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April 20, 2024

What to Watch: Ford camp holds reason for optimism amid twists, turmoil of Talladega


(⏰ Sunday, 3 p.m. ET | FOX | MRN Radio, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Weekend schedule | TV schedule | Weather tracker | NASCAR 101

Location: Talladega, Alabama
Track length: 2.66 miles
Cup Series race purse: $8,234,125
Race distance: 188 laps | 500.8 miles
Stages: 60 | 120 | 188

Starting lineup: Michael McDowell to lead field to green flag
Pit stall assignments:
See where drivers will pit
Defending winner:
Kyle Busch, April 2023

Key things to watch

Saturday session

Michael McDowell set the pace in Saturday’s only on-track activity for the NASCAR Cup Series, notching his second pole of the season and of his Cup career. The 39-year-old driver posted a final-round lap of 182.022 mph in the No. 34 Front Row Motorsports Ford, just ahead of fellow Ford driver Austin Cindric in his Team Penske No. 2 Mustang and third-fastest Todd Gilliland, his Front Row teammate.

The session was an eventful one before it ever fully started, with the No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet pulled from the qualifying order after competition officials noticed an unapproved adjustment to the roof-rail section as the car was pushed to the grid. The Cup Series points leader will start last in the 38-car field. | Full Saturday recap

Big story line

Friendly territory for Ford?

The debut of Ford’s new Dark Horse Mustang body this year has come with some unexpected sticker shock, with a bare cupboard in the win column in the season’s early going. The 10th race of the Cup Series campaign — treacherous as it might be — holds some hope for the Blue Oval faithful, who have a roster stocked with some of the most capable superspeedway drivers vying to break through in Sunday’s 500-miler at Talladega.

Team Penske’s Ryan Blaney is the most recent Cup Series winner at the 2.66-mile track where he’s won three times. That triumph snapped a three-race streak here by Chevrolet drivers, but the Ford camp also boasts multi-time Talladega winners in RFK Racing’s Brad Keselowski (six wins) and Joey Logano (three) — both adept at navigating the aerodynamic draft at NASCAR’s largest oval.

The emphasis on teamwork across manufacturer lines will be at a premium this weekend as automaker alliances will help the standouts rise in the tightly-woven pack. In the last seven races at drafting tracks, Ford has been a force, leading 965 of 1,452 laps, winning 11 of 14 stages, and claiming 13 of the last 14 front-row starts.

History tells us…

The last seven Cup Series races at Talladega have been won by seven different drivers, so dominance along the order of Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s four-in-a-row run through the 2001-03 seasons hasn’t been a trend. Before Blaney’s victory in a Ford here last fall, three consecutive Chevrolet wins briefly gave that automaker the upper hand. Slightly further back in time, Ford had a near-monopoly on the place, with seven straight wins (2015-18) as part of a 10-out-of-12 run of success.

Even further back in the yellowing pages of the history books, Talladega has had a reputation as a one-off kingmaker for stock-car racing underdogs. Richard Brickhouse, Dick Brooks, Lennie Pond, Ron Bouchard, Bobby Hillin Jr., and Phil Parsons scored upsets with the only wins of their Cup Series careers here.

He may not be the betting favorite to win, but watch out for…

Erik Jones. The Legacy Motor Club driver ranks a pedestrian 19th in the Cup Series standings, but the optimism for Jones’ first top-five finish — or better — of the season has risen at Talladega, belying his 30-1 opening odds.

Jones has led laps in six of the last seven Talladega races, and he has finished among the top 10 in six of his last eight starts here. Jones’ resume also has a drafting-track victory, his 2018 breakthrough at Daytona during his time with Joe Gibbs Racing. Slightly further down the ledger, pole-sitter McDowell made the betting board as a 40-1 shot on the opening list. | Talladega odds

Speed reads

Our biggest pieces of the week — get covered for race day from all angles.

– Turning Point: Trends from Texas, arriving in Talladega | Read article
– Spotter skillset:
Extra emphasis on eyes in the sky for ‘Dega | Read article
– Gilliland a good get: Third-year driver carries Talladega momentum | Read article
– The Field of 16: Last four in, first four out for Cup Series Playoffs | Latest projections
– Looking out for No. 1: Ross Chastain moves past Byron bump | Read article
– Byron’s Texas fallout:
No. 24 driver also set to move on after Chastain tangle | Read article
– Sieg stays the course: Xfinity regular creates buzz after 0.002-second defeat | Read article
– Dash 4 Cash back in action:
Xfinity Series’ four-race initiative continues at ‘Dega | Program overview
– Through the years at Talladega:
Take a trip through legendary moments | Photo gallery
– NASCAR Classics: Picks to click from our Talladega video archives | Read article
– 36 for 36:
NASCAR survivor pool picks for Talladega | Read article
– Fearless prediction:
Racing Insights projects Sunday’s final race results | Read article
– Fantasy Fastlane:
Lineup pointers for Talladega | Sleepers, drivers to avoid
– Paint Scheme Preview:
Springtime designs in bloom at ‘Dega | Pick your favorite
– No. 45 Jordan Brand car dazzles: Reddick’s ride among fresh looks | Read article
– Power Rankings:
Brad Keselowski rises in updated top-20 list | Latest driver rankings

Fast facts

Race-relevant statistics, brought to you by the experts at Racing Insights.

– Two Cup Series drivers share the longest active streak of top-10 finishes at Talladega with three — Ryan Blaney (1st, 2nd, 2nd in the last three races here) and Daniel Suárez (10th, 9th, 8th in that span).
– The leader at the white flag has gone on to win Talladega just once in the last seven Cup Series races here. That happened last fall, when Blaney led the last two laps.
– William Byron holds the current mark for most Cup Series wins at drafting tracks since the Next Gen car’s 2022 debut with three. The most recent came in this year’s Daytona 500.