Kyle Larson has six NASCAR Cup Series wins this season, spending most of 2021 as the championship favorite. He enters the YellaWood 500 (Sunday, 2 p.m. ET, NBC) with a 57-point gap on the cutline, what should be a comfy position with two races left in the Round of 12. Martin Truex Jr., sitting fourth, has a 31-point edge of his own, compiling an average finish of 4.0 four races into the NASCAR playoffs.
So why do neither one of them feel safe?
The most unpredictable track in all of NASCAR looms large on the horizon: Talladega Superspeedway. This 2.66-mile tri-oval could literally shake up a dozen title contenders in a matter of seconds, its habit for multi-car wrecks and surprise winners leaving every championship contender on edge.
“We will cross our fingers, cross our toes,” Truex said. “Do some praying this week and go to Talladega and see what happens.”
Don’t believe me? Check out what just happened in Saturday’s NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race. A 21-truck wreck on lap 59 sent a dozen drivers into the garage early, sparking a series of incidents and contact that continued on through the final lap of the race.
Coming off turn 4, underdog Tate Fogleman saw an opening, his only chance to win this year in subpar equipment. That meant Truck championship favorite John Hunter Nemechek became easy prey as the No. 12 turned the No. 4 heading to the start/finish line, winning the first race of his NASCAR career.
Playoffs be damned, right? In that series, Zane Smith lost 21 points on the cutline, just like that, despite having a Truck capable of winning the race. The only reason why is he happened to be in the wrong place, wrong time at a track that often gives drivers no time to react when the Big One breaks out.
See why all the championship drivers are sweating bullets? There’s a valid argument to be made a track like ‘Dega, with an inability for so many to control their own fate, shouldn’t be a part of the playoff schedule. But no one will argue racing here keeps it interesting, the one place all year where literally every car in the field could find themselves a winner if the draft (and the crashes) break their way.
Some are better at pack racing than others; Brad Keselowski leads all active drivers with six career Talladega wins. By comparison, Larson hasn’t ever finished inside the top 5 here or at Daytona in his Cup career. Most guys are somewhere in the middle, doing their best to simply stick around to the finish while learning where and how to make their moves in the draft when it counts.
And when they do pull out of line? There’s no margin for error. Just one mistake could mean a multi-car wreck that scores you one point for 36th or worse, sitting in the garage while someone else is finishing second and producing a 50-point swing (or more) in the standings.
So get ready for a wild ride, a rollercoaster of lead changes until the very last second (‘Dega’s averaged 50 the last three events here). Who will be able to pull the best strategy, catch all the right breaks and snake their way to the front at the finish?
Date: Sunday, Oct. 2
Time: 2 p.m. ET
Track: Talladega Superspeedway (Lincoln, Ala.)
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who’s at the Front: Joe Gibbs Racing
JGR pulled the right slot machine out in Las Vegas, finishing 1-3-4 with Denny Hamlin winning his second race of the playoffs and securing a spot inside the Round of 8. He’s the only one breathing a sigh of relief this weekend, knowing no matter how mangled the No. 11 Toyota gets he’s still assured a chance to make the Championship 4 at Phoenix Raceway.
JGR as a whole has to be happy, even with Christopher Bell bringing up the rear in the Round of 12. Truex and Hamlin have combined to win three of the last four races while Kyle Busch pulled his best finish in two months Sunday out at his hometown track (third). As an organization, they look to be the strongest of the four owners remaining in the championship fight.
Who’s at the Back: Team Penske
Bringing up the rear of that quartet would be Penske, outclassed at a Vegas track they’ve dominated in recent years. Four races into the postseason, they’re without a top-3 finish and have led a total of 84 laps (Hamlin alone led 137 laps at Vegas). While their trio of drivers (Keselowski, Ryan Blaney and Joey Logano) remain inside the Round of 8 cutline, they’re haven’t projected championship-level confidence since the summer months.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. announced this week he’ll return with JTG Daugherty Racing next season. It’ll be Stenhouse’s third year with the organization as they choose to consolidate their resources to one car, keeping the No. 47 while shutting down the No. 37 driven by Ryan Preece.
