Talladega Superspeedway is always a wildcard, and Sunday’s Playoff duel proved no exception. A winner from below the cutline while most contenders struggled shook up the standings as the series approaches a cutoff race that will end four drivers’ hopes for a championship.
Each driver’s performance at Talladega is scored on a 1-to-10 scale, with a score of 1 reserved for a terrible performance with no redeeming qualities and 10 reserved for a perfect and dominating performance. Performance over the entire weekend is factored in, since qualifying results make race days easier or more difficult.
Talladega was the second race of the Round of 12. Continuing a strong Playoff performance was essential to put drivers in strong positions heading into the treacherous Charlotte Roval. This rating gives an indication of each driver’s relative performance throughout the Playoffs.
Of note, finishing positions have been updated to take Kevin Harvick’s disqualification into account.
9.5 – Ryan Blaney (1st)
Ryan Blaney controlled the race as much as any superspeedway race can be controlled. After starting tenth, he got to the lead with help from Penske teammate Joey Logano by lap 12 and held on to win Stage 1, picking up valuable points. But it wasn’t the points that ended up mattering, since Blaney was able to lock his spot into the next round by picking up the win.
In true Blaney fashion at Talladega, it was incredibly close: in fact, a .012-second margin of victory is his largest-ever at the track. But he was in position in the final two laps, running up front, and withstood a block from Kevin Harvick with a crossover move that put him in position to get pushed across the line. Superspeedway races are unpredictable by nature, with even the best drivers frequently sidelined by wrecks, but Blaney looks like he’s in control more often than not when the Cup Series visits Talladega.
9.5 – William Byron (2nd)
William Byron was the only Playoff who didn’t have to worry all weekend at Talladega, having won in the opening race of the Round of 12 at Texas which locked in his spot in the next round. So finishing second was just a nice bonus. And he made it a runner-up sweep, finishing second in both Stage 1 and Stage 2 as well.
Byron looked strong all race, battling Martin Truex Jr. for the lead by lap 20 of 188 after starting eighth. His six wins are double what any other driver has managed to do, and right now it looks like Byron can win anywhere. He was nearly there at the end as the front of the pack scrambled for position in a tense final two laps, but ended up behind Ryan Blaney, pushing him across the line.
7 – Denny Hamlin (3rd)
Denny Hamlin’s day at Talladega was one of recovery. He started twelfth and wasn’t able to get points in Stage 1, running further back in the field. However, he ended up much too far back after a pit road pass-through penalty for too-fast-entering during green-flag pitstops midway through Stage 2, which took him out of the draft. When the pack caught him at the end of Stage 2, the No. 11 driver forced his way in, sending the field scattering but giving him the position.
It took two more cautions before Hamlin ultimately secured the free pass in Stage 3, but once he was back on the lead lap, he cut through the pack. He ended up eighth on the backstretch of the final lap, but when Riley Herbst got turned to start the big wreck, Hamlin stayed to the outside and picked up positions. It puts Hamlin in an incredibly comfortable points position heading into the Roval, with a 50-point cushion, the best of any driver who hasn’t won yet this round. Hamlin does not have to worry about making the Round of 8. Hamlin showed he had the speed, but there was no need for the mistake.
6 – Kyle Larson (15th)
Kyle Larson picked up the stage points but couldn’t match it at the end. He finished third in Stage 1 and seventh in Stage 2. That was helpful, since Larson entered Talladega just two points above the cutline after wrecking at Texas while battling for the lead.
Though he finished fifteenth, it was better than most of his Playoff rivals, and adding the stage points to that means he enters the Roval with a reasonable 15-point gap to the cutline. Larson made his Round of 12 much harder than it needed to be by wasting a strong run at Texas, but proved he can still pull out a solid-enough performance on a day when his rivals mostly all struggled.
5.5 – Tyler Reddick (16th)
Tyler Reddick and 23XI Racing teammate Bubba Wallace had help from Denny Hamlin, who pushed the pair all race, but neither of the two were able to finish up front with him. Reddick did earn a point for finishing tenth in Stage 2, but ended up back in 16th. It means he leaves Talladega and enters the Roval with a two-point deficit to make up, but that’s perfectly manageable – and it’s actually one point closer to the cutline than Reddick entered.
“I don’t think we are really missing anything really… I feel like we just had a solid car. The pit strategy under green flag conditions didn’t really work out for us too well. Me and Bubba kind of just took a chance hoping the bottom and the middle would choke themselves on the restart,” Reddick explained. “Outside by two is not really bad for us, I don’t think, as long as we left better than we came in, I felt good about our chances. It’s pretty straight forward, right?”
5.5 – Martin Truex Jr. (18th)
Martin Truex Jr. was fast early, up battling for the lead with Ryan Blaney and William Byron by lap 20 of 188. He never managed to continue that, getting shuffled back all race, failing to secure any stage points and finishing 18th. He entered the round with a huge Playoff points bonus from earning the regular season championship, and has already slipped in the standings to sixth with just 17 points over the cutline. Truex needs to stop the bleeding as the Playoffs continue and the points get increasingly tighter: now is not the time in the season to struggle.
