Column: Talladega Offers Lots Of Opportunity For NASCAR Cup, Xfinity & Truck Playoff Contenders
Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – DAYTONA BEACH, FL – Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway, site of Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series Playoff race, is traditionally regarded as one of the most action-packed, thrilling venues on the NASCAR Cup Series calendar.
And after a dramatic Playoff race a week ago at Texas Motor Speedway, expectations are super high for the YellaWood 500 (2 p.m. ET on NBC, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
Counting Tyler Reddick’s victory at Texas last Sunday, the first four 2022 NASCAR Cup Series Playoff races have now been won by non-Playoff contenders – an amazing and unprecedented streak. The result has been a tightly bunched field of championship chasers trying to point their way into the Round of 8, if not fortunate to earn a trophy this round which features races at Talladega this week and the Charlotte ROVAL next week.
Texas had a great effect on the title contenders. Race runner-up Joey Logano, driver of the No. 22 Team Penske Ford, now leads the championship standings for the third time this season (also one-week tenures following the Phoenix and Darlington-2 races). He’s 12-points ahead of Trackhouse Racing’s Ross Chastain, 14 up on reigning series champion, Hendrick Motorsports’ Kyle Larson and 15-points ahead of his Penske teammate Ryan Blaney.
Logano and 12th place driver Alex Bowman are separated by only 56 points. Logano and eighth place Chase Briscoe (in the final transfer position) are separated by only 30 points.
Hendrick Motorsports’ driver Chase Elliott, the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series champion and this season’s series-best four-race winner who led the standings for 23 weeks, has dropped to seventh place in the championship run. After a DNF at Texas, he’s now only 11 points up on the cutoff line.
Another major shift in the standings has affected Elliott’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate William Byron. The two-race winner was issued a $50,000 fine and 25-point driver and owner penalties for rough driving – officially, “vehicle contact during a caution period” – at Texas following an incident with fellow Playoff competitor, Denny Hamlin, of Joe Gibbs Racing.
The points penalty drops Byron from third place in the standings to 10th – eight points below Briscoe in that final Playoff advancement position. The Hendrick Motorsports team said Tuesday it would appeal Byron’s penalty.
The good news for both Elliott and Byron, however, is that they are among the favorites for Sunday’s race at Talladega Superspeedway.
Bubba Wallace, who is driving the No. 45 23XI Racing Toyota, is the defending winner of this Playoff race – earning his first career NASCAR Cup Series victory at the big track last Fall. Playoff driver Chastain won at Talladega this May – leading only the final lap to take his second career series win. Byron led a race best 38 laps in that race, but finished 15th. He was runner-up in the 2021 Spring race.
Elliott, who is favored by oddsmakers to win this weekend, earned his only NASCAR Cup Series victory at Talladega in 2019 but has six top-10 finishes in 13 starts. Blaney, who is also a favorite, won back-to-back races at Talladega – the 2019 Playoff race and 2020 Spring event – and is the only driver to win consecutive races at the track since NASCAR Hall of Famer Jeff Gordon swept the 2007 season.
In addition to Chastain, Elliott and Blaney, the only other drivers among the 12 Playoff eligible with wins at Talladega are Logano, who has three victories (2015, ’16 and ’18) and Hamlin, who has a pair of wins (2014, 2020).
RFK Racing driver/owner Brad Keselowski leads all current drivers with six victories on the Talladega high banks.
With no absolute consensus favorite yet established for the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series championship run, Talladega takes on increased importance even as it’s considered one of the most unpredictable venues on the circuit.
“It’s really tough because you can’t predict when a wreck is going to happen,” Hamlin said, of Talladega strategy. “As a driver, you start to feel the intensity of the pack picking up and you start to see people making aggressive moves. You just have to make a judgement call on whether you want to be part of it at that time.”
Qualifying (one-lap and two rounds) is set for Saturday morning at 10:30 a.m. ET and will be aired on the NBC Sports App, MRN Radio and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.
Gragson looks to sweep Talladega and score record fifth straight Xfinity Series win
There is arguably even more drama than normal for drivers in Saturday’s Sparks 300 at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway (4 p.m. ET on USA Network, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). And that’s saying a lot at NASCAR’s largest oval track.
A Playoff driver can punch an automatic ticket into the next round of championship competition and current championship leader Noah Gragson could well make NASCAR history.
