Wild card weekend not in football... but in NASCAR at Talladega
Talladega Superspeedway and its YellaWood 500 this weekend (Sunday, Oct. 4) serves as the biggest hurdle for all NASCAR playoff drivers inside the Round of 12. The final pack racing event of the year will keep most, if not all, drivers in the 39-car field superglued together, giving most of them a shot to draft to the lead on any particular lap.
When it works... it's spectacular. June's race here was fairly clean, one of the most exciting superspeedway races we've seen in recent history. Ryan Blaney kept his nose ahead of Ricky Stenhouse Jr. at the line by .007 seconds, about the size of his front bumper. Fifty-seven (57) lead changes were a season high as the handling package for this track produced the perfect mix of throttle response inside the draft.
It was the second time since 2018 a race at Talladega was held without a giant wreck wiping out half the field. In fact, only five cars failed to finish as fuel mileage, not wrinkled fenders scrambled the field in the closing laps.
But don't be lulled to sleep with a few exceptions to the rule. The Big One is always a split-second away at this track, leaving every driver in the field on edge as to how that carnage could ruin their race in a heartbeat. Even small wrecks on the final lap have led to some of the most sensational incidents in NASCAR history, like this 2009 contact that sent Carl Edwards flipping and his No. 99 car bouncing off the catchfence. Eight fans were hurt in the melee.
Only Kurt Busch can rest easy among the drivers seeking a trip to the Round of 8. Even points leader Kevin Harvick can make himself vulnerable with a last-place finish at a track where Lady Luck plays no favorites.
It's the one place on the circuit where there's truly no major analysis to be had. These drivers put the pedal down, play a chess match of strategy inside the draft and hope those moves work out in their favor. It's impossible to pull away out front as the leader adjusts from pushing ahead to blocking all comers in order to maintain track position.
Chances are, the playoff drivers start with an edge as all 12 start up front for this event. But at Talladega, more than any other track, there are no guarantees.
Date: Sunday, Oct. 4
Time: 2 p.m. ET
Track: Talladega Superspeedway (Lincoln, Ala.)
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who's at the Front: Kurt Busch
The Chip Ganassi Racing driver and 2004 Cup champion pulled a surprise at his hometown track, Las Vegas Motor Speedway. The benefactor of a timely caution in the middle of green-flag pit stops, Busch earned track position and then held on through a series of chaotic restarts to earn the victory in Sunday's South Point 400. It’s the seventh straight year Busch has won at least one race and it keeps him in title contention with a CGR organization that's had its share of controversy throughout 2020. (See: Larson, Kyle, racial slurs.)
Consider Busch had just two top-5 finishes at LVMS in 21 career starts entering last weekend. His 21.5 average finish there is by far the worst for him at any track... and that's after adding in his recent victory. Could this momentum be what's needed to become a dark-horse title contender?
"This is 20 years of agony and defeat," Busch said afterwards. "And now, today with this triumph, I don't know if I have any more gas left or if I just filled my tank up to go win every race that I'm going to go race next."
Who's at the Back: William Byron
Hopes were high for Byron after climbing into the NASCAR playoffs with his first career Cup victory in the Daytona regular-season finale. A fifth-place finish at Darlington Raceway seemed to indicate this team, led by seven-time championship crew chief Chad Knaus, had hit their stride at the perfect time.
Think again. Runs of 21st, 38th and 25th, including a wreck at Bristol Motor Speedway not of his making, have Byron knocked out of title contention and slumping to 16th in the standings. Knaus also announced he'll leave the pit box this week (more on that in a minute) and the third-year driver will have his third different full-time crew chief in 2021.
Chad Knaus has been promoted to Vice President of Competition at Hendrick Motorsports beginning with the 2021 Cup season. Knaus will oversee the four HMS Cup teams, ending a crew chief career that included seven titles and over 80 wins with driver Jimmie Johnson from 2002-18. Since the two parted ways, Knaus has won just once, at Daytona in August, while Johnson is winless in his final year of Cup competition.
"Sitting on the top of the pit box for as long as I have," Knaus said this week, "I've been traveling full-time since I was about 16 years old, so it's time to kind of pull back just a little bit and not be on the road every single week and spend some time with my family."
