There’s a certain amount of crazy that’s associated with Talladega Superspeedway, a track with tendencies toward three- and four-wide racing, wild finishes, underdog winners and multi-car stack-ups.
NASCAR’s schedule makers tried to relieve some of the pressure on the crazy valve this year, moving the Alabama track’s date in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs from an elimination cut-off point to the middle event in the three-race Round of 12.
Denny Hamlin, however, has a proposal to swing the nutso pendulum the other way, creating an incentive-laden free-for-all on NASCAR’s biggest oval.
“I think it should be the last race before the playoffs,” Hamlin said Tuesday from the NASCAR Hall of Fame. “I think that is the ultimate wild-card spot, and if you want to see the craziest Talladega race ever, it would be right before the playoffs started. You’re going to have 28 cars or so with their last opportunity to make it into the playoffs. To me, it’s a no-brainer where it should be on the schedule, but getting the tracks to agree to something like that is going to be very hard.”
Hamlin’s remarks came after he helped dignitaries unveil a FedEx-Walgreens paint scheme for his No. 11 Toyota for Martinsville Speedway later this month. Looming first is this Sunday’s Alabama 500 (2 p.m. ET, NBC, MRN, SiriusXM), the fifth of 10 races in the postseason and a potential ping-pong-ball tumbler for most of the dozen drivers still in the running for the championship.
NASCAR’s 10-race playoff format has evolved since its debut in 2004, but has always had Talladega in the heart of its mid-autumn swing. Hamlin’s proposal would remove the only restrictor-plate track from the postseason, but such a schedule shift would open the door toward tantalizing possibilities as a last-chance qualifier.
The horsepower-sapping engine rules for Talladega serve to level the playing field in ways few other tracks do, bunching cars into tight packs and producing a spawning ground for first-time winners. That “anything can happen” atmosphere would only ratchet up the stakes of a wild-card race for the final playoff berth, with bubble drivers in protection mode against 11th-hour Cinderellas with double-parked pumpkin carriages.
Hamlin says he’s all for shaking things up, and that the idea has been broached in discussions among his fellow drivers and NASCAR officials.
“It’s been floated. It’s been floated with a side of push in it,” said Hamlin, who is part of the 10-member drivers’ council. “I think that it would be the ultimate cut-off race. Talk about not knowing whether you’re in or out until the last lap, that would be the race.”
In the meantime, the Playoffs field will have to contend with another new wrinkle for this season: the dangling carrot of stage points awarded at the two midrace intermissions. The added premium for finishing among the top 10 at those intervals should subvert the strategy of falling to the rear of the field to avoid multi-car crashes.
It’s a tactic that Joe Gibbs Racing employed with three of its four entries in this race last season, with Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards all playing it safe while Hamlin — “on an island by myself” in a precarious points position — raced near the head of the pack.
This year, Hamlin says, the true chaos may unfold late in the race, but that stage-point incentives have the possibility of stirring up the drama early on.
“I think everyone’s going to race up front, battling for stage points. I think that they moved the schedule to make that a middle that it’s a good thing. It’s going to do all the things that they wanted it to do as far as competition-wise, there’s no laying back, there’s no ‘let’s just ride this day out.’ Obviously, it’s going to make for exciting ends of stages in my opinion, and that’s where you have to be really aware of the wrecks that could possibly happen.”
Should Hamlin make it through the Talladega-to-Kansas thicket that completes the Round of 12, he’ll find some familiar turf at Martinsville to kick off the postseason’s final three-race elimination. Of his 31 career premier-series wins, five have come at the .526-mile track in his home state.
When he returns, Hamlin will have a new look to his No. 11 ride, a one-race special to promote a new association between primary sponsor FedEx and Walgreens.
“I would nominate this for my permanent paint scheme,” Hamlin said, standing behind a car with splashes of white integrated into the predominantly purple-and-orange design. “It’s cool for FedEx to be able to use their NASCAR platform to unveil great partnerships like this. Yes, there’s extra pressure. If I make it to the Round of 8, there will be quadruple the pressure to go win at that race track, so nothing would be better than to win in this car.”