“It was alright,” Truex summed up his day. “Just never in the right lane at the right time. We were stuck on the bottom there in the end, I think with three to go we were up to 10th or 12th and three laps later we were 19th. Nowhere to make any moves, just everything was clogged and you just kind of rode there and got what you could. Tough day, but I think we are in good shape going to the ROVAL. We can take care of business there, just need a good day.”
5 – Christopher Bell (14th)
Christopher Bell suffered right-front damage that lasted all race from the wreck at the end of Stage 1. It impacted Busch, Stenhouse, and Chastain more, but Bell was certainly affected, and he had to repair damage throughout the day. Bell was never really able to run up front, and, though he tried to make a move by going wide as the field strung out for the finish, he couldn’t advance position except over the cars that wrecked.
It was an underwhelming day overall for the driver who started 15th, but he still leaves in reasonably good points position, especially considering that he was the fourth-best finishing Playoff driver. Bell enters the Roval fourth in the standings with a 22-point gap, perfectly manageable for last year’s Roval winner.
4.5 – Chris Buescher (19th)
Chris Buescher’s RFK Racing team was all over the pack at Talladega. The team had a mixed bag in qualifying, with Buescher starting 24th while his teammate Brad Keselowski had enough speed to start 6th – unusual for the team that has made running together its hallmark late this season. But they stuck together in the race, initially at the rear after dropping back in hopes of avoiding early wrecks. When those wrecks didn’t come, the two Fords showed they could move through the pack by going from outside the top-thirty in Stage 1 to inside the top-five in Stage 2, although they failed to pick up stage points in the end.
In fact, Buescher was able to get to the lead for a few laps in Stage 3. However, he also failed to pick up many points at all at the end, which wasn’t helped by his teammate’s wreck: Keselowski spun Hocevar just in front of him, forcing Buescher to slow, and he made light contact. Buescher then climbed a bit to 19th by the end, but it’s still enough to leave Talladega with a respectable 19-point gap to the cutline.
4 – Bubba Wallace (23rd)
Help from Denny Hamlin most of the race couldn’t bring Bubba Wallace or 23XI Racing teammate Tyler Reddick to the front. In fact, Wallace had a worse race than Reddick, failing to earn any stage points and finishing back in 23rd. He also had a scary moment on pit road, when he nearly hit Stenhouse in Stage 3 pitstops while running the low line on pit road like Ty Gibbs did at Texas. However, he managed to swerve and avoid, but those moments are not helpful in the postseason.
Wallace has nine points to make up at the Charlotte Roval. It’s a track that he’s been up-and-down at, although his results have improved year-by-year, so maybe the pattern will continue. Either way, it’s a strong postseason run for the driver who began the Playoffs in the 16th and final spot to still be in contention to make the Round of 8. Wallace just needs a little more.
3- Kyle Busch (25th)
Kyle Busch really had nowhere to go when Ricky Stenhouse ran out of fuel in front of him. With the pack racing back to the line four-wide in the hunt for stage points, he ended up hitting Ross Chastain when he bounced off the wall with no real alternative. The wreck meant Busch had damage to deal with all race, including left-front fender damage that led to his fender breaking apart on track in Stage 3. Busch could manage no better than 25th, and enters the Roval 26 points below the cutline, effectively in must-win position after bad luck at Texas too.
“I hate it for them,” Busch said of the cars involved in the wreck. “It’s what happens every time at the end of a stage… The car was fine. When I could make moves, get in good positions and put myself in good spots, I could get up towards the front. My chess match is apparently horrible or I get hung-out every time it comes down to the end and we just lose spots.”
2.5 – Ross Chastain (37th)
Ross Chastain ended up at the wrong place at the absolute wrong time at Talladega. Every driver has to know that the chance of getting caught up in a wreck is higher at the big tracks, but with points awarded for stages, the impact can be minimized with a strong performance throughout the race. Chastain was on track to do just that. After starting 31st, he’d moved himself up to sixth in the closing lap of Stage 1, in position to pick up a good points haul and maintain the twelve-point buffer to the cutline he’d entered Talladega with.
But when Ricky Stenhouse ran out of fuel right in front of Kyle Busch, sending Busch into the wall before overcorrecting into Chastain while the field ran four-wide to avoid, the day ended with no points and only his second DNF of the season. It’s a bad time to have that. Chastain didn’t blame any of the other drivers, acknowledging that it was just part of superspeedway racing. But regardless of what it was, he leaves Talladega ten points below the cutline: not a comfortable position for any driver at the chaotic Charlotte Roval.
2 – Brad Keselowski (32nd)
Brad Keselowski, to his credit, maximized the points early to negate the loss from a wreck. Unfortunately, he could well have avoided the wreck that took him out of the race, when a too-hard push on rookie driver Carson Hocevar spun the No. 42 car into several other cars, one of which took out Keselowski.
Still, Keselowski won Stage 1 and was able to walk away with a reasonable number of points for a DNF. In fact, it’s enough to leave Talladega in about the same position he entered: two points above the cutline, down from eight – putting him in bad position for the Roval, something Keselowski understands fully. Keselowski should probably aim for finishing at the Roval though to maximize his chances, and avoiding overly aggressive pushes, something Keselowski is making a habit of at superspeedways in the Next Gen car, would be helpful.
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