Cup Series Playoff Drivers Brace for Unknowns of Talladega

Talladega Superspeedway

Getty Hendrick Motorsports teammates crash at Talladega Superspeedway.

The NASCAR Cup Series Round of 12 continues on Sunday, Oct. 3, with a trip to Talladega Superspeedway. This track represents another opportunity for drivers to stack points and potentially move on to the Round of Eight, but it also serves as a source of trepidation for essentially every driver other than Denny Hamlin.

The reason for this agitation is that Talladega has a reputation for wild moments and massive wrecks that can happen at any time and disrupt a promising day. Drivers can travel to Talladega with a strong car and plenty of confidence, but they may simply head to the infield care center early due to something out of their control.

The perfect example is the 2020 YellaWood 500 at Talladega. Kurt Busch entered the race as the only safe driver after he locked up a victory at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. However, he had the goal of stacking more points and providing a bigger cushion entering the Round of Eight. He did not get this opportunity due to Clint Bowyer and Jimmie Johnson sparking the “Big One” on lap 108.

The incident occurred with 13 laps to go in Stage 2. Bowyer pushed Johnson from behind, sending the No. 48 Chevrolet to the left and into Busch’s No. 1 Chevrolet. The defending winner spun into the outside wall before Cole Custer’s No. 41 slammed into him. The No. 1 flew into the air but landed on all four tires while several other drivers came to a skidding halt at the bottom of the track.

The massive collision involved multiple playoff drivers and sent two to the garage early. Busch and Bowyer both climbed out of their stock cars and watched tow trucks clear the destroyed vehicles from the track. Brad Keselowski avoided race-ending damage and managed to continue with only fresh tires on the No. 2 Team Penske Ford.

Wins Are Great, but Finishing Becomes Critical for Playoff Drivers

With the race at Las Vegas complete, only Denny Hamlin is truly safe. The driver of the No. 11 Toyota Camry reached Victory Lane on Sept. 26 and locked up his spot in the Round of Eight. The rest have to focus on stacking points and avoiding a playoff-disrupting crash at Talladega.

Achieving this goal is easier said than done, a fact that multiple drivers have acknowledged. Hamlin told media members after the Las Vegas race that he is “so happy” that he doesn’t have to completely worry about Talladega or the Charlotte Roval. He will still try to win, but he won’t have extra stress in his life while examining the points standings.

Kyle Busch also addressed the looming trip to Talladega. He has made 32 starts at the 2.66-mile track in his Cup Series career, winning once and crashing six times. The two-time Cup Series champion knows how difficult the races are to predict, and he knows that simply contending for a top-10 finish could become just as important as trying to win. Finishing the race could help him maintain his 35-point advantage over the cutline while a wreck could drop him into elimination territory.

“I’ve said it, I’ll say it all the time: if you can go to Talladega and come out of there with a 12th-place finish with no stage points, that’s a successful day. I’ll take that right now if I could skip it,” Busch told NBC Sports after the Las Vegas race.

Several Playoff Drivers Can Not Afford To Crash at Talladega

While Hamlin is secure in the Round of Eight, two of his teammates are both well above the cutline. Busch has a 35-point advantage while Martin Truex Jr. sits 31 to the positive. The only driver above them is Hendrick Motorsports ace Kyle Larson, who has a 57-point advantage over the cutline.

Ryan Blaney (+24) and Chase Elliott (+22) are both in solid positions heading toward Talladega, but the rest of the playoff drivers have cause for concern. Team Penske drivers Joey Logano (+6) and Brad Keselowski (+4) are mere points above the line while William Byron (-4), Kevin Harvick (-7), Alex Bowman (-13), and Christopher Bell (-25) are all in danger of elimination.

None of the drivers in this group can afford to crash at Talladega. Doing so would drop them into a precarious position and set up a “must-win” scenario at Charlotte Roval, the track where Elliott has won two of the three Cup Series races. Blaney captured the checkered flag in the first Roval race.

“I don’t know if you’ve watched these Talladega and Daytona races lately, but we’ve all crash all the time,” Logano told NBC Sports after the Las Vegas race. “I’m hoping I can survive that one. That would probably be a good day. If we can survive that and finish, you’ll probably put yourself in a good spot for the Roval.”

Logano, Busch, and the other playoff drivers will attempt to avoid crashes when the Cup Series heads to Talladega Superspeedway. The race will take place on Sunday, Oct. 3, at 2 p.m. ET. NBC will provide coverage.

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