Talladega Nights comes alive for Stewart-Haas as NASCAR Playoff pressure ramps up at the superspeedway

TALLADEGA, ALABAMA - APRIL 23: Ryan Blaney, driver of the #12 Wurth Ford, Ty Gibbs #, driver of the #54 Monster Energy Toyota, and Ryan Preece, driver of the #41 Hunt Brothers Pizza Ford, lead the field during the NASCAR Cup Series GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway on April 23, 2023 in Talladega, Alabama. (Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images)

Talladega is an unpredictable track at the best of times, but add in the Playoffs?

Twelve drivers are still in the postseason hunt to race for a championship at Phoenix, but that field will be whittled down to just eight after races at Talladega and the equally fickle Charlotte Roval.

For William Byron, there’s no pressure in Sunday’s YellaWood 500 at the famed full-action track, Talladega Superspeedway (2 p.m. ET on NBC, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). He has a guaranteed spot in the Round of 8 by virtue of his win at Texas Motor Speedway. Likewise, Denny Hamlin, with a 37-point advantage over the cutline entering Talladega, has a comfortable cushion and just has to maintain.

Behind Hamlin, Chris Buescher and Christopher Bell have a 22- and 20-point cushion, respectively.

Odds via BetMGM
+1000 – Brad Keselowski
+1000 – Denny Hamlin
+1200 – Ryan Blaney
+1200 – Joey Logano
+1400 – Chase Elliott
+1400 – Bubba Wallace
+1600 – Chris Buescher
+1600 – William Byron
+1600 – Kyle Busch
+2000 – Kyle Larson

Martin Truex has struggled on superspeedways, never managing to get a win on any of the now-three big tracks on the schedule. He certainly wants one, though, he said.

“It’s something we put a lot of work and effort into. I would say it’s probably not my best style of racing,” Truex acknowledged.

“For us, I think that we are always damaged, so if we can ever get to the end of one of those races and are at the front, we would have a chance. If we get that chance again, we need to be able to figure out how to make the right moves,” he continued.

Truex enters Talladega with a 19-point gap to the cutline: comfortable, but certainly one that quickly disappear after an early wreck.

As for the racing itself, Truex expects that the show will be much the same as other superspeedway races this year.

“I think it will be similar to Daytona,” Truex said. “This car, for whatever reason, just likes to be two-wide, there never seems to be a third lane. There’s a lot of two-wide and a lot of track position – hard to make your way up through the field.”

“You never know, though, it all depends on what everyone is wanting to do. How aggressive does everyone want to be, and will we have a chance at a third lane forming? I don’t know,” he admitted.

Ross Chastain knows that the superspeedways are always wildcards.

“Surviving is the most important thing but we can just easily wreck on lap 30. Those last 40 laps are just about holding onto the track position you have, and if it’s your time to crash, it’s your time to crash,” he explained.

However, for the Trackhouse Racing driver who enters Talladega with a twelve-point buffer to the cutline, the strategy remains the same as every other week.

“I just want to run good at the track I’m at,” Chastain said. “When we go to Talladega and the Roval, we’ll just go try to perform like we did at Texas. If it’s not looking good, just what does the next lap take – what does the next breath take. Those races, they give out the same amount of points and we’ll go and race them the same way.”

Below Chastain, Brad Keselowski and Kyle Larson are just above the cutline heading into the race by eight and two points respectively.

23XI Racing teammates Bubba Wallace and Tyler Reddick are both below the cutline by two and three points respectively. But the team knows that either driver can pick up a win at the track: Wallace scored the team’s first-ever win at Talladega in 2021.

Wallace also had a strong run at Texas, showing the strength of his team. He narrowly missed out on the win to a hard-charging William Byron, but he showed that his team has the performance to contend for more wins. Starting the round in the worst points position is always going to be a tough battle for Wallace.

For Ryan Blaney, who enters Talladega in similarly poor position, eleventh in the standings with an eleven-point gap to makeup to the cutline, it’s about minimizing mistakes. His race at Texas was ruined by a speeding penalty that put him deep in the field where he got caught up in a wreck.

“Yeah, it was definitely unfortunate, and I really didn’t think I was speeding,” Blaney said. “It’s one of those things. Those things do happen, but I never thought I was speeding as opposed to other times you think you are and sometimes you get away with it as far as you give enough back, but I just never thought I was to the limit.”

“That obviously ruined our day from my mistake to going in the back and then getting caught up in the wreck after doing a good job by our team all day to get up through the field, to have great strategy calls, get good stage points, looking like we were gonna be able to run for a decent finish, maybe even contend for the win, and to throw it away like that and then just that extra gut punch of getting caught up in the wreck.”

“It was self-induced by the driver, but it’s one of those things that unfortunately we’ll have to battle back from,” he explained.

