NASCAR drivers charging into Talladega for unpredictable playoff race
Published 12:00 am Sunday, October 3, 2021
By JENNA FRYER
AP Auto Racing Writer
TALLADEGA, Ala. (AP) — Denny Hamlin is already through to the third round of NASCAR’s playoffs with nothing to worry about at Talladega Superspeedway.
His championship rivals? Not so much.
NASCAR’s challenging second round of the playoffs — three wildly different circuits — moves Sunday to the behemoth 2.66-mile Alabama superspeedway where luck is as important as skill. The white-knuckled race falls between Las Vegas, a traditional 1.5-mile speedway where Hamlin won last week, and the twists and turns of the hybrid oval/road course at Charlotte Motor Speedway next week.
The unpredictability expected this week and next has the 11 drivers vying for seven remaining playoff slots slightly on edge.
“You can’t freak out and try any harder because I’m already trying as hard as I can,” said Alex Bowman, who narrowly raced his way through to the second round only for Las Vegas to drop him right back to 11th out of 12 in the standings.
“We’re not in a great spot and we’re going to a place that’s a huge wild card,” he said. “We’ve just got to wait and see how it shakes out. If it works out for us, it does. And if it doesn’t, it doesn’t.”
Hamlin, who automatically advanced to the third round with his Las Vegas victory, is the defending race winner, and Brad Keselowski scored his only win of the season at Talladega in April. Keselowski returns to the track only four points above the cutline, a mere two points separating him and teammate Joey Logano.
“It is stressful because your whole season can be decided this weekend and that may be somewhat out of your control,” said Logano, who has never been eliminated before the round of eight.
“This is the round that a true championship contender can be a surprise knockout.”
The four drivers below the cutline headed into Talladega are William Byron, Kevin Harvick, Bowman and Christopher Bell. Harvick is 1 for 41 at Talladega and his fourth-place finish in April was only his third top-10 in nine races, a span that included two race-ending crashes.
“It’s been a destruction derby over the last couple of years,” Harvick said. “It’s one of those places where you want to race up front and race hard all day. … I believe you have better odds at the front of the pack when it comes to staying out of a wreck if you can keep that track position all day.
“You’re going to race in a pack, three-wide at times, and you’re going to get pushed and have to push at times. You just never know what’s going to happen because Talladega is its own animal. It’s hard to finish a race there.”
Ryan Blaney, a two-time Talladega winner who is above the cutline alongside his Team Penske teammates Keselowski and Logano, said drivers need the same mindset for this playoff race as any other event.
“You have to be aware that you can get wiped out and it’s none of your doing. We’ve all been there. You’re just minding your own business and you get blindsided and you’re destroyed the next thing you know,” Blaney said. “But you can’t let that eat at you. You’ve just got to say, ‘Let’s focus and let’s do these things like we know how to do them, and go racing.’ ”
LARSON TRIPLE CROWN
Kyle Larson is probably the only driver as relaxed as Denny Hamlin, even though he’s winless in 13 career Cup starts at Talladega Superspeedway.
The regular-season champion has a 57-point cushion above the cutline. He has opened the playoffs with four consecutive top-10 finishes, and another one Sunday could push him into the third round on points.
Larson understands he can only control so much at Talladega. Because the drivers are typically clumped into a pack for 500 miles, a wrong move can lead to disaster for any driver unable to dart their way through the wreckage.
“It’s just a totally different race and you’re just kind of stuck in a draft all the time,” Larson said. “You definitely study, don’t get me wrong, but I feel like there’s less stuff to study as far as drivers making an impact.”
Larson chased history even before he arrived in Talladega, making a brief return to sprint cars in his pursuit of the World of Outlaws triple crown.
Larson won a preliminary race Friday night at the Champion Racing Oil National Open at Williams Grove Speedway in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. A win Saturday night would make him the third driver in World of Outlaws history to sweep the Kings Royal at Eldora in Ohio, the Knoxville Nationals in Iowa and the National Open.
Only Doug Wolfgang in 1985 and Donny Schatz in 2007 have won all three races in the same season. The Saturday night event pays $75,000 to the winner, peanuts to what Larson has at stake the next six weeks as he races for his first Cup title.
“I didn’t think I would get the chance to come race here with the NASCAR playoffs but I’ve got a great team that allows me to chase an awesome goal,” the Hendrick Motorsports driver said.
