By Cole Cusumano
What else is there to say besides, it’s Talladega Superspeedway week! The 2.66-mile track has a reputation for producing some of the most entertaining action on the NASCAR circuit at speeds exceeding 200 mile-per-hour. With danger lurking around every turn, it’s a battle of survival and trust, putting your fate in the hands of other competitors and the spotters above the grandstands.
This will be the first superspeedway event since Michael McDowell took the world by surprise and won the Daytona 500 in February, and while these tracks tend to be unpredictable, this weekend could present even more unknowns for the NASCAR Cup Series field.
NASCAR Cup Series
Reflecting back on the Great American Race, 16 cars were taken out in the Lap 15 “Big One” with 19 failing to even make it past Stage One. Additionally, only 11 drivers completed every circuit and those below sustained some sort of damage in limping to the finish.
Case in point, the extent of track time for many drivers is limited to practice and the Duels. While any experience at these superspeedways is vital, nothing compares to logging laps in real-time among the competition. With the Geico 500 coming 10 weeks after the Daytona 500, there will undoubtedly be some rust to knock off, making this potentially more unpredictable than years past.
“Nobody sleeps well going to Talladega,” Alex Bowman said following his win at Richmond Raceway. “There’s a high probability of hitting stuff really hard. That’s just part of this race week. Superspeedways, we like to tear some stuff up. I think I made 12 laps at the Daytona 500 this year. I’m not going to sleep any better since we have a win, but at least we won’t have to hit the panic button because of points.”
Another trend to consider is the previous three Cup events at Talladega have been decided by a photo finish. While there may not be a way to prepare for this assumed circumstance, chances are if your name is Ryan Blaney, you have a great odds (He’s won two of the last three races in Alabama).
Blaney, in addition to his Team Penske teammates, could be considered ones to watch this weekend. Among active drivers, the Mustang trio are the only competitors to have multiple victories at Talladega aside from Denny Hamlin. And the stats speak for themselves.
Brad Keselowski owns five victories at Talladega, placing him third on the all-time wins list and only one shy of tying Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. However, the 2012 Champion hasn’t placed above 13th since notching his last in 2017 and he’s hit a cold stretch over the last four weeks.
The No. 22 team is always in the best position heading to superspeedways with T.J. Majors atop the spotter stand. Joey Logano was one corner away from winning his second Daytona 500 this year until disaster struck. With three victories in Talladega and leading the most laps (78) between both races in 2020, the 2018 Champion can always be considered a favorite.
“I love superspeedway racing,” Logano said. “I feel like I’m really good at it. I feel like T.J. is really good at it. We bring pretty good cars to the racetrack, as well. For those reasons, I feel like we’re always a threat to win. We’re always up there. We always have a shot.”
For the first time since February, there will be a 40-car field in the Cup Series. Superspeedways present many opportunities and can provide a great deal of income for smaller budget teams, should they be able to outlast the carnage.
Someone who will not be making their first start in Cup is Jennifer Jo Cobb. The 14-year NASCAR Camping World Truck Series veteran was denied her initially scheduled ride in the No. 15 for Rick Ware Racing, as the sanctioning body revealed they did not receive her Driver Information and Record Application, which must be submitted one-year prior to expected competition.
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NASCAR Xfinity Series
In reference to the Xfinity Series, it may not be as difficult to predict the outcome. Justin Haley has established himself as one of the best superspeedway racers in the sport and swept both Talladega races last year.
However, the No. 11 team could be faced with some steep competition in Joe Gibbs Racing. Luck hasn’t been on their side at the 2.66-mile speedway, as their last win came in 2012 with Logano, but there’s no denying the speed that was under the hood of those Toyota Supras in Daytona earlier this year. Burton led a race-high 28 laps and two JGR Toyotas placed inside the top-10. Ty Dillon also returns for his fourth race of 2021 in the No. 54 and he finished third in the Fall Cup Series race at Talladega last year.
“The superspeedway program has been a constant evolution for JGR,” Daniel Hemric said. “Their cars always drove good, but I feel like they lacked raw speed, and I didn’t feel like we lacked anything when we were at the season opener in Daytona. This is our second [superspeedway race], our communication is better now with our teammates than it was then […] and I feel like we can only be stronger than we were in Daytona — which I thought we did a really good job for about 90-percent of the race of utilizing one another and getting ourselves and our organization a shot.”
Someone to keep an eye on will be Natalie Decker in the No. 23 car for Our Motorsports. This is only her second Xfinity Series start, but it’s worth noting she became the highest finishing female in a Truck Series race at Daytona last year, placing fifth.
Ultimately, we can talk trends and who may be competitive all day at Talladega, but the reality is the 2.66-mile track is the definitive wild card event. This is a facility widely recognized by the general public and it always has potential for mass appeal with the entertainment factor at an all-time high.
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It all begins with the NASCAR Xfinity Series and the Ag-Pro 300 on April 24 at 1 p.m. ET on Fox. The likelihood of the NASCAR Cup Series adopting its ninth different winner in 2021 increases with the Geico 500 the following day at 2 p.m. ET on Fox.