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Talladega storylines: Survival of the fittest

The relief was evident on Denny Hamlin’s face and in his voice after winning last Sunday’s Round of 12 Cup playoff opener at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Hamlin finally earned his first Cup win at Las Vegas. More importantly, he advanced into the Round of 8 and avoided the prospect of being swept up in chaos over the next two weeks.

As for the other 11 playoff drivers, they’re now subject to having their title hopes severely damaged Sunday (2 p.m. ET, NBC) at the most unpredictable track on the circuit.

Talladega Superspeedway has been part of the Cup playoffs since its inception in 2004, and its craziness only grows during the race for the championship.

According to Racing Insights:

  • 10 of the 17 Talladega playoff races have had at least 10 DNFs
  • 10 of the 17 Talladega playoff races have ended on a last-lap pass
  • Eight of the 17 Talladega playoff races have had at least seven playoff drivers finish outside the top 15

Last year’s playoff race, won by Hamlin, may have been the craziest of them all.

It included a track record 13 cautions; multiple overtime attempts that extended the race 12 laps and nearly 32 miles; and 14 drivers failing to finish due to crashes or, in Michael McDowell’s case, overheating.

What will Sunday bring?

Penske power

Considering Ford’s lack of performance on 550-horsepower tracks this season, last Sunday’s race at Las Vegas perhaps went as well as it could have for them.

All four Ford playoff drivers finished inside the top 11. Team Penske’s Ryan Blaney led the group with a fifth-place result. Blaney’s teammates, Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano, finished seventh and 11th respectively. In between them was Stewart-Haas Racing’s Kevin Harvick in ninth.

Ford drivers have won all three superspeedway races this season, and Penske drivers have played a role in the outcome for each of them.

Michael McDowell dodged a last-lap wreck started by contact between Logano and Keselowski to win the Daytona 500. In April, Keselowski earned his sixth career Talladega victory. Then last month, Blaney won the regular season finale at Daytona.

Entering Talladega, the Penske trio sit fifth (Blaney, +24), seventh (Logano, +6), and eighth (Keselowski, +4) in the playoff standings. They’ve combined to win five of the last seven Talladega playoff races and nine of the last 14 Talladega Cup races overall.

But while Keselowski won at Talladega in the spring and Logano is a three-time winner there, the one to look out for may be Blaney. Over the past eight Cup superspeedway races, he’s won three and finished inside the top 10 in six.

Superspeedway struggles

Others in the Cup playoff field haven’t been as successful on superspeedways.

That group includes regular season champion Kyle Larson, who is winless in 28 starts on superspeedways at the Cup level. At Talladega specifically, he’s only earned two top-10 finishes in 13 starts.

But with a 57-point cushion above the cutline, Larson doesn’t particularly have to worry about winning. He’s one of four drivers to open the playoffs with four consecutive top 10 finishes. A fifth on Sunday - even if it’s not a victory - could send him into the Round of 8 early.

Another driver has an even bigger winless drought on superspeedways. Martin Truex Jr. is 0-for-66 in his Cup career. At Talladega, he’s finished 20th or worse in his last 10 appearances dating back to the 2016 playoff race. With a 31-point cushion above the cutline, he can’t absorb a major setback like Larson can.

But it could be worse. A ill-fated strategy call and late flat tire left Alex Bowman with a 13-point deficit to the cutline coming out of Las Vegas.

Now comes Talladega. Bowman is capable of running up front there as his runner-up in the spring 2019 race can attest. But his Talladega average finish of 24.6 is the worst among all Cup playoff drivers with at least four starts (Christopher Bell has made three Talladega Cup starts and has an average finish of 28.3).

Bowman’s first four Talladega starts came with the underfunded BK Racing and Tommy Baldwin Racing teams. But even if you take those starts out, that only raises his Talladega average finish to 21.9 through eight starts with Hendrick Motorsports. Not good.

Kaulig goes for four in a row

As the Xfinity Series playoff Round of 12 resumes Saturday at Talladega (4:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN), one big question is if anyone can stop Kaulig Racing at NASCAR’s biggest track.

Kaulig drivers AJ Allmendinger, Justin Haley and Jeb Burton will look to give the organization its fourth consecutive Talladega win, as well as its seventh win in the last nine Xfinity superspeedway races.

Haley swept both Talladega races last year on his way to the Championship 4. Then, this past April, Jeb Burton earned his first career Xfinity win in a rain-shortened race there.

Could it be Allmendinger’s turn Saturday?

Allmendinger, the regular season champion, has never won a superspeedway race in his NASCAR career. He’s getting closer, though, as he’s posted top-five finishes in all three superspeedway races this season, including a runner-up to Haley last month at Daytona.

But last week in Las Vegas, JR Motorsports came out firing to start the playoffs. Non-playoff driver Josh Berry led a 1-2-3 finish for JRM, with playoff contenders Justin Allgaier and Noah Gragson behind him.

Together, JRM and Kaulig have combined to win 12 of the last 19 Xfinity superspeedway races. However, JRM has not won on a superspeedway since Gragson’s victory in the 2020 season opener at Daytona.

On to Phoenix?

The Round of 8 continues in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series playoffs Saturday at Talladega (1 p.m. ET, FS1).

The first ticket to the Nov. 5 championship race at Phoenix Raceway was up for grabs last weekend at Las Vegas. But part-time driver Christian Eckes shredded it with his first career Truck win, while multiple playoff drivers faltered.

Eckes led a 1-2-3-4 finish for ThorSport Racing. Playoff drivers Ben Rhodes and Matt Crafton finished second and third, respectively.

Rhodes currently leads the Round of 8 with a 34-point cushion above the cutline. Also above the cutline are John Hunter Nemechek (+28), Stewart Friesen (+9) and Crafton (+5).

Reigning series champion Sheldon Creed (-5) is the first driver below the cutline. He is followed by Carson Hocevar (-16), Zane Smith (-19) and Chandler Smith (-24).

Since the current playoff format debuted in the Trucks in 2016, no driver in playoff contention has won at Talladega.

Christopher Bell, now in his first Cup playoff run, was closest back in 2017. On his way to winning the Truck title that year, he finished second at Talladega behind NBC Sports’ Parker Kligerman.