Pull your belts tight because NASCAR heads to one of the most unpredictable tracks on the schedule this weekend. Talladega Superspeedway is the site of Sunday’s YellaWood 500, the second race in the round of 12 for the Cup Series playoffs. A dozen drivers remain in the championship battle, and a trip to Victory Lane on Sunday will send one to the next round.
Kurt Busch did just that a week ago with a somewhat surprising win at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. The former champ is now locked into the round of eight and can breathe a sigh of relief that his title hopes don’t hinge on winning at Talladega, where mayhem is possible nearly every lap.
Actually, mayhem is just one of many words that describe racing at Talladega. Chaos. Anger. Intensity. Drama. Unpredictability. Those words also apply.
The mammoth 2.66-mile Alabama tri-oval about an hour east of Birmingham has had a reputation as one of the sport’s most treacherous tracks since its inception in 1969. Talladega and sister track Daytona, the two longest ovals on the schedule, create high speeds due to their length and degree of banking in the turns.
Since 1986, NASCAR has implemented a rules package designed to keep speeds as safe as possible, generally about the 200-mph mark. That’s to keep cars from becoming airborne after a spin or contact with other cars on track. The result creates huge packs of racing in the draft, with two- and three-wide racing the norm all afternoon until a mad scramble to the checkered flag.
Drivers can’t do it alone. Drafting is a huge element of success at Talladega, so teams and manufacturers will work together to gain an advantage. However, that cooperation will go only so far, and drivers then get launched on their own as the race draws to a close. Sunday’s race also has the added element of the championship and playoffs. Four drivers will be eliminated from the playoff grid after next week’s race at Charlotte Motor Speedway’s “Roval” track.
The ingredients are there for an exciting afternoon of racing. Despite the variety of unknowns, there are favorites for the Yellawood 500:
While his last two finishes of 11th and 17th aren’t stellar, that doesn’t diminish Logano’s skills as one of the best superspeedway drivers in NASCAR. He’s aggressive, which sometimes gets the Team Penske driver in trouble, but he possesses a talent and skill set that puts him in the upper echelon. His average finish of 10.1 over the last 10 Talladega races includes three wins. He also has led the most laps (296) over that span.
No current full-time Cup Series driver is statistically better than Almirola at Talladega. His average finish dating to 2015 is a sparkling 8.4, including a 2018 victory. Almirola has five top-5 Talladega finishes in the previous seven races.
His finishes have been hit and miss, but Elliott is also among the sport’s superspeedway racing elite. If his fellow Chevrolet drivers can team up in the draft, Elliott figures to benefit from being at the front of the field. He won the 2019 spring Talladega race.
The veteran might be the biggest favorite of the drivers not in the playoff picture. Blaney will be shooting for his third straight Talladega win, something that hasn’t been done since Dale Earnhardt Jr. won four in a row in 2001-03. Blaney does not have to worry about points since he’s out of the title run and can simply focus on another Talladega win.