NASCAR stayed true to its word and produced a 2021 Cup Series schedule filled with changes. Two intermediate tracks, Chicagoland Speedway and Kentucky Speedway, were removed from the schedule, the first time that's happened since 2005. In their place came two road courses: Road America in Wisconsin and the Circuit of the Americas track down in Austin, Texas. Bristol Motor Speedway will also hold the first Cup dirt race since 1970, covering its surface for the annual spring race in March. Other adjustments include second dates for Atlanta Motor Speedway and Darlington Raceway, a switch to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course from the oval, and shifting the All-Star Race to Texas Motor Speedway.
Brendan Gaughan will retire from NASCAR competition following Sunday’s race at Talladega. Gaughan, who's been running part-time the last several seasons, will hang it up at 45 years old and over 500 career NASCAR starts in Cup, Xfinity and Trucks. He never won in Cup but has eight top-10 finishes in 66 starts, including two this season for Beard Motorsports' No. 62.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Laps led by Chris Buescher at Las Vegas Motor Speedway last weekend on his way to a ninth-place finish. Buescher had led only eight laps the entire year before that race.
Average finish of reigning champion Kyle Busch so far during the Cup Series playoffs. Busch remains winless this season for the first time in his Cup career.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
Close your eyes, point at a driver, and just hit the button to add them to your roster. Seriously... that's an effective Talladega strategy. Lady Luck matters more here than at any other racetrack and seriously hinders any "expert" opinion at this place. Forced parity, unavoidable wrecks and weird drafting strategies make the outcome impossible to handicap.
That said... Ford has won nine of the last 10 races held at Talladega. Team Penske has won seven of those and Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski and Ryan Blaney are poised to add to that total. Logano and Keselowski, in particular, could be in good position early as both drivers start near the front. My money's on Kes, in particular, to make some noise as a five-time 'Dega winner. He's had five straight runs outside the top 10 here which means good luck should be headed his way. Be forewarned, though... this team works together at this track so any wreck is likely to wipe out all three of them.
Since Ford has been doing so well in recent races here... how about a flyer on Roush Fenway Racing? Ryan Newman has yet to reach the top 10 since February's horrific Daytona 500 wreck and is anxious to end 2020 on a high note. RFR has the speed at these plate tracks and teammate Chris Buescher has momentum in the form of back-to-back top-10 finishes.
I also feel good about Matt DiBenedetto's chances after a second-place finish last weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. DiBenedetto has been quiet about his 2021 status with the Wood Brothers, an option he expected to hear was renewed on Sept. 30. He has yet to record a top-10 finish at Talladega but has evolved into one of the better pack racers on the circuit. Auditioning for your future is a powerful motivator at a track where circumstances can easily tilt Matty D's way.
Here's where you really make your money. Finding the underdogs who survive to the finish at 'Dega, avoiding wrecks and sneaking inside the top 10, make the difference in whether your roster cashes in.
This time around, I'm going with Brendan Gaughan and Ryan Preece. Gaughan, retiring after this race, will leave it all on the line with a team whose sole focus is these races at Daytona and Talladega. He was 21st at this race in June but has an average finish of 7.5 at the two 2020 Daytona oval events.
As for Preece, he's had such a horrible season with JTG Daugherty Racing people forget what a strong pack racer he was as a rookie. His career-best third-place result came at 'Dega in the spring of 2019 and JTG has the speed to run up front again. Most people choose Stenhouse, who has won twice on these tracks, but Preece is a cheaper pick with better upside.
What Vegas Thinks
Ryan Blaney, Chase Elliott and Joey Logano lead the way at 'Dega with 10/1 odds to win the YellaWood 500. Denny Hamlin and Brad Keselowski sit at 11/1 while point leader Kevin Harvick sits at 14/1.
Want a longshot like Brendan Gaughan? He's 66/1 in his final Cup race.
What I Think
I'll go with Brad Keselowski earning a sixth Cup victory after a few years of struggle here. But 20 to 25 different drivers could win this race and it wouldn't surprise me.
(Top graphic courtesy of @NASCAR)