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Friday 5: Letting the chaos theory play out at Talladega

Dustin Long, Kyle Petty, and Steve Letarte each select three NASCAR Cup Series drivers to watch at Talladega Superspeedway.

No matter the preparation, the best plan often is no plan when racing at Talladega Superspeedway. That likely will be the case again on Sunday when the Cup Series races there.

“(Speedway) racing is very much kind of this living, breathing, chaos theory,” Brad Keselowski, who has won six Talladega Cup races, told NBC Sports.

“There’s been races I’ve won where no way I win that race if I didn’t catch break this, break this, break this in sequence. You’re like, ‘That’s a one in a million shot.’

“There’s been races that I’ve lost where I can’t believe that one move happened three cars behind me that I couldn’t control that’s never happened before and it completely changed everything. All my planning, all my practice, there was no way to block it, there was nothing I could have done different and you’re frustrated by that.

“Really, you’re left just putting yourself in the scenario and then letting the chaos theory play out and hopeful that it plays out to your favor and not your disadvantage.”

Don’t get the sense that Keselowski is complaining about how random racing at Talladega, Daytona and now Atlanta can be. He’s just noting that a driver is trying to control something that is difficult to control.

“That’s what driving a race car is and leading a pack at Daytona and Talladega or Atlanta … you’re trying to control a whole field that’s not meant to be controlled, that doesn’t want to be controlled,” said Keselowski, who scored his first Cup win in 2009 at this track and also has won at Talladega in 2012, ’14, ’16, ’17 and ’21.

Trying to control the field is difficult enough but is more challenging as speedway racing evolves. Chase Elliott, who won at Talladega last fall in the playoffs, notes how that race was different last year with the field unable to create a third lane of racing. That left two lanes and made it more difficult for those further back to move through the field since the option of going to a third lane wasn’t viable.

“I think there’s probably even more thinking involved as we’ve seen these races kind of change … the way they look and track position has become so important,” Elliott said. “There’s not really a third lane option now with these cars. We saw that at Talladega in the fall last year. We had really good track position all day.

“Then we look at Daytona, this season at the 500, heck, you just couldn’t go anywhere. The lanes get side-by-side and they get stacked up and the third lane is just too sketchy, you almost have to tandem to do that.

“These cars aren’t just locked to the ground like the cars were when they were actually tandem drafting, and it ends up falling apart. Not having that third lane forces guys to be side-by-side … and kind of jockey for position all day. It puts a lot of emphasis on track position, your pit stop cycles, and it makes you think about where you are on the track from the start of the race because I don’t think you’re going to go from 15th to the lead in the last 20 laps unless you get lucky on a wreck or something.”

Joey Logano has found himself in the right position at the right time this season. The two-time Cup champion finished second in the Daytona 500 and won at Atlanta this season, passing Keselowski on the last lap for the victory.

His feelings on racing at those types of tracks?

“It’s a love-hate relationship,” Logano told NBC Sports. “You love it when it goes well and it’s actually a lot of fun. … If you have a good car and things are going right and you can race up in the lead lead and you don’t wreck, you get out of the car and go, ‘That’s kind of fun. I kind of enjoyed that.’

“When you wreck and it hurts, you’re like, ‘This sucks. I don’t want to do this crap. This is the worst.’”

Logano notes that winning a speedway race has a different feel because of the intensity of the racing.

“If you ran the whole race, leading the whole race, and you win you’re like, ‘Whew, thank God we won that one because we were supposed to win that,’ but at a speedway, it’s so intense to the last second. There’s never a relaxed moment. So they just feel different.”

2. Significant wins

Hendrick Motorsports scored a significant sweep when Kyle Larson won last weekend’s race at Martinsville Speedway.

Hendrick drivers have won this season at Phoenix, Martinsville and Las Vegas — tracks that will host arguably the most important playoff races of the season.

Phoenix hosts the championship race. Martinsville is the final chance for playoff drivers to make the Championship Four at Phoenix. Las Vegas is the first race a driver can qualify for the Championship Four at Phoenix.

Joey Logano won at Las Vegas last year. He and his Team Penske crew didn’t have to worry about the next two races and could focus on the championship race, which he won. Both of Logano’s championships have come after he won the opening race of the next-to-last round.

While Hendrick was not dominant at Martinsville last weekend — Larson led 30 laps on the way to the victory — Hendrick cars were the best at Las Vegas and Phoenix.

William Byron won at Las Vegas, leading 176 laps. Hendrick drivers combined to lead 241 of 271 laps (88.9% of the race). Hendrick cars finished 1-2-3 that day with Byron, Larson and Alex Bowman.

Byron won the following week at Phoenix and again Hendrick cars were strong, leading 265 of 317 laps (83.6%). All four Hendrick cars finished in the top 10.

Last year, Ross Chastain finished in the top five at Las Vegas, Phoenix and Martinsville early in the season and went on to reach the title race at Phoenix, finishing second to Logano for the crown.

Larson has scored top fives in each of those races this season, winning at Martinsville, finishing second at Las Vegas and fourth at Phoenix. His average finish in those races was 2.3.

Cliff Daniels, crew chief for Larson, said a focus was put on those three tracks at Hendrick Motorsports after how the organization performed last year.

“We as a company didn’t perform as well as we needed to in the fall,” Daniels said. “We certainly got beat by at least two organizations that I can think of just outright, forget strategy, forget anything else. They just had better and faster cars than we did.

