There are few places on the NASCAR Cup Series schedule that raise the pulse of both driver and fan like the Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway where the sport descends this weekend for Sunday‘s GEICO 500 (3 p.m. ET on FOX, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
There are 11 former winners in the field — led by six-time Talladega winner Brad Keselowski, whose win tally is second only to the late 10-time Talladega master Dale Earnhardt — to Ross Chastain, who earned his first Talladega win in this race last year, leading only the final lap.
Denny Hamlin, Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney each have a pair of Talladega trophies; Elliott winning his second in the Fall race last year. Blaney, who is hoping to snap a 55-race winless streak, is the only active driver to win back-to-back races (2019-20).
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (2017) and Bubba Wallace (2021) earned their first NASCAR Cup Series victories at Talladega.
Martin Truex Jr. won a record three straight NASCAR Xfinity Series races at Talladega (2004-06) but hasn‘t won a NASCAR Cup Series race on the 2.66-mile high banks in 36 starts.
For all the statistical analysis, there‘s still no odds-on way to predict who will ultimately edge ahead for the checkered flag. And that‘s why fans love Talladega so much.
“Still trying to figure out how to get that first win at Talladega,” said the Joe Gibbs Racing driver Truex, who is coming off his best finish of the season — third at Martinsville, Va. last week — and is ranked fifth in the championship.
“We‘ve been close there before and ran really strong there last year with our Bass Pro Shops Camry, so just looking to build on that and focus on what it‘s going to take to try and get our first win there.”
With Kyle Larson earning the victory at Martinsville, he joins Hendrick Motorsports teammate William Byron as the only two multi-race winners this season. There have been seven different winners through the season‘s opening nine races with Truex‘s Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Christopher Bell holding the championship lead by five-points over Trackhouse Racing‘s Chastain, 15 points over Stewart-Haas Racing‘s Kevin Harvick, 17 more than Larson and 36 more than Truex.
Among that top five, the defending Talladega winner Chastain, Harvick, the 2010 Talladega winner, and Truex are still looking for that first victory in 2023.
“It‘s one of those places where you want to race up front and race hard all day because you have to try to win stages,” said Harvick, driver of the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford who is making his 800th career NASCAR Cup Series start at Talladega.
“I believe you have better odds at the front of the pack when it comes to staying out of a wreck if you can keep that track position all day. You‘re going to race in a pack — three-wide at times — and you‘re going to get pushed and have to push at times. You just never know what‘s going to happen because Talladega is its own animal.”
Hamlin, a three-time Daytona 500 winner with two Talladega wins (2014 and 2020), is also another frontrunner with high expectations this weekend. He leads all active drivers with 20 top-five finishes at Talladega and hopes to answer his first top five of the season — last week at Martinsville — with his first victory of the year.
This weekend will be another important physical test for Elliott — the 2019 and 2022 Talladega winner — who will be competing in only his second race after breaking his left leg in a snowboarding accident in early March. He certainly came out of the gate strong in his return to competition last week — finishing 10th at Martinsville. He has the two wins, five top-five and seven top-10 finishes in 14 Talladega races.
Points leader Christopher Bell is still racing for his first Talladega victory. He won the pole position in the No. 20 JGR Toyota for both Talladega races last year, but his only top-10 in six starts was in the 2021 Playoff race — a fifth-place finish. His career best showing at the track is runner-up in the 2017 NASCAR CRAFTSMAN Truck Series race.
Qualifying for the GEICO 500 is Saturday at 10:30 a.m. and televised live on FS1. There is no practice for either series this weekend.
NASCAR XFINITY SERIES
After weeks of short track action, the NASCAR Xfinity Series moves to the biggest track on the schedule, the 2.66-mile Talladega Superspeedway for Saturday afternoon‘s Ag-Pro 300 (4 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
Neither of last year‘s Talladega race winners — defending champ Noah Gragson nor A.J. Allmendinger – are competing this weekend making Jordan Anderson Racing‘s Jeb Burton the only former Talladega winner in the field. And the second-generation NASCAR driver has top-10 efforts in half his six starts on the big track.
Current championship points leader — and last week‘s Martinsville (Va.) Speedway winner – John Hunter Nemechek is making his first Xfinity Series start at Talladega since 2021. His best finish in three Talladega Xfinity races is sixth place in 2019.
With the victory in Martinsville last weekend, however, the driver of the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota brings plenty of momentum to the big track. Nemechek is one of only two multi-race winners this season (also Austin Hill), has led the most laps (340) and is tied with JR Motorsports driver Josh Berry for most top-fives (three) and top-10s (seven).
Hill, who trails Nemechek by 21 points heading into Saturday‘s race, has certainly been strong at Talladega, but never had his efforts rewarded with a trophy. This year‘s three-race winner led the most laps in both Talladega Xfinity races last season only to suffer a DNF in the spring race and a 14th-place finish after winning pole position in the Fall race. He has a pair of top-10 finishes and led laps in four of this five NASCAR CRAFTSMAN Truck Series start at the track.
The coveted $100,000 Dash 4 Cash prize will be awarded Saturday afternoon. In addition to Nemechek — who won last week‘s money at Martinsville — Stewart-Haas Racing‘s Cole Custer and Nemechek‘s JGR teammate Sammy Smith and JR Motorsports Josh Berry are eligible for the bonus. Whoever finishes highest among those four will take home the money. And the top-four Dash 4 Cash-eligible drivers out of Saturday‘s race will then contend for the check in next week‘s race at Dover, Del. – the final race the six-figure incentive bonus is awarded in 2023.
Those same four drivers should make it very interesting, considering their season to date. Berry is ranked fifth in the championship, only 43 points behind Nemechek. Smith, who won at Phoenix, is seventh in points and Custer, a former two-time Xfinity Series championship runner-up is eighth in the standings.
Qualifying for the Ag-Pro 300 is Friday evening at 5:30 on FS1.
— NASCAR News Wire —