YellaWood 500 Preview: The Wild Card of the Chase

YellaWood 500 Preview: The Wild Card of the Chase

This article is part of our Weekly Preview series.

Luck will be a factor at this weekend's race like no other race in the 10 events that make up the Chase for the NASCAR Cup.  The circuit comes to Talladega Superspeedway for the YellaWood 500 and for the wild pack-racing action that Talladega provides.  

This is the perfect event to throw in with the short tracks, flat tracks and intermediate ovals that make up the final 10 races in the Chase for the Cup championship.  Considering that we've spent the last few weeks racing on intermediate and smaller ovals with few cautions and few crashes, we're in for some major changes as the "big one" comes back into play.  The multi-car, multi-line drafts and side-by-side racing at near 200 mph is nothing short of chaotic.  Five hundred miles of racing in these tight conditions almost always leads to disaster, and that's where the luck factor comes into play this weekend.  Considering that this weekend's race is the second in the Round of 12 of the Chase, the stakes will be even higher than usual. 

He's not a part of the championship picture after being eliminated from the playoff field at Bristol, but Ryan Blaney will be in the spotlight this Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway.  The Penske Racing youngster won here in June of this year in a pretty strong performance.  He also won here in this event one year ago.  Blaney rides a two-race Talladega win streak into Sunday's YellaWood 500.  Coming back to the scene of his June

Luck will be a factor at this weekend's race like no other race in the 10 events that make up the Chase for the NASCAR Cup.  The circuit comes to Talladega Superspeedway for the YellaWood 500 and for the wild pack-racing action that Talladega provides.  

This is the perfect event to throw in with the short tracks, flat tracks and intermediate ovals that make up the final 10 races in the Chase for the Cup championship.  Considering that we've spent the last few weeks racing on intermediate and smaller ovals with few cautions and few crashes, we're in for some major changes as the "big one" comes back into play.  The multi-car, multi-line drafts and side-by-side racing at near 200 mph is nothing short of chaotic.  Five hundred miles of racing in these tight conditions almost always leads to disaster, and that's where the luck factor comes into play this weekend.  Considering that this weekend's race is the second in the Round of 12 of the Chase, the stakes will be even higher than usual. 

He's not a part of the championship picture after being eliminated from the playoff field at Bristol, but Ryan Blaney will be in the spotlight this Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway.  The Penske Racing youngster won here in June of this year in a pretty strong performance.  He also won here in this event one year ago.  Blaney rides a two-race Talladega win streak into Sunday's YellaWood 500.  Coming back to the scene of his June victory has to be very confidence-building, despite Blaney's late-season struggles.  The two biggest threats to Blaney's hopes for a Talladega sweep this weekend would be Joey Logano and Ricky Stenhouse Jr.  Both are past winners at this 2.66-mile oval and both performed very well in their last two Talladega outings.  The stakes will be high and so will the nerves.  As we saw with both Logano and Austin Dillon at Las Vegas last weekend, the consequences of this Chase format is more pressure than ever at this point in the season.  When the green flag drops the mayhem will ensue and championship hopes will be made or dashed after 500 miles of racing at 'Dega.

Talladega Superspeedway is unlike any of the other tracks in the Chase, but history still plays a big part.  The drivers that tend to run up front and win at this large oval are usually the same drivers each and every time we visit Talladega.  As you'll see in the table below, some of the drivers who are vying for the championship are also very proficient at Talladega Superspeedway.  Here are the loop stats for the last 31 races at the famous Alabama oval.

DriverAvg. FinishQuality Passes# of Fastest LapsLaps LedLaps in Top 15Driver Rating
Ryan Blaney17.53,033381531,62791.7
Joey Logano16.25,573863522,85591.1
Kurt Busch15.98,300992283,97890.3
Chase Elliott16.02,120361281,18690.3
Brad Keselowski16.15,172882932,65189.5
Jimmie Johnson16.86,688823253,40186.5
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.10.93,24165941,51586.2
Matt Kenseth19.36,072894633,05885.3
John H. Nemechek8.0216707884.1
Denny Hamlin17.25,6871193202,79083.8
Kyle Busch20.76,2871362503,10182.0
William Byron22.8991204356981.5
Kevin Harvick16.45,7491242262,97780.8
Tyler Reddick20.026541911280.7
Aric Almirola 14.83,76963461,77580.1
Cole Custer22.02963013079.8
Martin Truex Jr.21.55,88883672,69776.5
Clint Bowyer16.64,0601611232,11875.7
Ty Dillon13.3886391045475.0
Alex Bowman24.31,494394683373.0