ODDS AND ENDS
Denny Hamlin is the 9/5 favorite to win Talladega, according to FanDuel. … Since the start of the playoffs in 2004 the winner of the Talladega playoff race has never gone on to win the Cup title. The Talladega winner did finish second in the final standings, twice. … The worst a driver has finished at Talladega and still won the championship was 24th by Jimmie Johnson in 2006. Chase Elliott, the reigning Cup champion, finished fifth last season. … A non-playoff driver has won Talladega five times in 17 races. … Martin Truex Jr. is 0 for 66 at Talladega with 10 consecutive finishes of 20th or worse.
Brandon Brown gets first win as darkness falls in Xfinity Series
TALLADEGA, Ala. (AP) — Brandon Brown became the second NASCAR driver to earn his first national series victory Saturday with a win in the Xfinity Series race shortened by darkness at Talladega Superspeedway.
Brown was the leader when a crash with 12 laps to go brought out the seventh caution of the race and slowed activity as daylight faded over the 2.66-mile superspeedway. Brown was among a handful of drivers claiming over the radio it was too dark to see and the race needed to be called, a decision NASCAR made with six laps remaining.
Brown sobbed over his team radio as he thanked his father, who owns tiny Brandonbilt Motorsports along with his son.
“We did it, Dad, we did it! We did it, we won!” he radioed.
He did several burnouts to celebrate his first win in 113 Xfinity Series races over six seasons. After collecting the checkered flag, Brown stood atop his car and screamed “Let’s Go!” then energetically saluted the crowd.
“This is everything we hoped and dreamed for, this is everything,” Brown said. “Everything I’ve ever wanted to do is take the trophy home to mom and dad.”
It was the second upset winner of the day at Talladega, where Tate Fogelman smashed his way to his first career victory in the Truck Series race that opened the doubleheader. Neither winner is competing for the championship in their respective series, muddying both the Xfinity and Truck Series playoff grids.
Only reigning Xfinity Series champion Austin Cindric has clinched a spot in the second round of the playoffs headed into next Saturday’s race at The Roval at Charlotte Motor Speedway. The field will be trimmed from 12 to eight at Charlotte.
Talladega is host of a busy two days for NASCAR and its playoffs with all three national series racing the middle event of their respective playoff rounds. The Cup Series is scheduled to race Sunday, weather permitting.
The atmosphere was festive Saturday in the Talladega infield, but a small convoy of vehicles paraded past the main entrance of the speedway waving Confederate flags at the start of the day. NASCAR last year banned the Confederate flag at its events and similar convoys have turned out for all four race weekends since the ban went into effect.
One of the vehicles displaying the Confederate flag on Saturday was also towing a war-era canon.
Inside the track, Brown was celebrating in victory lane. The 28-year-old graduate of Coastal Carolina University has been desperately trying to build a winning race program alongside his father, and earlier this season made a used car salesman type social media post soliciting sponsorship.
Brandon Jones finished second and was followed by Justin Allgaier and Daniel Hemric as Chevrolet and Toyota alternated the top four positions. Jordan Anderson was fifth to lead another trio of Chevrolets, and Cindric was the highest-finishing Ford driver in ninth — good enough to clinch him a spot in the next round.
“As far as I understand we’ve advanced onto the next round, so it’s kind of job accomplished for the day,” Cindric said.
The final caution of the night came with 12 laps remaining when Brett Moffitt in a pack of traffic got a big shove from behind and was ping-ponged off a pair of other cars. The crash collected playoff drivers Riley Herbst and Harrison Burton, but they were not the only title contenders to have problems at Talladega.
Herbst led four times for a race-high 26 laps and now goes to The Roval hoping to avoid playoff elimination.
“Somebody from behind me didn’t use their brake pedal and knocked the back of our race car off, so we had to come down pit road and fix that, and then that obviously put us in the hornet’s nest and the top three-wide. At that point, I knew we were gonna be wrecked,” Herbst said. “We led a lot of laps. We got a lot of points, but we just didn’t finish well. I think we’ve got to go win the Roval now.”
Noah Gragson led eight laps late but was wrecked while leading with 24 laps to go. Jeb Burton shoved Moffitt and Moffitt got loose then hooked left into Gragson, sending Gragson straight into the wall and bringing out the second red flag of the race.
The seven-car crashed also collected playoff driver Myatt Snider.
“The energy in the pack was a little chaotic. I thought it was a little early to be that aggressive,” Snyder said.
The first red flag was to fix damage to a retaining wall that occurred when AJ Allmendinger and Sam Mayer crashed 24 laps into the race. Allmendinger was the regular-season champion
“I just got hung up there, once you get back there, the people you are racing, it happens,” Allmendinger said. “We’re going to a pretty good racetrack for us.”
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