at the back, even lose the draft in hopes that a wreck doesn’t turn them into an innocent victim, tearing away their championship chances with every piece of torn-up sheet metal.
If there’s one track on the circuit where it doesn’t matter where you qualify, it’s here: drivers can go from the back to the front in a handful of laps. It was an easy decision for NASCAR to apply its off-track qualifying system, meaning the first lap the drivers take at speed will be under the green flag Sunday afternoon.
The field was set instead through a metric calculated by the percentages below.
50% of the metric is based on finishing position from the previous race (split between driver and owner).
35% of the metric is the team’s current position in the NASCAR Cup Series owner point standings.
15% of the metric is based on the team’s fastest lap during the previous race.
The team with the lowest total starts on the pole, then the next lowest, etc. until the starting grid is complete as NASCAR tries to limit track time during the COVID-19 pandemic. During the postseason, there’s one small twist: all 12 playoff drivers remaining are guaranteed to start in spots 1-12.
Forty cars are entered at Talladega, filling the grid for the first time since Daytona’s regular-season finale. All 36 teams who have guaranteed spots are here along with four “open” cars: the No. 16 of Kaulig Racing (Justin Haley), the No. 37 of JTG Daugherty Racing (Ryan Preece), the No. 66 of MBM Motorsports (David Starr) and the No. 96 of Gaunt Brothers Racing (Landon Cassill).
Open cars are not guaranteed a spot and, when more than 40 cars show up, need to qualify for a race on speed.
1. Denny Hamlin (P)
2. Kyle Busch (P)
3. Chase Elliott (P)
4. Ryan Blaney (P)
5. Kyle Larson (P)
6. Martin Truex Jr. (P)
7. Brad Keselowski (P)
8. Joey Logano (P)
9. Kevin Harvick (P)
10. William Byron (P)
11. Alex Bowman (P)
12. Christopher Bell (P)
13. Tyler Reddick
14. Kurt Busch
15. Matt DiBenedetto
16. Austin Dillon
17. Chase Briscoe (R)
18. Daniel Suarez
19. Bubba Wallace
20. Aric Almirola
21. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
22. Michael McDowell
23. Ross Chastain
24. Chris Buescher
25. Ryan Newman
26. Erik Jones
27. Ryan Preece
28. Cole Custer
29. Corey LaJoie
30. Anthony Alfredo (R)
31. Cody Ware (i)
32. BJ McLeod (i)
33. Justin Allgaier (i)
34. Josh Bilicki
35. Quin Houff
36. Joey Gase (i)
37. Garrett Smithley (i)
38. Justin Haley (i)
39. David Starr
40. Landon Cassill (i)
(P) – Playoff driver
(R) – Rookie
(i) – Ineligible to collect Cup Series points
- Denny Hamlin (pole) will start up front for the fourth time this season. He also “earned” the pole for the Talladega spring race back in April, leading 43 laps before getting caught up in a midrace crash. Hamlin is the defending winner of the Talladega fall event.
- Kyle Busch (second) has not won at Talladega since his first start here with Joe Gibbs Racing in April 2008. It remains his only Cup victory at this racetrack.
- Chase Elliott (third) is the highest-qualifying Chevrolet.
- Ryan Blaney (fourth) is the highest-qualifying Ford. He won the last Cup pack race, held at Daytona back in August.
- Regular-season points champion Kyle Larson (fifth) remains without a top-5 finish at Daytona or Talladega in 28 career Cup starts.
- Martin Truex Jr. (sixth) remains without a victory at Daytona or Talladega in 66 career Cup starts.
- Brad Keselowski (seventh) won the Talladega Cup race held here this spring. His six career victories there lead all active drivers.
- Chase Briscoe (17th) is the highest-qualifying Cup rookie.
- Justin Allgaier (33rd) replaces Justin Haley in the Spire Motorsports No. 77 this week. The full-time NASCAR Xfinity Series driver for JR Motorsports is making his second start of the year.
- Joey Gase (36th) moves to the No. 53 in the Rick Ware Racing stable this week, replacing Garrett Smithley. Gase was cleared for competition after a savage crash at Las Vegas Motor Speedway left him transported to a local hospital for evaluation.
- Garrett Smithley (37th) replaces Gase in Rick Ware Racing’s No. 15. Sponsorship is being provided by Boom Mobile.
- Justin Haley (38th) jumps into the No. 16 Kaulig Racing Chevrolet this weekend, replacing Kaz Grala. Haley will run this car full-time in the Cup Series next season.
- David Starr (39th) moves into the No. 66 MBM Motorsports Toyota, replacing J.J. Yeley. Starr is running a limited schedule for the team this season.
- Landon Cassill (40th) will make his second Cup start of the year for Gaunt Brothers Racing. He was 36th in his debut with the team at Daytona in August.
NASCAR Race Breakdown
Race: YellaWood 500
Track: Talladega Superspeedway (Lincoln, Ala.)
Date: Sunday, Oct. 3
TV: NBC, 2 p.m. ET
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM NASCAR Radio
Distance: 188 laps (500 miles)
Stage 1: 60 Laps
Stage 2: 60 Laps
Final Stage: 68 Laps
Hailie Deegan stops by the Frontstretch Podcast this week to chat about her challenging rookie year in the Camping World Truck Series as well as a look back at her SRX summer spat with Paul Tracy. Host Davey Segal and company then look ahead to how wild and crazy the NASCAR playoffs might get this weekend in the Talladega draft.