Though no longer fielding a driver in the Playoffs, Stewart-Haas Racing is bringing the Talladega spirit with two of its teams. Chase Briscoe will drive the No. 14 Old Spice car and Ryan Preece will race with Wonder Bread on his car in a callback to the famous movie Talladega Nights.

The cars look just like the paint schemes in the movie as well, adding to the effect. It’s been over a decade since Kurt Busch decided to run an unsponsored car in another livery from the movie, so SHR’s decision is fresh.

“It doesn’t get much cooler than this,” said Ryan Preece. “The car looks awesome, the firesuit looks so cool. It’s exactly like it and Wonder Bread is fully embracing being back in the sport. I’m so excited to be a part of it and I know the fans are going to love it and want to get all they can out of it.”

It’s especially fitting for Preece: the movie features an incredibly long series of flips at the Talladega superspeedway. Preece had his own massive wreck, flipping ten times, a month ago at Daytona.

For Briscoe, it’s incredibly special as a superfan of the movie.

“Talladega Nights is one of my all-time favorite movies,” Briscoe said. “If you’re a NASCAR driver or fan and you can’t watch it and appreciate the how funny it is, then you’re missing out.”

“I think the movie has really been embraced by fans and it probably brought some news eyes to our sport. I’m excited to be able to embrace the story and have some fun living out my Talladega Nights moment with Ryan,” he added.f

Kevin Harvick, another Stewart-Haas driver, is making his final start at the track of his retirement season. He’s fully prepared to be aggressive to get the first win of his final season, even after being eliminated from the Playoffs, he said.

“You have to be aggressive just for the fact that if you’re not aggressive, it always seems like you’re not going to be where you need to be,” Harvick explained his philosophy for superspeedways. “Nine times out of 10, the aggressor is going to be the guy who comes out on the good side of things just for the fact that you’re making things happen and you’re not waiting for something else to happen.”

“When you wait for something else to happen, that’s usually when you get in trouble because it’s usually someone else’s mess. You can still get in trouble if you’re aggressive, but with the way things are, it’s best to stay aggressive and try to stay up front,” he added.

There will be no practice at the superspeedway. Busch Light Pole Qualifying is set for Saturday at 4:30 p.m. ET on the USA Network.

The Truck Series Playoffs continue at Talladega

The Craftsman Truck Series Playoffs resume at Talladega after a week off. Saturday’s Love’s RV Stop 250 (1 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN, and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) is the second race of the Round of 8 and could be critical to move on.

One thing’s for sure: the defending winner won’t reclaim his crown. Matt DiBenedetto, who won this race last season, is no longer with his Rackley WAR team, having been replaced with Chandler Smith for the remainder of the season.

Indeed, of the Playoff drivers who have extra motivation to win, only Grant Enfinger has done so in the past.

Enfinger enters Talladega above the cutline by fourteen points. It’s a fair gap, but it could all go away very quickly in a wreck early, which is all too common at Talladega.

Carson Hocevar and Christian Eckes enter above the cutline as well by 18 and 29 points respectively. Plus, Bristol winner Corey Heim has automatically punched his ticket to the final championship-deciding round at Phoenix Raceway.

As for the drivers on the other side of the cutline, it’s a much harder slog. Zane Smith and Ben Rhodes need to make up 14 and 19 points, while Nick Sanchez and Ty Majeski are both 22 points behind.

It’s certainly possible for a surprise winner, though, and history would support that: seven different drivers have won in the last seven Truck Series events at the track.

Two extra drivers in the field of note: former series Brett Moffitt will drive the No. 34 for Front Row Motorsports, while Xfinity Series Playoff driver Parker Kligerman will race during an Xfinity Series off-week in the No. 75 Henderson Motorsport truck.

There will be no practice at the superspeedway. Qualifying is slated for Saturday at 9:30 a.m. ET on FS2.

TALLADEGA, ALABAMA – APRIL 23: Johnny Ray’s Semi-Truck flies the American flag during the national anthem prior to the NASCAR Cup Series GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway on April 23, 2023 in Talladega, Alabama. (Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images)

NASCAR Cup Series
Next Race: YellaWood 500
The Place: Talladega Superspeedway
The Date: Sunday, October 1
The Time: 2 p.m. ET
The Purse: $8,806,315
TV: NBC, 1 p.m. ET
Radio: MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR (Channel 90)
Distance: 500 miles (188 Laps); Stage 1 (Ends on Lap 60),
Stage 2 (Ends on Lap 120), Final Stage (Ends on Lap 188)

Next Race: Love’s RV Stop 250
The Place: Talladega Superspeedway
The Date: Saturday, September 30
The Time: 1 p.m. ET
The Purse: $779,790
TV: FS1, 12 p.m. ET
Radio: MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR (Channel 90)
Distance: 250.04 miles (94 Laps); Stage 1 (Ends on Lap 20),
Stage 2 (Ends on Lap 40), Final Stage (Ends on Lap 94)

Owen Johnson