Gragson already earned his automatic berth into the Playoffs’ Round of 8 competition with a celebrated victory in the Round of 12-opener at Texas Motor Speedway on Saturday. His work in the No. 9 JR Motorsports Chevrolet marked his fourth consecutive win – tying a 39-year-old high-mark set by Sam Ard in 1983.
If Gragson can take the checkered flag again this weekend, he would become the only driver in Xfinity Series history to earn five straight race wins. And Gragson goes into the race fresh off a victory there this Spring – the only driver among the Playoff 12 with a win at the famed big track.
Beyond Gragson in the points standings, Regular Season Champion A.J. Allmendinger in second holds a slim 1-point advantage over Ty Gibbs in third with Austin Hill in fourth, 43 points back from Gragson with races at Talladega and then the Charlotte ROVAL to set the eight-driver group that advances in the Playoffs.
Although he didn’t win, Hill led a race best 67 laps before crashing out of the Spring race at Talladega. Gibbs was also eliminated in an accident and finished 35th in his series debut at the 2.66-mile track.
Brandon Brown is the defending winner of this Fall Talladega race, claiming his first career race trophy at Talladega last October. Current Playoff drivers Brandon Jones, Justin Allgaier – who will be making his 400th career series start on Saturday – and reigning series champion Daniel Hemric rounded out the top-four in that race last year.
Gragson, a series-best seven race winner on the season, brings as much confidence as motivation to Talladega. He’s had three top-five and five top-10 finishes in seven Talladega starts – and obviously the win earlier this season. And Chevrolet, which he drives, has won eight of the last nine Xfinity Series races at Talladega.
“This season has just been incredible,” Gragson said. Adding of his team, “They have been amazing all year and it’s all coming together at the right time. It was a pretty wild finish last time at Talladega and it will probably be that way again this weekend.
“We’re already in the Round of 8 and that takes some of the pressure off this weekend.”
Joining the championship favorites and fulltime drivers this week are racer/NBC Sports broadcaster Parker Kligerman and 2011 Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne, along with Timmy Hill and Jeffrey Earnhardt, who finished a career-best runner-up to Gragson in April.
Qualifying for the race begins at 5:30 p.m. ET on Friday and will be aired on USA Network.
Camping World Truck Series Playoffs return at Talladega
The NASCAR Camping World Truck Series resumes its 2022 Playoff schedule this week opening the Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway racing double-header Saturday afternoon with the Chevy Silverado 250 (12:30 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
ThorSport Racing’s Ty Majeski is the only driver who has already clinched a position in the Championship 4 Round thanks to his career first win at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway two weeks ago.
Knowing he’s already secured that championship opportunity will be a big relief as the 27-year-old Majeski races in the series at the 2.66-mile Talladega for the first time in his career. He won the pole position and finished top-10 in the Daytona season-opener, the only other superspeedway he has competed on.
This weekend is a big opportunity for another Playoff driver to earn his championship position. The top of the points standings are tightly grouped with Chandler Smith holding a three-point edge on two-time champion runner-up Zane Smith. Stewart Friesen is currently fourth in the standings, 15 points behind Chandler Smith. John Hunter Nemechek is 24 points off Chandler Smith and nine points from Friesen for that fourth and final championship round position.
Talladega has been a “mixed bag” for these contenders.
Chandler Smith has one top five in two starts. Zane Smith has finished 33rd in both his starts at the track. Friesen has one top five in five races and Nemechek, has one top-five finish in six Talladega starts – that coming last year.
The other Playoff drivers, Christian Eckes (-13 from Friesen), Grant Enfinger (-15 from Friesen) and defending series champion Ben Rhodes (-18 from Friesen) remain very much in this tightly contested title run.
Enfinger is the only former Talladega winner among the championship eight and his two top-five and three top-10 finishes in eight starts there are most among those title-eligible drivers as well.
Certainly, last year’s Camping World Truck Series Playoff race included one of the biggest upsets in series history with Tate Fogleman leading only the last lap to claim his first truck win by .052-seconds over Tyler Hill. Only one current Playoff driver (Nemechek) finished among the top-10 in that race.
A one-lap, two-round qualifying session for the race will be held Friday afternoon at 3:30 p.m. ET.