Race Weekend Central

Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2021 YellaWood 500 at Talladega Superspeedway

What happened?

Bubba Wallace won the weather-shortened YellaWood 500 at Talladega Superspeedway on Monday (Oct. 4) after rain halted the race, 117 laps into the 188-lap event.

Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, Kurt Busch and Christopher Bell rounded out the top five finishers.

How did it happen?

Cars rolled off pit road on Sunday–and then it started pouring on the pace laps, ultimately pushing the start to Monday afternoon. Once the race got going at just after 1 p.m. ET on Monday, pole sitter Denny Hamlin led the field to green before being passed on the opening lap by teammate Kyle Busch with a push from Chase Elliott.

The Fords quickly linked up, sending Logano, Kevin Harvick and Matt DiBenedetto to the lead in the early laps. Another Ford driver, Cole Custer, got out front at lap 20 and led through the competition caution at lap 26. Six of the top eight cars were Fords at the yellow.

On the restart at lap 30, Harvick took over the lead. It continued to change hands as there was two-wide racing from the front to the back, with Kurt Busch and Hamlin also leading laps early in stage two.

Future teammates Keselowski and Chris Buescher began working together midway through the stage, controlling the field from the front. There was a train on the outside as the stage inched toward its conclusion. With seven to go, Buescher made a move past Keselowski and took the lead. Just three laps later, the first wreck occurred. William Byron got into Justin Allgaier, who lost control and spun right into Kyle Larson and the outside wall. Chase Briscoe was also collected.

The first stage ended under caution, with Buescher picking up his second stage win of the season.

Stage two restarted on lap 65 with Logano taking the top spot again. It didn’t stay green for long, as Larson brought out another yellow when he cut a tire and hit the outside wall due to the damage suffered in the previous accident.

Everyone pitted with one to go under caution to top off on fuel in an effort to stretch it to the end of the stage, but the race didn’t even restart. It was red flagged due to rain in turns one and two on lap 74.

The race restarted after a nearly 20-minute delay, but rain remained in the area and it seemed like it would be a race to halfway. It restarted at lap 78, and there was constant three-wide action with lead changes every few laps. No one led more than 11 consecutive laps in the race.

Throughout the second stage, Hamlin and Bell controlled the bottom lane while Harvick and Alex Bowman controlled the top lane. On lap 99 — just past the lap 94 halfway mark — Elliott bumped Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who then bumped Bowman and sent him head-on into the outside wall. A massive pileup ensued, collecting Ross Chastain, Tyler Reddick, Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch, Ryan Preece, BJ McLeod and Josh Bilicki

With rain hovering in the area, the race restarted at lap 104 with Stenhouse and Bell leading the field. A third outside lane formed early in the run, led by Kurt Busch and Wallace. Wallace got around Busch for the lead with seven laps to go in the second stage.

Just a few laps later, Preece got out of shape in the draft and spun into the outside wall. Byron and DiBenedetto got caught up in the aftermath.

Rain picked up during the caution and cars were ultimately brought to pit road for a red flag at lap 117. Nearly 40 minutes later, the race was called due to steady rainfall.

The win was the first of Wallace’s career in his 143rd career start. It was also the first for 23XI Racing in the organization’s 31st start.

Who stood out?

I don’t want to hear anything about this being an undeserved win for Wallace. This victory was massive on so many different levels for the 27-year-old. First and foremost, winning your first career race is always special — regardless of how it happened. Logano got his first career win in a rain-shortened race, so let’s not complain about this being a cheap win. Wallace held off charges from multiple lanes in the final five laps to keep the lead once the caution flew. Everyone was racing with the knowledge that rain was coming and whoever was leading would likely win. And this isn’t some fluke — Wallace has three top-fives at Daytona and is always a contender at drafting tracks. The race was not fixed, despite what you might see across comment sections and social media replies this week.

Historically, the result is even bigger for NASCAR. Wallace is just the second African-American to win a Cup Series race, the first since Hall of Famer Wendell Scott in 1963 (also the year of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech). NASCAR badly needs to shed its stereotype of a racist, non-inclusive sport created strictly for white males. Wallace’s win doesn’t change that in an instant, but results like this can change things for a generation of children watching him win a race. Even if you aren’t a fan of Wallace, this win is a good thing for the sport long-term.

