The Numbers Indicate That Talladega Could Upset the Playoff Balance

Brad Keselowski(2) and Chase Elliott are among two of the better racers statistically at Talladega

Virtually every driver who is still involved in the NASCAR Playoffs has at some point mentioned their concern about this weekend’s 500 at the Talladega Super Speedway. This track, like no other within the playoff mix, holds the ability to completely shake up the standings during this ‘Round of 12’ segment of the championship deciding run toward the final race of the 2019 season in November. Simply having the best car, an outstanding pit crew, a well thought out strategy, or even a great driver may not be enough on this track to assure a win or even a good finish.

The ever-looming threat of “The Big One” that can, in an instant, eliminate half of the field is almost certainly on the minds of competitors when they make their way to the 2.66-mile behemoth that features large packs of cars running in close proximity throughout the entire distance of the race.

To show just how difficult it is count on a good finish going into a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series weekend at Talladega, only one driver of the twelve still involved in the championship hunt has ended more than half of his starts on the Alabama track with a top-10 finish. Brad Keselowski has scored eleven top-10 results out of his 21 starts there. None of the other eleven contenders have ended their day in the top-10 half of the time, with several of them not even close to the 50% mark.

Keselowski earned his first Cup Series victory at Talladega and has since scored four other first place finishes. His 15.6 average finishing position is the best among the playoff contenders at Talladega.

For the sake of comparison, it is easy to see why drivers and teams placed so much emphasis on last Sunday’s event at the Dover International Speedway. Solid finishes are far easier to count on at the ‘Monster Mile’ with seven of the twelve championship hopefuls having ended their days with top-10 results in Delaware more than half the time throughout their careers.

For an example of how brutal Talladega can be on even the biggest stars of the sport, two former MENCS champions have far less than a 50% success rate on NASCAR’s longest track. Martin Truex Jr. has only finished in the top-10 at this track on eight occasions out of 29 Cup Series starts. At the same time, Kyle Busch has achieved no more success than his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate with a total of eight top-10 efforts out of 28 starts. The average finishing positions of those two racers is 21.3 and 20.3 respectively.

With all of that said, however, Truex and Busch can afford an off day considering they currently sit second and third respectively in the standings with significant cushions over the cut line. But certainly both of these drivers would prefer to leave Talladega on Sunday evening with their place in the ‘Round of 8’ virtually locked up rather than with a poor finish that would cast at least some degree of doubt on their ability to transfer to the next round.

Two drivers who sit closer to the cutoff positions have struggled at Talladega. Hendrick Motorsports wheelmen Alex Bowman and William Byron have the two worst average finishing statistics of all the remaining title hopefuls on the big speedway.

Bowman is currently seventh in the standings with a 17 point advantage over the cut line while Byron is eighth and actually tied with Joey Logano in the battle for the final spot. While these two drivers have much less data to go on than do Truex and Busch, both have poor average finishing positions on the monster track. Bowman’s average result here is 24.9 while Byron averages a 23.3 finishing position.

To be fair, only four of Bowman’s career starts at Talladega have come in the HMS No. 88 machine. In those races he has an 8th and a 2nd(this past spring) but he also scored a 36th and a 33rd. Obviously, finishes in the thirties would not serve him well in his hopes of continuing a championship run.

In his three Talladega starts in the HMS No. 24, Byron has finished outside the top-20 every time. With a razor thin margin to work with, he needs an improved performance this weekend to remain above the dreaded cutoff point.

Clint Bowyer(14) will be looking to overtake William Byron(24) in the standings at Talladega

Three drivers below the cut line have actually had degrees of success at Talladega.

Logano has earned three wins and ten top-10’s with an average finish of 16.4 while Clint Bowyer has had two victories in Alabama with 13 top-10 finishes to his credit. Chase Elliott won the race held here in the spring and has two other top-5 runs to his credit.

If those numbers can serve as any sort of indication(which they probably cannot), those outside the top-8 look to have a chance of moving themselves forward on Sunday at the expense of those near the back of the top-8 in the playoff standings.

Craziness is almost certain to occur at some point this weekend in Talladega(both on the track and off). By Sunday evening we will know who benefited and who had their chances damaged at one of the sport’s most unpredictable venues.

Richard Allen is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association

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