October 10, 2018
By Micah Roberts
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The second race in the second round of NASCAR's Playoffs is at the beastly, treacherous 2.66-mile high banks of Talladega SuperSpeedway, and for 11 of the 12 drivers still in the championship chase their knees have to be knocking with fear. Talladega offers the quickest way to be ousted from playoff contention by being caught up in "The Big One." The lone playoff driver who can roll freely with no repercussions is Chase Elliott, who won last week at Dover and gets the automatic bid into the next round.
“Oh, it’s huge," Elliott said of the lack of pressure this week. "I mean, I think it's nice to be able to know you're going to move on, but you can't get complacent in the fact that you are moving on, and you can't let those points just sit out there and not try to go get them because those bonus points you get for winning or winning a stage, that's huge, and you need as many as you can get. One or two points could be the difference in you making the Round of 4 or not. Just knowing that we don’t have to worry about Talladega, so excited to be able to win the first one of three and get to enjoy it all a little bit more. We are going to keep the hammer down and see what we can do.”
The Westgate Las Vegas Superbook has Elliott at 10/1 odds to win this week and he's proven to be a good restrictor-plate driver with wins the past two seasons in the Daytona Duels and a third-place in this season first Talladega race April 29.
It's the randomness of restrictor-plate racing that drivers chasing a championship hate having to deal with in the Playoffs. Almost every car in the race can win which is why you won't see 500/1 longshots offered at the sports books like happens with other races. You also won't see heavy favorites like we see each week with Kyle Busch, who is 15/1 this week. Kevin Harvick is 12/1 and Martin Truex Jr. is 25/1. They're usually at 9/2 odds or less each week.
No matter how hard a driver tries to run a clean race and simply try to finish, the track's nasty attitude can instantly wipe out half the field in a spectacular chain reaction wreck. The drivers are going 200 miles per hour and have little time to react or get out of the way because they're bunched up bumper-to-bumper sometimes going four-wide.
For drivers like Harvick, Busch and Truex this race scares the heck out of them because its the one race where they no longer have an edge and if they roll into one of those wrecks, they won't score many points and have less of a chance of advancing, not only in the second round but also the third round. Imagine being the best for the first 30 races and then one track ruins everything. That's Talladega.
“It’s such a wacky, wild-card race,” Truex said about Talladega. “We tried all different strategies and it seems like it doesn’t make a difference. What you need is a lot of luck there. If you can avoid the wrecks and have a car that can maintain its position with the lead pack you have a chance of posting a solid finish. But usually it comes down to being in the right place at the right time. We’ve been in the wrong place too many times recently and need to change that.”
Truex has been involved in a late accident the last three Talladega races and has just two top-fives in 27 starts.
Despite all the cars being fairly equal, there are a few drivers that have shown a special flair for plate racing. In the four races between Talladega and Daytona each season, a couple drivers always seem to find their way to the front. And being upfront has proven to be the safest place on the track.
Joey Logano wrecked early at Daytona in July, finishing 39th, but in April he won at Talladega for the third time in his career. In February he had an amazing Daytona Speedweeks with second-place finishes in the Clash and one of the Duels before finishing fourth in the Daytona 500. Overall, Logano has four wins in plate races. Team Penske and Ford have somewhat of a small edge in plate races.
The best statistical driver at Talladega is Logano's Penske teammate Brad Keselowski who has five wins there and also won once in the summer at Daytona. His six plate wins are more than any other active driver. Jimmie Johnson has five wins and Jamie McMurray has four.
Keselowski and the high banks of Talladega have been getting along well right from the start of his career and he's the perfect example of any driver being able to win. In 2009 he drove an underfunded part-time ride to his first career Cup win at Talladega. He won this race last season as well.
Because the Penske Fords have been so good, you can throw their teammate Ryan Blaney (12/1) into the betting equation as well. He led the most laps in the Daytona 500, finishing seventh, and won one of the Duels four days earlier. Denny Hamlin and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. also have two plate race wins. For Stenhouse, it's the only two wins of career and this is likely his last chance to win a race this season because it's the only time his car will be equal or better than the Big 3.
“Talladega is always a special place for me since it’s my home track and where I got my first Cup win," said Stenhouse who is 15-to-1 to win Sunday. "The main thing for me is to be patient because anything can happen and you have to be there at the end to contend for the win. Jimmy Fennig has been working really hard on getting our cars ready. I think if we can stay out of trouble then we have a great shot of getting our No. 17 Ford back to victory lane.”
Hamlin is looking to get his first win of the season. He's won at least once every season of his career since winning two races as a rookie in 2006. He's had a great plate racing Toyota since winning at Talladega in 2014 which started an active run of leading laps in nine straight Talladega races. The idea is to get out front and stay out front where there are no surprises. He also comes in with some momentum off a strong second-place run at Dover last week.
“Last weekend was a step in the right direction for our FedEx team, and I’m already excited to get back on track so we can hopefully keep our momentum going," said Hamlin who is 12-to-1 to win this week. "Obviously anything can happen at a track like Talladega, but our goal is to stay strong and put ourselves in a position where we can contend for a win.”
Hamlin's 2014 win at Talladega is the last Toyota to win there. Ford has won seven of the last eight, including the last six.
Top-5 Finish Prediction:
1) #22 Joey Logano (8/1)
2) #17 Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (15/1)
3) #11 Denny Hamlin (12/1)
4) #2 Brad Keselowski (7/1)
5) #41 Kurt Busch (15/1)