In the romantic sense, one of the great appeals of driving a racecar is the idea of taking control of a great mechanical beast and control of one's own destiny along with it. But the Talladega Superspeedway has a special way of breaking the illusion of control -- Particularly come the fall, when the largest and fastest speedway known to man can break the championship hopes of even the most seemingly in-control of their playoff destinies.
The NASCAR Cup Series returns to Talladega this weekend for the YellaWood 500, the second race of the NASCAR playoffs Round of 12 and arguably the biggest wild card race in the entire run to the championship. Thanks to the nature of superspeedway racing, Talladega has long had a way of jeopardizing and even destroying playoff drivers' hopes of advancing to the next round and eventually winning the championship. Which makes winning Talladega and ensuring a spot in the Round of 8 all that much more satisfying for anyone who can find the front by the end of 188 laps and 500 miles.
How to watch the NASCAR playoffs at Talladega
- Date: Sunday, Oct. 2
- Location: Talladega Superspeedway -- Lincoln, AL
- Time: 2 p.m. ET
- TV: NBC
- Stream: fuboTV (try for free)
What to watch
Spotlight on safety
Over the past several months, escalating anxiety and concern about the safety of the Next Gen car have become more and more of a part of NASCAR discourse. Such concerns were pushed to the forefront following Kurt Busch's crash at Pocono, and they contributed to the reaction of many following a frightening crash by Cody Ware last week at Texas. Ware had to be taken off on a stretcher after a vicious head-on collision with the outside wall, but suffered only an ankle injury.
Ware's crash only furthers the anxiety that always accompanies Talladega, which is regarded as the most dangerous track on the circuit thanks to the way its high speeds lend itself to violent accidents. To get a sense of what drivers could potentially be afraid of, one only has to go back to the last superspeedway race at Daytona,after taking a hard hit in "The Big One" late in the race.
Somewhat thankfully, Talladega will be the last major test of how the Next Gen car dissipates force in a crash before the matter is likely revisited in the offseason. But until then, it's likely that drivers and spectators alike will all be closely monitoring every major incident on Sunday to see if everyone makes it out unscathed.
The idea of the Next Gen car being too rigid isn't the only issue causing NASCAR competition officials grief. Following last week's race at Texas, NASCAR race control was roundly criticized after NASCAR SVP of Competition Scott Miller admitted that officials completely missed William Byron intentionally spinning Denny Hamlin under caution because they hadn't been watching while focusing on the site of an accident in turn three. NASCAR would course-correct earlier this week, for his actions.
That sort of officiating gaffe is ill-timed heading into Talladega, because this is the place where NASCAR officials are so often prompted to make judgment calls based on what happens on-track -- particularly in regards to the double yellow line rule on superspeedways.
Since being introduced in 2001, the rule has led to dozens of controversial calls on superspeedways, including two years ago when the final lap featured a debacle of judgment calls as to who passed below the line, who was been forced down there and who was forcing others below the line.
The job of a NASCAR competition official is a largely thankless one, but a cleanly officiated race at Talladega would go a long way towards eliminating the bad taste that followed last week's missed call at Texas.
To say that the start of this year's NASCAR playoffs has been highly unusual would be a gross understatement. Through four races and a full round so far, not a single playoff-eligible driver has won a race as the unpredictability of the 2022 season has only heightened in its closing stages. And the chances are good that another non-playoff driver wins this weekend at Talladega, which would make half of the playoff races already won by non-playoff drivers.
Since the introduction of a playoff format in 2004, Talladega has been won by a driver outside of the playoffs six times, including last year. Those winners include:
- Dale Jarrett (2005)
- Brian Vickers (2006)
- Jamie McMurray (2009, 2013)
- Clint Bowyer (2011)
- Bubba Wallace (2021)
- * - Regan Smith was first across the finish line in 2008, but he was stripped of the win for going below the yellow line
Of the 12 remaining drivers in the playoffs, only five have won Talladega before: Joey Logano leads that group with three Talladega victories, followed by Denny Hamlin (2), Ryan Blaney (2), and one win apiece for Ross Chastain and Chase Elliott.
Of those drivers outside the playoffs, Brad Keselowski has by far the most success at Talladega, as his six career victories are the most among active drivers and tied for second all-time with Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon. Should Keselowski prevail again -- he enters this race with momentum off some recent strong performances -- he would take sole possession of second in track history behind Dale Earnhardt, who won Talladega 10 times during his career.
Pick to win
(Odds via Caesars Sportsbook)
Brad Keselowski (+1600): I picked Brad Keselowski to win the last superspeedway race at Daytona and it went poorly, as he was taken out in an early crash and never got the chance to demonstrate his superspeedway prowess. But considering his recent string of strong finishes entering one of his best racetracks, I'm going to go back to the well and pick Keselowski to win again.
Keselowski was strong at Talladega in the spring at a time where RFK Racing was not at the level they have now reached, and he likely would have been a factor in the lead pack coming down to the finish had it not been for two ill-timed pit road speeding penalties. If Keselowski can avoid early trouble again, I expect him to have a run that mirrors -- or perhaps even exceeds -- the one he had in the Daytona 500 back in February.