This weekend, the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series heads to Talladega Superspeedway for the most unpredictable race of the 2017 playoffs; the Alabama 500. After last week’s race at Charlotte, only Martin Truex Jr is safe from elimination in this playoff round; with the remaining eleven contenders hoping to survive the potential chaos of this race to put them in good shape to advance further.
Talladega Superspeedway is the longest track on the NASCAR Cup Series schedule and is the only track other than Daytona to feature restrictor plates which limit the power and top speed of the cars. At 2.66 miles in length with banked turns at thirty-two and thirty-three degrees, the track is flat out for the drivers who reach speeds of in excess of 190mph in qualifying and 200mph whilst in the pack.
The circuit hosted its first NASCAR Cup Series race in 1970, with Pete Hamilton taking his Plymouth to the victory. Ever since the track has become renowned for its unpredictable nature. With speeds so high and the cars so close, the infamous “big one” can occur at any time and throw a massive curve-ball in the race and sometimes the championship too.
Studying the form-book can be useless at Talladega due to the unpredictability. However, Hendrick Motorsports stand out as usual contenders. They have taken twelve victories at the Superspeedway with drivers such as Ken Schrader, Jeff Gordon, Terry Labonte, Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Last time out:
The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series last raced at Talladega Superspeedway back in May this year for the GEICO 500. Ricky Stenhouse Jr had a memorable weekend, taking both pole position and the race victory; but it was far from easy for the #17 Roush Fenway Racing driver.
In an overtime finish, Stenhouse Jr had to battle with Kyle Busch to try and take his first ever win in the NASCAR Cup Series. Busch edged him out on the restart to take the lead, but Stenhouse managed to slingshot his way by into the lead off of turn two and impressively managed to block all his challengers to take the chequered flag. This win would also give Ricky a spot in the playoffs, which would further be underlined when he took a second win at Daytona two months later; again on a Superspeedway.
Last week’s race at Charlotte Motor Speedway was the opening race of the second round of the playoffs. Martin Truex Jr rallied back from a poor qualification to take his sixth win of the year, a win that would guarantee him a spot in the next round.
With numerous playoff contenders having problems or finishing close to each other, all bar Truex are still at risk of elimination in this round. That is exactly what those eleven drivers would not have wanted heading to the most unpredictable track on the calendar.
One of the biggest players in this year’s championship, Kyle Busch, had the nightmare of all races last week. He struggled with the setup of his #18 Joe Gibbs Racing Camry all weekend, hitting the wall on numerous occasions throughout the build-up to the race and the race itself. All this culminated in Busch having to seek medical attention immediately after the race due to severe exhaustion and significant carbon monoxide inhalation. His twenty-ninth place finish dropped him down from second place in the standings to sixth. He’s not quite in the bottom four of the playoff standings, but he is in a considerably more vulnerable position that he was before.
The four drivers currently in the elimination spots are Matt Kenseth, Brad Keselowski, Ryan Blaney and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. All four will be hoping that the inevitable carnage this weekend manages to elude them so that they can jump ahead of their rivals in the standings before next weekend’s elimination race in Kansas.
As mentioned earlier, Hendrick Motorsports lead the form-book with twelve wins, so a bet on any of their four drivers wouldn’t exactly be an odd choice. Of the four, Chase Elliott has to be the favourite given his recent form, both in the last few races and in the most recent Superspeedway races. Chase has taken three second-place finishes in the last four races, so the momentum is there. All he needs to do is finally close out a race to take his maiden win in the Cup Series. His #24 Chevrolet has shown consistent speed on the Superspeedways too, but luck in the race has often relegated him to lower positions than he could’ve achieved.
Of course, it would be remiss of us to mention Dale Earnhardt Jr. This weekend is the final time he will race a Superspeedway track during his full-time NASCAR career. Superspeedways have always been a keen hunting ground for Dale Jr too, with ten of his twenty-six Cup series victories coming at either Talladega or Daytona. If he can secure his twenty-seventh win this weekend it would be an incredible way for him to round out his career before his retirement at the end of this season.
Another driver who has shown great form on Superspeedways as of late is Ricky Stenhouse Jr. The #17 Roush Fenway Racing driver, as previously mentioned, won the last race held at Talladega back in May. He also won the last Superspeedway race at Daytona back in July. If his team can bring the speed shown so far this year on the restrictor plate tracks back again this weekend, Stenhouse Jr could cause an upset by advancing through to the round of eight thanks to a third win of his career.
Of course, with the unpredictable nature of Talladega, studying the form book could be useless. To date, eleven drivers have taken their first NASCAR Cup Series wins at the Superspeedway, so absolutely anybody who starts the race on Sunday could wind up a winner in the right circumstances.
Track action for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series at Talladega will be televised by Premier Sports, NBCSN and NBC this weekend. The two practice sessions will take place on Friday, followed by the Coors Light Pole qualifying on Saturday. The weekend will finish with the all-important Alabama 500 on Sunday afternoon.