The loop stats from Talladega look a bit odd when compared to other tracks in the series.  Right away we notice a lack of drivers like Martin Truex Jr., Clint Bowyer and Kevin Harvick in the Top 10 of this list.  Luck plays a large part in winning Talladega.  Some times it's all in the timing and when to make your move at this oval.  The second thing we notice is the lower overall driver ratings.  Wrecks play a big part in Talladega racing, and everyone eventually gets caught up in a big one, putting a dent in their average statistical performance.  In this season's earlier race at Talladega in June we saw Ryan Blaney hold off Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Aric Almirola in a three-wide photo finish result to grab the impressive victory.  His shootout with multiple drivers was set up thanks to a late crash and caution that forced NASCAR overtime.  This late turn of events gave us a dramatic finish, and it underscores the unpredictability of Talladega races.  Yes, indeed, anything can happen at Talladega.  The 57 lead changes were a nine-season high mark for Talladega, and a good trend NASCAR hopes to continue thanks to the new superspeedway aero package.  Hopefully, we'll see some more of the same passing at the front again this weekend, and the ability for cars to work together to run down a faster leader. 

Like most Talladega races, we should see some big multi-car crashes and some late cautions as the urgency gets the best of the drivers in the closing laps.  With the big wrecks and caution flags as a result of the pack racing, we should see some of the familiar "sand-bagging" drivers who hang out in the back of the field.  Although stage racing has gone a long way towards tempering this possibility, the driver who keeps a low profile most of the race may ultimately be the one to push to the front in the closing laps and make for a thrilling victory.  One thing is for certain, a spot in the next round of the Chase is up for grabs and this race helps to equalize the odds for some of the smaller teams.  Some drivers will move on to the Charlotte Roval with their championship hopes intact, while others will load the wrecked remains of their race cars onto the hauler and start to think about next season.  Here are the drivers who you need to focus on for fantasy racing glory at Talladega Superspeedway.

The Contenders – Drivers in the hunt for the win

Ryan Blaney – While the 2020 season has been largely disappointing for Blaney and the No. 12 team after being booted early from the Chase for the Cup playoffs, some things have been pretty good for this driver and team.  Superspeedway racing is one area you can't take away from the young driver the last two seasons.  Blaney carries a two-race Talladega win streak into this weekend's action and for the moment he's the king of the hill at this huge oval.  During that two-race span he's led a combined 98 laps and had the fastest car on the Talladega track.  Blaney's superspeedway performance overall the last two seasons has been spotless with two victories, one runner-up finish and one sixth-place finish between Talladega and Daytona.  He'll be the man to beat in the YellaWood 500.     

Denny Hamlin – Hamlin got a much needed boost with his Top-5 finish at Las Vegas last weekend.  Now the Joe Gibbs Racing star will look to turn in a great Talladega effort and take one step closer to Phoenix and the championship.  Hamlin is a one-time Talladega winner (2014) and he's posted Top-5 finishes in three of his last four starts at the track.  That has boosted the driver of the No. 11 Toyota's career Top-5 rate at Talladega to a respectable 28-percent.  Speed has not been a problem this season for the JGR No. 11 team on the superspeedway race tracks.  Hamlin has led a combined 106 laps between Daytona and Talladega and has the Daytona 500 victory and three Top-5 finishes.  He'll battle among the leaders this Sunday afternoon.

Joey Logano – The Penske Racing star is a three-time Talladega winner.  The last of those victories came as recently as 2018.  Logano has had a bit of tough luck on the superspeedways this season with two DNF's in the three races to-date.  However, the speed of the No. 22 Ford in these superspeedway events is undeniable.  Logano has led a combined 75 laps between Daytona and Talladega this season and he's been in the mix to win in each of the three races.  Unfortunately, he's gotten rolled up in crashes in two of those three.  With the potential to advance in the playoffs on the line, you can bet you'll see a motivated driver and team this Sunday afternoon.  Never take for granted Logano's ability at Talladega Superspeedway. 

Aric Almirola – The Stewart Haas Racing veteran won this event two years ago, and now rides an eight-race Talladega Top-10 streak into this weekend.  He really understands the pack racing style that this oval produces, and knows how to navigate the chaos.  Almirola has just nine-career Top 10's at this Alabama oval, but eight of the nine have come just since 2016.  As his equipment as improved over the years, so has his driving skill on these large tracks.  Almirola is still alive in the Chase for the Cup playoffs, so there's your motivation factor.  The last time NASCAR was in Talladega in June, the veteran driver was racing among the leaders in the wild, multi-car photo-finish.  Almirola would fall just inches from victory that afternoon and capture an impressive third-place finish in the GEICO 500. 

Solid Plays – Near locks for a Top 10 with an outside shot to win

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. – The JTG Daugherty Racing veteran has established himself as a top superspeedway performer over the years.  Stenhouse is a one-time Talladega winner and one-time Daytona winner.  He has garnered a majority of his career laps led on the superspeedway circuit.  Stenhouse battled for the win and finished runner-up to Ryan Blaney at Talladega in June.  That was one of four Top-10 finishes for this driver in his last five starts at Talladega Superspeedway.  With a career Top-5 rate of 43-percent and Top-10 rate of 64-percent at this high-risk oval, it's clear that Stenhouse is a pretty dependable finisher with a very high ceiling for the YellaWood 500.

