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September 27, 2023

Talladega is always a wild card for playoff contenders

A pack of NASCAR Cup Series cars race at Talladega
Chris Graythen
Getty Images

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Talladega Superspeedway — nestled in the Birmingham, Alabama, hill country — is fast and furious, a bucket-list venue for NASCAR fans and a resume-maker for NASCAR drivers. Sunday’s YellaWood 500 (2 p.m. ET, NBC, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) plays an important role not only in the sport’s longstanding Talladega tradition but also in the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series championship.

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The 2.66-mile Talladega is the largest and fastest oval track in the sport. It is its own brand of competition in strategy and bravado. And inevitably after hours of dramatic back-and-forth, it’s the final handful of laps that will either secure a playoff driver’s position in the next round or triumphantly represent a career-maker for one of the other drivers hoping to chase the championship another year.

Even among the variety of playoff venues, Talladega is perpetually top-of-mind with the competitors.

“I don’t think you can pick a guy that is a favorite at Talladega because you never know what can happen there,” said Team Penske’s Ryan Blaney, a back-to-back Talladega (2019-20) winner and current playoff driver.

“I think the best thing that we have talked about for that race is to try to control it like we have in the past and get a few of our cars up there and control the front of the pack. Hopefully, you can maintain that. We kind of see it is difficult to go from the back to the front now at speedways, so you try not to bury yourself.”

Talladega represents an interesting phenomenon among competitors. No matter what their thoughts are on the tightly packed high-speed racing, it seems more advantageous to simply embrace the challenge.

It’s one of the few places where reality actually lives up to legend. And Talladega is legendary.

From the beginning, this track has claimed large-font headlines. Richard Brickhouse won the inaugural event in 1969 — by a full seven seconds over Jim Vandiver — in a race that featured many non-NASCAR regulars. Richard Petty, Bobby Allison and LeeRoy Yarborough had all refused to race in protest of a worrisome tire situation.

The drama and action only intensified from that dramatic start with Talladega earning its place as one of the most iconic race tracks in all of auto racing.

The late seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Dale Earnhardt is the all-time winningest driver with 10 victories — including the last great triumph in his career, winning this fall race in 2000 by passing 17 cars in the final five laps for the victory. And his son, fellow NASCAR Hall of Famer and current NBC Sports broadcaster, Dale Earnhardt Jr., would nobly carry on that Talladega tradition earning five wins of his own including a record four consecutive from 2001-04.

In the last 10 years, there has been a range of drivers who specifically fare well on the high banks and those who count as surprise winners able to take advantage of the unpredictable pack racing there.

The defending race winner, Hendrick Motorsports’ Chase Elliott has two wins at Talladega in the last decade.

Current playoff driver Brad Keselowski leads active drivers with six Talladega trophies, earning his very first career NASCAR Cup Series win there in 2009. Six of the current 12 playoff competitors — Blaney, Keselowski, Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Bubba Wallace and Ross Chastain — have Talladega victories.

And Busch, who earned his first Talladega win in 2008 and his second this spring — a span of 30 races — makes no bones about the competitive challenge of the big track.

“Talladega is a stress-ball of emotions,” said Busch, who goes into the weekend’s race ranked last (12th) in the playoff standings after a DNF on Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway.

Hendrick Motorsports driver William Byron picked up his series-best sixth win of the season last weekend at Texas to secure his position in the next round of the playoffs. Although that gives him some breathing room in this second race of the three-race round, he says he absolutely expects Sunday’s race to have a different, unmistakable feel than the spring non-playoff race there.

“It is (a different vibe) for sure,” said Byron, whose best Talladega finish is runner-up in the 2021 spring race.

“I think it’s even more difficult to get track position. That’s the thing I’ve noticed about Talladega in the fall. It’s not like you can just drive up there and steal something from somebody. It’s definitely going to be tough getting to the front, and I feel like we’ve personally struggled with that in the past. It’s not been our best superspeedway race in the fall.

“I think being a playoff race, it’s important to get up to the front and control the race. It’s not like the spring where there’s a lot of different agendas and not everyone is taking it as serious.

“It’s definitely intense.”