Coming into this weekend’s Hellmann’s 500 at Talladega Superspeedway, only two drivers — Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick — find themselves safe and in the Round of 8 in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Chase. Winners during the first two races of the round, they’ll be the only ones in the playoff field of 12 not on the verge of a panic attack throughout the race weekend.
The bad news for the rest of the 10 Chasers is that Johnson and Harvick are among the best at restrictor plate racing, and a win by either would keep another automatic berth in the next round away from those who really need it. Drivers like Austin Dillon, Denny Hamlin, Brad Keselowski and Chase Elliott are currently outside the top eight and would need a victory to guarantee their title hopes stay alive.
Now it is conceivable that one, two or even all four drivers could point their way into the next round. Given the unpredictability of Talladega, drivers who assume they’re safe (not that any rational driver would think that) points-wise could fall out of the top eight not only because of a crash, but because of a poorly-timed run to the front near the end of the race.
For the four drivers currently looking to win and advance, Talladega serves as a beacon of hope. Keselowski needed a win in 2014 and delivered, keeping his Cup hopes alive, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. was just inches behind Joey Logano when the caution ended the race last fall, a yellow that ended his title hopes. Can one of the four this year pull off a Keselowski and advance with a win?
Only one of the four drivers outside of the Chase bubble entering Talladega truly needs a victory to clinch a spot in the Round of 8, but the odds say one of the four will win anyway.
Think that sounds crazy? It shouldn’t. Remember, it’s already happened once before, and the one who accomplished that feat in 2014 – Keselowski – is in position to do it again this weekend.
Keselowski and Hamlin enter this weekend’s Hellman’s 500 looking for a Chase-advancing win after claiming each of the prior three restrictor-plate races in 2016. Hamlin’s win was the biggest, coming in the season-opening Daytona 500, but it’s Keselowski’s two victories that provide the strongest hope for a Talladega triumph.
The Michigander’s run began in the spring race down in Alabama, where he won for the fourth time since 2009, making him the winningest driver on this weekend’s entry list for the 500-mile race. Keselowski followed that win with his first victory at Daytona International Speedway in July’s Coke Zero 400.
Prior races on the year aren’t typically much to acknowledge at restrictor-plate tracks, but Keselowski’s dominant performances in each of the aforementioned victories make them a point of reference for Sunday. Keselowski toyed with the field in each race, leading the most laps and cruising to both victories as he kept his competitors at bay.
With Earnhardt, Jr., out for the year, Keselowski is the favorite heading to Talladega by most metrics. And given the 2012 NSCS champion’s place in the standings, he’s likely going to drive all-out to live up to the odds.
On the other end of the spectrum, Hamlin’s Talladega results read much like the South’s tornado odds – unpredictable. Hamlin has more finishes outside of the top 20 than top 10s in his 11-year career, but the Virginian also has a handful of top 5s and even a victory at the 2.5-mile oval back in 2014.
Yes, the pack still has a ton of other potential victors – defending winner Logano comes to mind – but when combined Hamlin and Keselowski offer great odds to snag a victory. Throw in the slight chances of Chase newcomers Dillon and Elliott and it should serve as no surprise if one of the four drivers makes their way to Victory Lane in Alabama.
Aaron says the odds are in the favor for the four drivers, but from a pure stats perspective, it’s likely one of the other 36 drivers in the field pull off the victory. If that sounds like hyperbole — 36 other drivers have a chance to win — it’s not. Plate racing is the most unpredictable, and while yearly frontrunners tend to run fast it’s not out of the realm of possibility that an underfunded team wins. Just take a look at what Trevor Bayne and David Ragan were able to do earlier this decade: win in part-time or smaller teams.
Looking at the last five Talladega races, drivers like Josh Wise, Paul Menard, Sam Hornish Jr., Casey Mears and Landon Cassill have all made appearances in the top 10—some more than others. All it takes is one good run and they could have found themselves standing in victory lane. Relative newcomers like Alex Bowman – driving for Earnhardt this weekend – even have a legitimate shot at taking home the checkers. And combine them with plate stalwarts like Logano, Matt Kenseth, and Jamie McMurray, and the odds that one of the bottom four Chasers win get slimmer.
But it isn’t just how stacked the other 36 drivers are this weekend. No, it’s how the bottom four Chasers have fared at the plate tracks. Keselowski has been a stud this season, winning two of the three races contested at Talladega and Daytona. But history is against him: the last time a driver won three plate races in a season was 1990, when Dale Earnhardt swept Talladega and won Daytona in July.
Hamlin, too, has been strong on the plate tracks, but if he’s not on fire he’s lackluster. Remember last season’s roof-hatch debacle? Knocked him out of the Chase. Hamlin also has a tendency to play it safe in the draft and fall behind, something he can’t do this weekend if he wants a shot at the victory.
The other two drivers – Elliott and Dillon – are strong on the plate tracks but have relatively little experience in the format. Combine that with their lack of a Cup win and it’s a long shot to believe they will win to advance this weekend.
Even more important, given Keselowski’s status as a real threat for the title, it wouldn’t be surprising at all to see the majority of the field – at least the Chasers – not helping him out in the draft. If there’s any one track where you can influence the outcome and knock a driver out of the playoffs cleanly, it’s Talladega. Don’t be surprised if the only help Keselowski gets is from the Ford camp.
Winning is everything in the playoffs, and one driver will definitely be tasting victory by Sunday evening. It just won’t be one of the bottom four in the Chase.