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Cain: Playoff drivers won’t be playing it ‘safe’ at Talladega

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When the 2017 NASCAR schedule was released last spring, there was a lot of giddy buzz about the slight-but-crucial move of Talladega Superspeedway’s fall race in the playoff schedule.

And the overwhelming consensus was that moving it from a formidable second round “cut-off” race to its new middle-round “bring it on” position in the playoffs is a win-WIN situation.

The playoff drivers especially, will likely approach the race differently, no longer having to play it “safe” — an oxymoron anyway when it comes to restrictor-plate competition.

And the fans can count on even more drama, action and suspense at Talladega — which is hard to imagine.

“Talladega is indeed a wildcard race,” seven-time and reigning Cup champion Jimmie Johnson said. “I’m happy it’s not a cut-off for the Round of 8, but we really need to make it through the race and have a good finish. We don’t want to go to Kansas fighting to stay alive in the hunt for an eighth championship.”

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The right attitude about restrictor-plate racing is a rare treasure in the garage. Quite obviously, those boasting trophies from Talladega or the series’ other big track, Daytona International Speedway, seem to be more eager about this stop in the playoff schedule. Everyone, at least, considers a win a possibility.

“Yeah, I’ve done a lot of different things there and finished a lot of different ways,” Richard Childress Racing driver Austin Dillon said, essentially summing up the overall vibe.

Technique and mindset are invaluable here. And drivers will concede, yes, there is a certain skill set to mastering the tight pack of race cars.

Team Penske seems to have a good grip on the strategy and certainly holds the standard on recent winners at Talladega, with drivers Brad Keselowski (2012, 2014) and Joey Logano (2015, 2016) the only competitors with multiple wins in the last 10 races there. Keselowski scored his dramatic maiden Cup series victory at Talladega in 2009 and has a total of four career wins there — the most at any one track for him.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. has a famous five-victory score at Talladega — the most wins among active drivers — including a historic, not-likely-to-be-repeated four in a row between 2001-03. And the soon-to-retire driver is quite optimistic about making his final start on the speedway.

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Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is making his first run at a Cup title thanks to his two restrictor-plate wins this year — at Talladega in May and at Daytona in July. In fact, Ford has won the last four straight at Talladega — a record streak for the blue oval on these high banks.

“I think there is something you can do,” Chevy driver and former Talladega pole-winner Chase Elliott said. “There are guys that have been consistently winning at those races over the past number of years. Anytime you see something consistently happen, there is obviously not just luck involved in it.

“We have to go there. It counts as much as the rest of them so I kind of look at it as an opportunity. The guys who have embraced it and have been willing to want to figure it out seem to excel and we would like to be among that group.”

Toyota carries a 2017 playoff sweep heading into Talladega, but it’s been seven races and three years (Denny Hamlin in May, 2014) since the manufacturer has won a race on this superspeedway.

Regular Season Champion and last week’s winner at Charlotte, Martin Truex Jr., may have been the happiest in the garage when Talladega’s position in the playoff round was moved. He won four races in 2016 and started on the pole in Talladega only to finish last (40th) with an engine failure and unable to advance to the next round of the playoffs despite being a huge championship favorite.

“We definitely want to perform (at Talladega), but I will say that it’s going to be pretty awesome going to Talladega and say, ‘Oh what the heck, let’s go race,’ ” said Truex, driver of the No. 78 Bass Pro Shops/TRACKER Boats Toyota. “Doesn’t matter if we crash. Talladega has just been a tough track for us to finish. I mean, last year we probably had the best car we’ve ever gone there with, and we ran (41) laps and blew up.

“There are so many unknowns at Talladega, and you can run up front all day long and finish 25th,” Truex added. “You can run up front and run 20 laps and get destroyed. You just never know. There is so much out of your control. To go there and not have to worry about all those things is definitely a good feeling.

“But we’ll go there and try to do everything just the way we did (at Charlotte). We want to be the best we can be, and we want to get those (playoff) bonus points and stop somebody else from getting them. But it will definitely be a little bit of a different feeling to go there and not have that pressure, not have to worry about if we go out early for something crazy.”

That kind of early playoff dominance combined with the new system of awarding stage points does create different strategies in very real and important ways.

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For drivers still needing to accumulate every point possible, there is real motivation to run up front and be there at the conclusion of each stage, instead of patiently waiting until the end of the race to make a move.

The massive scramble we’ve become accustomed to and holding our breath and watching wide-eyed in the closing laps of the race will now take place at least two additional times on Sunday afternoon to close out each stage — the intensity raised with playoff positions on the line.

“I think with the current points system, it’s better to stay up front and try to get as many points in each stage as you can throughout the day,” said Stewart-Haas Racing driver Kevin Harvick, who won at Talladega in April, 2010.

“Obviously, if you don’t qualify well, that makes it much more difficult but, with the new points system, I think you’re going to see a much different race.

“Guys aren’t going to be able to leave 20 potential points and playoff points on the table. They’re going to be racing for every point — that’s a good thing for the fans and should make it an exciting race.”