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Racing Roundtable: Three burning questions ahead of Talladega tussle

With one zany, wild-card race in the NASCAR Playoffs already in the books with the Charlotte road course’s debut, there’s barely time to catch your breath before the next: this weekend’s Monster Energy Series tilt at Talladega Superspeedway.

The Alabama speedplant has long been a scrambler for postseason standings, dreams and body panels. The same is expected for the series’ second Talladega visit this season for Sunday’s 500 (2 p.m. ET, NBC, MRN, SiriusXM). staff writers Jessica Ruffin and Zack Albert will be trackside for this weekend’s activities. Before they head to the Yellowhammer State, here are three burning questions up for debate ahead of the fifth event in the 10-race playoffs.

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1. Team Penske has won five of the last six Talladega races. Can the organization do it again, and if so, who’s the favorite among their three-car stable?

JR: Joey Logano has won half of the last six races at Talladega Superspeedway and has led multiple laps in every race there since 2015. Logano also ranks fourth among active drivers with total laps led at Talladega (266), a number higher than both of his Team Penske teammates. His recent success there bodes well for him, too; in the series’ last trip to Talladega, Logano led a race-high 70 laps to notch the win. With a spot in the Round of 8 on the line, he’ll look to rekindle that Talladega magic again.

ZA: Talladega still ranks at or near the top of the list for unpredictability, but Brad Keselowski has made a habit of being a pre-race favorite. His five victories in 19 career Talladega starts makes for an admirable 26.3 winning percentage, and the combination of team (Penske), car (Ford), engine (Roush Yates) and spotter (Joey Meier) has been stellar on restrictor-plate tracks. And that’s not counting the driver, who has been among the most cunning at maneuvering through — and usually leading — the pack. There are no guarantees at Talladega, but Keselowski and Team Penske are as close as it gets.

2. Who is the playoff driver currently outside the cutoff line most likely to rebound from last weekend’s race at Dover?

JR: Team Penske may rule Talladega, but Clint Bowyer may be the next best — with two victories there, the No. 14 wheelman is the only non-Penske multi-time winner in the playoff field and has earned 12 top 10s in his 25 Talladega starts. Bowyer’s position outside the cutoff line should cause him to be more aggressive to make up points and go for the win. Teamwork also is crucial at Talladega and Bowyer has a strong stable at Stewart-Haas Racing with two champions among three other fast cars to draft with his No. 14 Ford.

ZA: Leave it to the driver backed furthest into the corner to fight his way out. That’s the weekend mission for Alex Bowman, who sits last among the 12 remaining championship-eligible drivers after opening the second round with a crash-related 28th-place finish. Bowman’s best chance at advancing to the Round of 8 comes this weekend at Talladega, where his No. 88 Chevrolet has historically run strong. Mixing a fast ride with the aggressive approach he’ll likely need to adopt could bring a positive result come Sunday.

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3. Talladega has yielded several surprise visitors to Victory Lane. Who’s an underdog pick outside of the postseason picture who could spoil Sunday’s party?

JR: David Ragan is sneaky consistent at a place that’s not so consistent. Looking at the past three races at Talladega, he holds the third-best average finish (8.7), which is better than any other non-playoff driver during that period. It’s also stronger than any of the Big 3 or the Team Penske drivers. Both of Ragan’s wins in the Monster Energy Series have come at restrictor-plate tracks (his most recent at Talladega in 2013), proving he knows how to navigate the delicate draft of ‘Dega.

ZA: Digging further down the list of prospective Sunday Cinderellas, Michael McDowell carries some restrictor-plate momentum that could place him in the Talladega record books. The 33-year-old driver led a career-high 20 laps in a breakout showing at Daytona in July, running among the contenders until a late-stage crash thwarted his upset bid. His Front Row Motorsports team has some history with the Alabama track, with teammate David Ragan leading a 1-2 finish for the organization’s only victory in 2013.