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Alabama 500 Preview

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The first four races of NASCAR's playoffs have seen only Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. win, but that should change on Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway where all 40 drivers have a legitimate chance of winning. It's the randomness of restrictor-plate racing and it's the second race in the Round of 12.

The first Talladega race in May saw Ricky Stenhouse Jr. win the first race of his career and the next plate race at Daytona in July he won as well. Roush Fenway cars have been very good in plates races the past few years, but Stenhouse has taken control as the elite plate racer. If he can win again, he'll get himself an automatic berth into the next round of eight.

“I’m definitely looking forward to going back to Talladega,' Stenhouse said. "(Crew chief) Jimmy Fennig has been working for some time now on our Talladega car and been massaging it and getting it ready to go. He kind of takes over the whole speedway program until the week of and then our team gets it and works on it some more, but we want to go in and win Talladega. That would solidify us on making sure we get to that next round, but, if not, I think it’s a race track that we could still gain a lot of points. Nothing is guaranteed when you go there. I’ve been crashed out of them just as easy as finishing well, but I definitely feel confident going into Talladega this weekend.”

Ford will be going for its fifth consecutive Talladega win.

What makes this race on the mammoth 2.66-mile high banked layout so special is because of the randomness. It's a wild card race for the top drivers and their championship dreams can be shattered quickly. If Busch gets caught up in wreck here, his championship dreams are crushed with only one more race to go in this round. And it's so possible. No driver is safe here and it is weighing on Busch's mind.

"If I look at two that are kind of worrisome, the two most worrisome tracks for me are Talladega this weekend, and Texas because of the repave, that unknown there," Busch said. "Those are the only two that I’m a little worrisome about. The rest of them, I’m not worried at all. I feel like we’re pretty good. If we can have a decent finish this weekend, I feel like Kansas next weekend has been really good for us, recently.”

The drivers I'll be rooting for this week are Denny Hamlin and Brad Keselowski. The first win of Keselowski's career came at Talladega in 2008 as a part-time driver for an underfunded team. He's won four times at Talladega, the last coming in the spring of 2016. Hamlin won at Talladega in 2014 and has been one of the best plate racers the past four seasons.

The sentimental side of me wants Dale Earnhardt Jr. to finally win in his last season. He's won six times at Talladega, the last coming in 2015. Come on Junior. You got six races left, and this is your best chance to make it happen.

“I’d like to fly under the radar a little bit," Earnhardt said of what may be his final Cup race at Talladega. "I don’t want to put too much pressure on us – it messes up the way you think, the way you use strategy in the race, everything. But Talladega is a great track and a great opportunity to win. I think we’ll also have a chance to win at Martinsville and Texas, and some of these other tracks we go to.”

Come on Junior, go out with a bang.

Top-5 Finish Prediction:

1) #2 Brad Keselowski (10/1)
2) #11 Denny Hamlin (10/1)
3) #17 Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (18/1)
4) #88 Dale Earnhardt Jr. (10/1)
5) #14 Clint Bowyer (25/1)

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