Mash The Gas: Talladega Preview

The field packs up during the 2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series fall race at Talladega Superspeedway. [Credit: Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images]

The field packs up during the 2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series fall race at Talladega Superspeedway. [Credit: Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images]

by Dan Margetta and John Wiedemann

It’s time for the most intense pressure packed race of the season as the second elimination race of the Chase for the Sprint Cup is set for Sunday afternoon with the Hellmann’s 500 at the Talladega Superspeedway.

Hellmann’s 500
Talladega Superspeedway
500.8 miles (188 laps)
Sunday, Oct. 23
2 p.m. ET
NBCSN, 1:30 p.m. ET
MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
A return to the restrictor plate style of racing at Talladega means this event is totally unpredictable as every driver in the field as an equal chance to win as well as end up in a junk heap in the garage. No track sends more cars to the garage area than Talladega and the tight racing means it’s very easy to be swept up in incidents not of the drivers own doing.

The only thing certain is Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick have less to worry about as they are automatically in the next Chase round of eight with their wins the last two weeks. For everyone else, it’s anything goes and while some drivers are safer than others, no one is totally safe as evidenced two years ago when Kyle Busch entered as the point leader with a big points cushion and then found himself eliminated after being run into from behind by another driver.

No one knows for sure what is going to happen so it’s time to roll the dice on the lottery that is known as Talladega and here are some drivers to watch as the Chase field gets trimmed down to eight.…

Brad Keselowski (Dan Margetta)
Brad Keselowski enters his best track at Talladega just seven points outside of the elimination line and in desperate need of a good finish or even a win. Keselowski has four wins here including the last time the series visited in May and he rose to the occasion in 2014 when he needed a victory here to advance. The Fords have also performed well here lately and Keselowski drives for the top Ford team owner in Roger Penske. His last four finishes here have been first, fourth, twenty second , and first so he does have a lot of success at Talladega and the restrictor plate tracks. It’s hard to keep Brad Keselowski down when his back is against the wall and he is definitely one to watch on Sunday as he tries to meet the challenge and advance to the next Chase round.

Martin Truex Jr. (John Wiedemann)
After winning two races in the opening Chase Round of 16, two finishes just outside of the top ten in the two Round of 12 races have Martin Truex Jr. in a precarious position. Just thirteen points to the good and sixth in the Chase standings, Truex will need to finish 29th or better to guarantee a spot for himself in the Round of 8. Truex was “this close” to winning the Daytona 500 but finished 13th at Talladega and then 29th and led a lap in the July Daytona event. Matching any of those finishes would get Truex into the next round and it is very likely that will be the case on Sunday. Truex has an average finish at Talladega of 19.565 and has two top five and eight top ten finishes to go along with 9 DNFs. Truex is still a championship favorite but this weekend might just be the biggest test.

Denny Hamlin (DM)
Denny Hamlin is also outside the cut-off point to advance to the next Chase round as he is six points or positions behind eighth place. Like Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin also races very well on the restrictor plate tracks and Talladega as he owns the best driver average in the last eleven restrictor plate races held. During those eleven races he has two victories including this year’s Daytona 500, five top five finishes and seven top ten results. It is do or die time for Denny Hamlin and the #11 team and they must step up this week if they want to keep their championship hopes alive. The Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas were dominant to begin the year in Daytona and they have been fast just about everywhere this season so Hamlin’s car should be plenty fast. Pit road mistakes by the driver have hampered this team all season and Hamlin needs to eliminate those miscues if he wants to advance past Talladega. The pieces are there for a successful race on Sunday and it’s up to Hamlin and the team to put them together to remain in the championship hunt.

Joey Logano (JW)
The defending champion of this race would like, more than any other time, to repeat that feat this weekend. Joey Logano would love to find victory lane again and put himself into the next round of the Chase. Sitting on the bubble in eighth and tied for points with Austin Dillon is not where Logano wants to be right now. With his teammate below him in the standings and the possibility of being involved in a wreck at Talladega, it is possible that neither Team Penske driver would move on to the next round of the Chase. I expect both teammates to be at the front and leading the pack this weekend. Logano has last year’s win, three top five and five top ten finishes in 15 races at Talladega. There are a lot of scenarios that put Logano into the next round of the Chase, but they all involve him being at or very near to the front of the pack when the checkers wave. It is going to be very stressful for Team Penske this weekend.

Austin Dillon (DM)
No one expected Austin Dillon to advance past the first Chase round but the team persevered and he enters the Talladega elimination race tied for the last spot, trailing Joey Logano by a tie breaker. Unlike the last round, this elimination race at a restrictor plate track suits Dillon well as his best finishes have come in the plate races. He holds the second best driver average over the past eleven restrictor plate races with six top ten finishes, including a third here in May. Dillon is one of the long shot drivers remaining in the Chase and while he may have surprised people to this point, a good finish or perhaps a win to advance to the Chase round of eight is a very real possibility.

Kyle Busch (JW)
Kyle Busch is in one of the safer positions among the Chase drivers that have not won in this round. Sitting in the fourth position in the Chase standings, Busch has a 27 point cushion over ninth place meaning that if he finishes 26th or better he will be guaranteed a spot in the next round of the Chase. As stated earlier, Kyle was in this same type of position two years ago and was eliminated from the Chase after being involved in a wreck, so he knows better than anyone else what can happen. Busch is also able to give Toyota a present if he wins in what will be Toyota’s 1000th NASCAR national series start. Another goal is to keep all the Joe Gibbs Racing drivers in the Chase and try to become the first team to have multiple drivers in the final championship race at Homestead. But Talladega is first on the last and Busch finished second at the track earlier this year to go along with a third place run in the Daytona 500 and runner up finish at the summer Daytona race. So, Busch has had great luck at the restrictor plate tracks this year. If he can do it one more time, he will continue his Sprint Cup Championship defense.

Matt Kenseth (DM)
Matt Kenseth enters Talladega in a relatively safe position as the highest point standings driver that did not win in this round. Kenseth needs to finish 28th or better to clinch a berth into the next Chase round which sounds good until you remember that this is Talladega and two years ago Kyle Busch was bitten under similar circumstances. Throw in the fact that Kenseth’s last three finishes here have been 25th, 26th, and 23rd and it is evident some concern exists. Matt Kenseth is savvy enough to avoid getting in bad situations in the restrictor plate races and his smart driving style should help steer clear of trouble. Still this is Talladega where drivers are at the mercy of others more than anywhere else so cautiously conservative will most likely be the approach of Kenseth and the #20 team. While I don’t think he will ride around in the back at the beginning of the race, I do think Matt Kenseth will race smart and keep the big picture Chase situation in focus.

Alex Bowman (JW)
Normally we can’t talk about a restrictor plate race without talking about Dale Earnhardt Jr. So there, we talked about him. How about his replacement this weekend? Alex Bowman finished a career-best seventh place at Kansas last weekend while fighting stomach sickness. Also, his qualifying has improved with two top five starting spots in the last two races. Now he gets to race at Talladega with a team that has won there three times in the last three years. And, he gets to do it in the most stressful event of the Chase. The #88 is always a threat at Daytona and Talladega, so how will the youngster do? Will he pull off a miraculous victory? Will he make a mistake amongst the Chase drivers and affect someone’s championship hopes? It is going to be interesting to see how Bowman deals with the weekend from practice to qualifying to the race. Bowman is definitely someone to watch this weekend from the drivers to the spotters to the race fans.

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