Through the Field: You’ve Gotta Believe
A track worthy enough of its own country song, a decade-old mockumentary and more racing memories – both positive or negative – than you can shake a stick at.
The 2.66-mile-long superspeedway is unlike any other in racing, other than Daytona, the other major superspeedway with a rich history. But while Daytona has just a bit more prestige, Talladega’s chaotic nature makes it just as celebrated when the winner makes it through and takes home the trophy.
It’s hard enough racing at a normal racetrack; 40 cars, all going upwards of 150 miles an hour, trying to earn a good finish. Throw them all on a massive track, restrict some power to the engines, and you get the “pack racing” at 200 miles an hour that make the two superspeedways so special. At any given time, more than half the field will fit under a blanket; usually, nearly 30 cars will be within a second’s distance of one another.
Not only is the high-speed, close racing action epic, but it means just one mistake can cause carnage, known as “The Big One.”
It happens at least once, usually more than that, at every one of these races. One slip-up or risky move can result in a myriad of cars being destroyed all within a few seconds, ending a chance to win. It can sweep you up and spit you out before you know it. And it will likely hurt multiple playoff drivers’ chances of advancing.
But that doesn’t mean every single one of them won’t be giving one hundred percent effort to get that victory. It doesn’t matter that failure is just a step away at any given time. The chance for success and glory is there for the taking, and everyone wants to grab it. It’s never going to be easy, which only makes it all much more worth doing.
And there’s no reason we shouldn’t all be the same way. You have to believe that you’ll be the one to cross the finish line first and bring home the glory. If 2020 has shown us anything, it’s that the figurative “big one” can strike when you least expect it. All that means is that we should be going for the win, whatever that is, whenever we can.
The advantage we have is that, unlike most of the cars which fall victim to those crashes, our chances to succeed aren’t finished. Sure, we may need to spend a little time in the pits for some repairs, but we can always get back out there and go for the win.
The win at Las Vegas went to Kurt Busch, and his victory at his home track could have been a motivational and inspirational column all its own. Busch has been racing in the Cup Series for nearly two decades and had never won in a top-tier race back home.
A caution in the middle of pit cycles put the No. 1 car out front, and the team held on to advance to the Round of 8. Busch went from last to first in the playoff standings and his win all but guarantees that at least one driver who we expected to advance further will be knocked out after this round.
The interesting thing about Talladega’s unpredictability is that it really doesn’t matter who’s been racing well or not. Having momentum is never a bad thing, but ‘Dega can knock all of that out in the span of one corner. That doesn’t mean there aren’t some drivers to watch, however.
Ones to Watch
Ryan Newman: He was never a competitor for the playoffs in 2020, but Ryan Newman seems to always be around at the end with a chance to win the superspeedway races.
Newman’s No. 6 car probably should have won the Daytona 500, before the crash that could’ve have taken his life happened. For that, we can only be thankful for the safety advances that NASCAR has implemented over the nearly two decades since its last death in a race.
I don’t know how long Newman wants to continue racing in the Cup Series, but that crash at Daytona may have put things in perspective for him.
I wouldn’t be surprised at all if this is Newman’s last full season in the sport, which would mean this could be his last superspeedway race. After al,l that’s happened this year, it could be that Jack Roush and his team have enough respect for Newman’s career that they wouldn’t announce his potential departure until either the end of the season or the final race at Phoenix. This is all just speculation, but there are a lot of talented drivers out there that could take the No. 6 ride. Regardless, Newman will be motivated to win one more time, and his best shot comes Sunday.
Ryan Blaney: Ryan Blaney was eliminated in the first round of the playoffs, but it’s hard to pick against the guy who has won the last two races at Talladega, albeit in extremely close finishes both times.
Team Penske has become notorious in recent years for great performances at superspeedways, even if the finishes don’t show it. The Ford Mustangs are fast, and Penske has arguably the best Ford cars in the series. The No. 12 team will be spending time upfront; the question is whether it will be there at the end.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.: It’s been a rough season for JTG Daugherty Racing; they’ve had a lot of incidents and unfortunate crashes with their two cars in 2020. The bright spot was Stenhouse’s second-place finish in the first Talladega race.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr., the driver of the No. 47 is the true wild card at superspeedway races. You never know what he will do to try to get to the front and win. Being out of the playoffs won’t change that mentality; he’ll race those 12 playoff drivers the same as everyone else. Stenhouse will be driving the Hungry Jack pancake mix car Sunday, and he will be hungry for a victory.
What about the playoff drivers, you may ask? My three picks so far are all out of the playoffs. I anticipate all 12 of the playoff drivers (maybe with the exception of Kurt Busch) will try to stay near the front all race long.
They’ll want to earn stage points and almost no one has a sufficient point cushion to pass those up. Even drivers like Martin Truex Jr., who normally would be conservative until the end, will need to race upfront. I’d expect half the playoff drivers, at least, will crash out of the race. Don’t be surprised to see the first one come relatively early.
This Week’s Pick
Denny Hamlin: The most exciting result would be for a non-playoff driver or one outside the cutline to win the race. The pessimist in me strongly believes that someone like Deny Hamlin, who is 58 points above the cutline, will take the win and guaranteed advancement away from those who strongly need it, and will make the Charlotte Roval that much more exciting next week.
Aric Almirola & Clint Bowyer: Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR) also knows how to build cars that can dominate at Talladega; the fall 2018 race, won by Aric Almirola, was basically a train of the four SHR cars running out front.
I had both of these drivers in my “sell” column heading into the round, knowing they would be in all but a must-win (or at least must-finish, depending on if other playoff drivers crash) situation in Talladega. Don’t be surprised if one of them pulsl it off.