It’s Talladega time. Will playoff drivers be aggressive from the get-go or will we see a calm race that turns chaotic over the final 20 laps as drivers want to make sure they have a chance at the end?
1. Martin Truex Jr.
Truex is the points leader among drivers who have yet to clinch the second round of the playoffs. He’s also in a really good spot too. Truex is 67 points ahead of 10th place in the playoffs and 63 points ahead of ninth. If he has that gap heading into Kansas he’s going to be clinched into the third round.
Though maybe Truex just needs to worry about getting through Talladega with a car that isn’t crashed. He’s been involved in crashes in four of the last five Talladega races. That points gap could come in handy as Truex should still be in an advantageous position even with a bad result at Talladega.
2. Denny Hamlin
Hamlin’s the guy at Joe Gibbs Racing who you would pick to win at Talladega. But will JGR try to do something like it did in 2016 when the team’s playoff drivers rode around at the back of the pack to avoid poor finishes?
The circumstances are far from the same. The 2016 playoffs didn’t feature bonus points that drivers could carry over from round to round or stage points during races. And Talladega was the final race of the second round and not the second race of the round.
But it’s a strategy that could work out well too, especially if a pit strategy play or two gets Truex, Hamlin and Kyle Busch some stage points in the first two stages.
Hamlin and Busch are tied for second in the Kyle Larson-excluded standings behind Truex and are 48 points ahead of ninth place. A wreck or issue early in the race could put a massive dent in that cushion. If I was calling the race I would play it safe early and try to steal some stage points before balancing risk in the third stage along with my two other teammates and drafting partners.
3. Kyle Busch
Busch qualified 18th and finished sixth after bouncing back from a pit road speeding penalty during the race. He might have had race-winning speed. Or at least top three or four speed. But it’s so ridiculously tough to pass at Dover thanks to dirty air that you could have said that about a lot of other cars.
“It was good in its own air, but anytime you got in traffic … I lost one second of lap time and just couldn’t get it back,” Busch said of being around other cars.
There’s a good case to be made that Dover has suffered the worst non-repave related racing quality decline in NASCAR over the last decade. Dover races used to be exciting. Now, well, they’re boring. There’s no way else to put it.
4. Kyle Larson
Dover wasn’t boring for Larson as he scored his first win of the season and locked himself into the third round of the playoffs. It’s the first time Larson has advanced to the penultimate round of the playoffs and you can bet that Chip Ganassi Racing has already started thinking about Martinsville. Larson has just one top-10 finish at the half-mile track in 11 starts and that came all the way back in 2016. The margin for error is minimal in the third round and Larson will need a top-10 there to have any hope of qualifying for the final round without a win at Texas or Phoenix.
Harvick finished fourth on Sunday and was fifth in the first stage and fourth in the second stage. So yeah, that was an appropriate finish.
“I would say that luckily this is a good race track for us and we were able to grind out a good solid finish and get some stage points on a day when a lot of people had trouble,” Harvick said.
He was the only Ford driver to finish in the top five and Clint Bowyer in 10th was the only other Ford driver who scored a top-10 finish.
6. Alex Bowman
Is Bowman positioning himself as the guy to knock a favorite out of the playoffs in the second round? Bowman was third on Sunday after finishing second at Dover in the spring. Crazily enough, spring winner Truex Jr. was second on Sunday and Larson, who won Sunday’s race, was third in the spring. You don’t get repeat top threes very often.
Bowman was second at Talladega in the spring and also second at Kansas. A strong run at Talladega will have him looking good heading to Kansas.
7. Brad Keselowski
Keselowski finished 11th on Sunday.
“We had an OK day,” Keselowski said. “We held serve. We came into the weekend 19 points up and we leave 20 points up with two big races in front of us. If we can have a great day at Talladega it would be huge. We are due for another great run there.”
Keselowski is boom or bust at Talladega, though he’s pretty good at the boom part. He’s won five of 21 starts and his last win came in the fall race in 2017. Since then, he’s finished 33rd, 27th and 13th.
8. William Byron
Byron finished 13th on Sunday. And in an example of the final stage going caution-free and the number of cars that finished on the lead lap, Byron ended the race two laps down. He was the first driver two laps down and just eight drivers ended the race on the lead lap.
9. Joey Logano
Logano drew the ire of Hamlin for the way he raced the leaders while he was over 20 laps down because his car was in the garage at the start of the race due to a rear axle issue.
While you can see Hamlin’s perspective clearly — leaders expect cars who have no chance of getting back on the lead lap to get out of the way — you can also understand Logano’s. As a driver fighting for survival in a short-sample-size playoff format he has to work his tail off to get as many points as possible.
“Well, the situation was that I had about four or five cars that it was possible for me to catch, which is five points,” Logano said after the race. “You tell me if it is worth it. I would say it is worth it and I have to go. I have to try to get those spots if I can get them. If some of those cars that were that slow out there and were going to be 20-something laps down, the pace we were running we were going to be within a lap or two of them. I had to race hard. I had to keep going.”
10. Chase Elliott
Elliott was not in a position to be racing the leaders while laps down because his engine went kablooie fewer than 10 laps into the race. He ended up finishing last and is now seven points outside the top eight.
Elliott, who won the week prior at the Charlotte Roval, had the right perspective about the engine failure.
“I assume we’ll have to win one of these next few weeks,” he said. “If you ever make it to Homestead, you’re going to have to win down there. I guess it’s a good opportunity to practice here these next few weeks.”
11. Clint Bowyer
Bowyer finished 10th and finished 10th in the second stage to score a stage point. Here’s how he summed up the race.
“It was hard to pass,” Bowyer said. “Extremely hard to pass. Almost impossible. You had to have a really, really good car. It was just kind of a struggle out there all day long for us.”
12. Ryan Blaney
Blaney failed to finish the race with what was officially termed a suspension problem. He did score five more points than Elliott did thanks to stage points but he also entered the race with fewer playoff points than Elliott. So Blaney finds himself 12th among 12 playoff drivers and 22 points back of eighth.
Lucky Dog: Matt DiBenedetto was the highest-finishing non-playoff driver. He was seventh.
The DNF: Outside of Blaney and Elliott, let’s go with Chris Buescher. He had an engine problem and only completed 232 laps.
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Nick Bromberg is a writer for Yahoo Sports.
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