Ryan Blaney officially has himself a new crew chief for 2022. Jonathan Hassler, currently the crew chief for Matt DiBenedetto and the Wood Brothers, will move over to the No. 12 Ford to replace the retiring Todd Gordon.
Kevin Harvick will be without longtime crew chief Rodney Childers at Talladega. Childers will be replaced by Greg Zipadelli after Las Vegas post-race inspection revealed two loose lug nuts on the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford. That triggers a one-race suspension for the crew chief under NASCAR rules.
Over in the Camping World Truck Series, GMS Racing has hired Grant Enfinger as their senior driver for the 2022 season and beyond. Champion Power Equipment will sponsor Enfinger full-time as the organization replaces the departing Sheldon Creed, restructuring along with a pending move to the Cup Series with at least one to-be-announced driver next season.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Drivers who have won their first Cup race at Talladega since the turn of the century: Brian Vickers (2006), Brad Keselowski (2009) and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (2017).
The last time any Talladega race went caution-free (or as caution-free as they can be these days with automatic stage breaks). Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the event back in the fall of 2002.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
I don’t pretend to be an expert in this space when it comes to pack racing. In this type of scenario, your guess is often as good as mine with drivers simply unable to avoid the big wrecks that are a near certainty here.
That said, it’s worth noting Denny Hamlin has nothing to lose and is the defending Talladega race winner. A 32nd-place run in the spring ended a streak of three top-four finishes, the type of run you rarely see at ‘Dega. Maybe luck is back on his side?
I’d also keep an eye on Kevin Harvick. With only two top-10 finishes in the last six Talladega races, you’d think the law of averages here would balance out. Harvick has a trio of teammates to help him, too, all of whom are not in the playoffs and can dedicate their time trying to push the No. 4 Ford to the front.
Here’s where daily fantasy money gets made: finding a mid-tier driver capable of spending all day at the front. I’m going with Matt DiBenedetto as his window to audition for a ride in 2022 grows ever smaller. Still a free agent, Matty D may need a win to secure a ride in the sport’s top three series and he’s more than capable of getting it here, leading 28 laps in the spring and crossing the line second last fall before a NASCAR penalty for improper passing knocked him back to 21st.
Austin Dillon has had a disappointing year, going from a possible top-10 points finisher and dark horse playoff contender to missing the postseason altogether. Can the 2018 Daytona 500 winner rebound at a sister track that hasn’t been as kind to him? Dillon has just two career laps led at Talladega and just one top-5 finish in 16 starts. The reason I think “yes” is because of the speed teammate Tyler Reddick showed throughout the past two months. Dillon could utilize it here at a track type he’s excelled at throughout his career.
You got to go with Corey LaJoie, right? The No. 7 Spire Motorsports driver was on the verge of an unlikely Daytona upset win before some bad choices on restarts in the closing laps. Well aware of how these tracks can be a boost for underfunded teams, he’s earned all of his four career top-10 finishes at the pack races of Daytona and Talladega.
Rookie Anthony Alfredo is the type of cheap pick to fill out your roster that can pay huge dividends here. The rookie has been struggling all year with Front Row Motorsports but the parity of the draft provides a rare opportunity for success. 12th in the spring, a similar performance here would cash in for your roster if everyone else happens to avoid the big wrecks.
What Vegas Thinks
Pole-sitter Denny Hamlin starts with a slight edge, +900 odds to win on Sunday according to vegasinsider.com. Joey Logano, Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney are all close behind at +1000.
You know who’s a great pick here? Kyle Larson, sitting at +1200 due to his struggles at this track type. Not much of a longshot, I know, but he’s made a season out of overcoming past adversity.
What I Think
Close your eyes, throw a dart on the board, and see where it lands? Mine wound up on Ryan Blaney’s name, earning him a second pack-racing win this season. I do think the Fords have worked well together at Daytona and Talladega this year, giving them a slight edge.
But in this race? Virtually anyone could visit victory lane and it wouldn’t raise an eyebrow.
— 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.