“So, yes, we did circle Phoenix specifically over the winter, and we kind of assembled a group back at the shop to help us attack some of these tracks in the specific areas that we knew we were deficient. So big shout out and credit to those guys back at the shop, those guys and gals. … Vegas last fall, all of our cars didn’t run great. Obviously, I spoke on Phoenix.

“(Martinsville has) been hit-or-miss for us, and it was kind of that way (Sunday), too. Kind of hit-or-miss from what you saw. So we have identified all those races, the keystones that they are, to your point, for the playoffs and tried to make an effort for what those are.”

In the first nine races of this season, Hendrick cars have won four times. Larson and Byron rank first and second in laps led. They’ve combined to lead 853 of 2,385 laps (35.8%) and won seven stages (five by Byron and two by Larson).

Jeff Andrews, president and general manager at Hendrick Motorsports, says more work remains for the organization.

“I wouldn’t consider us dominant,” he said after the Martinsville victory. “I don’t think there’s anybody at Hendrick Motorsports right now that has that comfort level or that feeling. … We need to run and perform like this in the latter half of the summer, early part of the fall. That’s when it really starts to count.”

3. Overlooked moment

It was easy to miss, but the final 20 laps of the first stage in last weekend’s race at Martinsville Speedway proved key to the finish. Here’s how.

Leader Ryan Preece put Joey Logano a lap down on Lap 57. By Lap 60, Preece was on the bumper of Ross Chastain to put him a lap down. For the final 20 laps of the stage, Chastain held off Preece. By doing so, Logano got the free pass to get back on the lead lap.

So, why didn’t Preece get by Chastain?

“I could have been more aggressive and really moved him, but at that point you put yourself in a position that you get moved back, and I did have some room,” Preece said with Logano behind him and then the second-place car of Aric Almirola.

That was key, having Logano between the first- and second-place cars. Logano was doing everything he could to stay there, along with cheering for Chastain to not get lapped so Logano could still get the free pass.

“I was the biggest Ross Chastain fan,” Logano said.

With Preece not forcing the issue to get by Chastain, Logano worked to keep Almirola behind him so Almirola couldn’t pressure Preece.

“I thought at that point, Preece probably isn’t going to put the bumper to (Chastain) if second place isn’t putting pressure on him,” Logano told NBC Sports. “So at that point, my job became to block second (Almirola) to make sure Preece didn’t get that pressure because as soon as Preece felt that pressure, he was going to move Ross. That was my only fighting chance for the lucky dog there.”

It worked.

Logano was put a lap down at Lap 275 but got his lap back as the field pitted under green. He was among the few who had yet to pit when the caution came out for a tire from Anthony Alfredo’s car on the track. That put him in position to finish second. Had he not gotten his lap back in the first stage, his path to the runner-up spot would have been more challenging.

4. Kyle Busch’s long wait

Kyle Busch’s lone Talladega Cup victory came in April 2008.

Should he win Sunday, it would mark the most number of races between victories at Talladega. Busch has run 28 Talladega races since that win there 15 years ago.

Here is a look at the most Cup starts between wins at Talladega:

20 — Dale Earnhardt Jr. (won Oct. 3, 2004 & May 3, 2015)

16 — Richard Petty (won Aug. 11, 1974 & May 1, 1983)

15 — Terry Labonte (won July 30, 1989 & Oct. 12, 1997)

14 — Bobby Allison (won Aug. 22, 1971 & May 6, 1979)

13 — Dale Jarrett (won Oct. 11, 1998 & Oct. 2, 2005)

Should Busch win Sunday at Talladega, scoring a victory 28 races since a previous win at the same track would rank third on the all-time list in Cup for any track.

Here are the leaders for most starts between wins at a track:

45 — Terry Labonte (Darlington - won Sept. 1, 1980 & Aug. 31, 2003)

34 — Ricky Rudd (Richmond - won Feb. 26, 1984 & Sept. 8, 2001)

26 — Mark Martin (Darlington - won Sept. 5, 1993 & May 9, 2009)

26 — Jeff Gordon (Michigan - won June 10, 2001 & Aug. 17, 2014)

26 — Jeff Gordon (Dover - June 3, 2001 & Sept. 28, 2014)

26 —Matt Kenseth (Phoenix - Nov. 11, 2002 & Nov. 12, 2017)

26 — Kevin Harvick (Atlanta - March 11, 2001 & Feb. 25, 2018)

Busch has one points victory at Daytona, which came in July 2008. He nearly snapped that drought in February. He was leading on Lap 200, the scheduled distance of the Daytona 500, but the race went into overtime and Busch was collected in a crash and finished 19th.

5. 800 for Kevin Harvick

Sunday marks Kevin Harvick’s 800th career Cup start. He becomes only the 10th driver in Cup history to start at least 800 races.

Here are the drivers with 800 or more Cup starts:

1,185 — Richard Petty

906 — Ricky Rudd

890 — Terry Labonte

883 — Dave Marcis

882 — Mark Martin

829 — Kyle Petty

828 — Bill Elliott

809 — Darrell Waltrip

805 — Jeff Gordon

Harvick is scheduled to pass Gordon at Sonoma in June and pass Waltrip at New Hampshire in July.

Harvick has 1,272 career starts combined in NASCAR’s top three series — Cup, Xfinity and Trucks. That total ranks first in NASCAR history. Harvick’s 121 combined wins across NASCAR’s three national series ranks third all-time.