Keselowski continues to prove he’s the sport’s best superspeedway racer, and now he has a chance to advance to the Round of 8. The No. 2 was near the front all day, and he was in position to fight for the win before the final caution. Keselowski, a six-time Talladega winner, routinely finds himself out front at the Alabama track. He led 13 laps and scored more points (52) than anyone in the field. I wouldn’t bet against him in a single race at the venue.

Unfortunately for Keselowski, that was the last superspeedway race of the year and he’s been off since announcing his impending departure from Team Penske. Road courses have especially hampered the No. 2 this year, with one top-five and four finishes of 15th or worse in six road course races. Keselowski is in the best points position he can ask for right now, but he’s in no way comfortable heading to the Roval.

If you don’t think Keselowski is the best superspeedway racer, I’d be happy to concede that title to Logano. Like his teammate, Logano was out front seemingly all day, leading nine laps and scoring more points (51) than anyone besides Keselowski. Logano and Keselowski were seventh and eighth in the standings, respectively, entering Talladega. Now they’re right near the top. Team Penske has to be pleased with the results even if its cars didn’t visit victory lane.

Who fell flat?

Bowman is in a must-win position entering next week after another wreck at Talladega. The No. 48 has been bitten by bad luck since the playoffs began, and Talladega was no different, finishing 38th. Bowman was running up front when he was sent into the wall, marking the fourth time in five playoff races that he’s finished outside the top 10. At 52 points below the cutoff, it’ll take a victory next week to keep his championship hopes alive. Bowman has three top-10s in three starts and a 4.7 average finish at the Roval, so anything remains possible.

Byron is nearly as screwed as his teammate Bowman, facing a longshot to advance to the Round of 8. As bad as Bowman’s luck has been, Byron’s has probably been worse. He had a top-three and potentially race-winning car at Las Vegas last week before a series of unfortunate events and an 18th-place finish. He settled for 36th at Talladega after being collected in the final caution. Luckily for Byron, road courses have been a strength in his early career. He finished sixth at the Roval each of the last two years.

What did this race prove?

23XI Racing has a real chance to develop into a contending organization. This win specifically won’t be the turning point — obviously it was at a superspeedway in a rain-shortened race. But this is a momentum shifter for the team, especially heading into 2022. The NextGen car could be an equalizer, at least that’s been NASCAR’s stated goal. They’re also adding former champion Kurt Busch, which not only helps on the track but off the track with his years of experience. 23XI won’t just turn into a Hendrick or Joe Gibbs-type team overnight. I think it’s fair to set higher expectations for next year, though, potentially developing into the level of a team like Chip Ganassi Racing or Richard Childress Racing. That level below the powerhouse teams is certainly attainable with two competitive cars on the track in 2022.

It was foolish to expect wins right away, even if that’s what team owner Michael Jordan wanted. Wallace’s average finish in the first 14 races this season was 22.1. His average finish in the past 17 races is 16.1. The improvement has been gradual, but it’s been noticeable when you break it down. New crew chief Bootie Barker — who also got his first win in his 484th (!) race atop the pit box — has been a steadying force since taking over just three weeks ago, with finishes of 16th, 16th and first. All signs are points up for this race team for 2022 and beyond.

Despite the historic result, it’s OK for fans to feel somewhat cheated by its conclusion. Talladega is known for big wrecks, exciting action and great finishes. To see a race end over 70 laps early, after being delayed a day and not racing to a specific finish is…disappointing. The forecast was terrible basically from Sunday through Wednesday, so obviously getting the race in was most important. It’s just fair to still be hungry for more after that type of race. This is a much different story if NASCAR told them they were racing to the end of the stage or if it had stayed green until the end of the stage. 

Paint scheme of the race

With the Air Force as a sponsor, Richard Petty Motorsports has been able to run some memorable and meaningful paint schemes. Talladega was no different, as Erik Jones drove a special car honoring Air Force Recruiting Special Warfare.

Better than last time?

Last year, there were two multi-car wrecks in the first 10 laps — a sign of what was to come. There was an even bigger wreck involving multiple playoff drivers in the final laps of the first stage, which Chris Buescher won. The second stage was clean until there were 13 to go when a 10-car accident hit. The third stage had more calamity, including two crashes with five or more cars in overtime. DiBenedetto led Byron and Buescher at the white flag, but it was Hamlin making a pass under the yellow line exiting turn four to win. The ending was entertaining and controversial, though the product of the race suffered after losing so many good cars.

This year, the race was pushed to Monday due to rain and cut short due to rain. There was some intense racing with the rain looming all throughout the race, but it ultimately wasn’t the type of exciting finish or final few laps that we’re used to seeing. Wallace’s win will no-doubt be remembered in the history books. I just believe the circumstances didn’t make for a great race, with the constant worry of rain and race being called with still 71 laps to go. A full race always beats a shortened race, so 2020 gets the edge.

Playoff picture

Wallace’s win doesn’t advance him in the playoffs because he did not make the field. He’s the first non-playoff driver to win a playoff race since Jamie McMurray at Talladega in 2013, when there were only 12 playoff drivers. What the win did do, though, is bunch up the bubble heading to an elimination race. Hamlin is the only driver qualified for the Round of 8, and the other seven spots are all up for grabs.

Larson (+22) has the lowest cushion he’s had since the playoffs started — one miscue at the Roval could send him home way earlier than expected. Logano (+21) gained 15 points on the bubble with his third-place run, Keselowski (+20) and Truex (+20) are tied for fourth and Blaney (+15) sits sixth. Elliott (+9) and Kyle Busch (+9) are tied for seventh, holding the final two spots above the cut line. Harvick (-9) is the only driver below the bubble with a realistic chance to advance on points, while Bell (-28), Byron (-44) and Bowman (-52) are facing virtual must-wins.

Here’s the full standings and the playoff standings entering Charlotte:

What’s next?

The Round of 12 concludes next weekend at Charlotte Motor Speedway for the fourth annual race on the ROVAL. This is the lone road course race in the playoffs after six such events in the regular season. The Bank of America ROVAL 400 will go green on Sunday (Oct. 10) at 2 p.m. ET on NBC, as Elliott looks for his third consecutive win at the track.

About the author

Frontstretch columnist | Website

Logan Reardon, 23, has followed NASCAR since before he could talk. He's taken his passion for the sport and turned it into a budding writing career. Logan also works for NBC Sports as an editor and the Seattle Seahawks as a freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter at @LoganReardon20.

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John W.

I don’t quite understand how being the second person to do something makes it historic.

Kevin in SoCal

First time in the modern era, and the first time it’s actually celebrated at the track.

Bill B

What a gyp of a Talladega race… I want my money back. :)
No big ones, no cars upside down, no multiple GWC finishes, no pissed off drivers and barely half the laps run. The race might as well have been at a crappy 1.5 track. LOL

If you told me that there would be a first time winner in all three series and nothing else, I would have told you the races were at either Daytona or Talladega. Such is the crapshoot nature of restrictor plate tracks.

Did anyone else notice that the driver in the lead didn’t seem to try to control both lanes as much as usual? Sure toward the end of the stages the blocking picked up but I saw many times where I expected the leader to drop down in front of whatever lane had momentum and they didn’t. Very unusual.

Last edited 2 years ago by Bill B
Carl D.

I noticed that. I attributed it to drivers wanting to run a preferred line, or the fact that there were a lot of cars hooking up based on team or manufacturer. Matt DiBenedetto was the exception.

John Dawg Chapman

I second the notion that his was in no way a “cheap” victory. It was a victory well earned on the track. A cheap victory is one where a team is so far out of things, that it costs them nothing to stay out when a rain caution comes. Then the race is finally called. A win is a win in the record book, but that kind of win comes with a mental asterisk.

Rick D

I seen to remember Talladega 2020 being the track that had the infamous “noose” incident at Darrell Wallace JR’s garage space.
Not too surprising that he gets his 1st and likely only win there

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