Chase Elliott – Despite his poor finish at Las Vegas this past week, Elliott's upside potential at Talladega can't be overlooked.  He's had a very fast No. 9 Chevrolet in recent visits to the central Alabama speedway.  Elliott grabbed a victory in the spring 2019 event at this track and he's led a combined 67 laps in his last three Talladega starts.  Two of those have resulted in Top-10 finishes vs. one that wound up on the team's hauler prematurely.  Elliott has been equally fast at the similar oval in Daytona.  In this season's Daytona 500 the Hendrick Motorsports star led 35 laps and battled down to the wire for the win, finishing second-place in the season-opener.  Elliott brings 50-percent Top-10 potential to the table this weekend and the possibility of leading laps and challenging for the win.

Alex Bowman – The driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet is on fire right now, and Bowman seems intent on advancing in the Chase and challenging for the championship.  That shouldn't be overlooked coming into this fifth race of the Chase.  Bowman's recent Talladega exploits have yielded three Top 10's in his last five starts at the huge track, and 45 laps led during that span.  That includes his seven laps led and impressive runner-up finish here in April of 2019.  He and teammate, Chase Elliott, worked very well together in that race.  Bowman also finished a strong seventh-place in June's GEICO 500.  It's great to see this young driver carrying on the tradition of Dale Earnhardt Jr. in this same car as it relates to superspeedway racing.  Bowman is a good fantasy racing selection in weekly lineup leagues this Sunday afternoon.      

Kevin Harvick – The Stewart Haas Racing star has had some tough luck finishing these superspeedway races in recent years, but the speed has been there.  Harvick has shown some signs of life in this style of racing in 2020.  He grabbed a brilliant fifth-place finish in the season-opening Daytona 500, and he's followed that great effort up with 10th- and 20th-place finishes at Talladega and Daytona this summer.  The driver of the No. 4 Ford Mustang is not a major threat to win these superspeedway events, but he seems to have figured out how to avoid the accidents that have plagued him in this style of racing the last few seasons.  Harvick's 16-career Top-10 finishes at Talladega Superspeedway sit at a very respectable 41-percent rate for this high-risk style of racing. 

Sleepers – Drivers with good history at Talladega & solid upside

Brad Keselowski – The five-time Talladega winner comes to central Alabama this weekend looking for a win and automatic berth in the next round of the Chase.   Considering his recent speed on superspeedway ovals, Keselowski will have those odds on his side.  The Penske Racing star won this event three years ago in thrilling fashion for his fifth-career victory at Talladega Superspeedway.  While the two ovals of Daytona and Talladega haven't been too kind to the driver of the No. 2 Ford in recent seasons, we have to chalk that up to bad luck.  Keselowski had great speed at both Talladega and Daytona this season, but the finishes didn't equal the speed.  This driver and team have had their number pop up quite a bit at Talladega over the years, so Keselowski is always a threat to win. 

Kurt Busch – We look forward to the Chip Ganassi Racing veteran's start at Talladega this weekend coming off the big win at Las Vegas this past week.  He's been one of the more consistent performers on the Daytona and Talladega ovals in recent years.  Busch's stats on these huge ovals speak for themselves with 21 Top 10's in 39 Talladega starts.  That's a strong 54-percent Top-10 rate on a track that requires as much luck as skill to succeed.  The veteran driver has cracked the Top 10 an extraordinary seven times in his last 10 starts at the central Alabama facility.  That type of skill and luck doesn't happen by accident.  Busch is a polished superspeedway racer, and knows the ins-and-outs of this game.  He's about as safe a driver as you can pick for your fantasy lineups this weekend. 

Chris Buescher The Roush Fenway Racing driver rides a two-race Top-10 streak into Talladega this week and Buescher is rounding out the season strong.  The driver of the No. 17 Ford claimed his first-career Talladega Top-10 finish here in June's GEICO 500, and that's been just one of his great starts on the superspeedway circuit this season.  Buescher has collected brilliant third-, sixth- and ninth-place finishes this season between the ovals of Daytona and Talladega.  This race team historically performs well on these big ovals and Buescher has stepped right into the driver's seat this season and made that transition look pretty seamless.  He would appear to have a very good chance to crack the Top 10 in Sunday's YellaWood 500.

Erik Jones The young Joe Gibbs Racing driver is trying to finish the season strong.  He's in the midst of looking for a new ride for 2021, and every good finish helps bolster his stock with any potential suitors.  Jones rides a two-race Top-10 streak into Talladega this week and will look to extend that after 500-miles of wild action at this huge oval.  The driver of the No. 20 Toyota has two Top 10's in his last four Talladega Superspeedway starts, and that includes his strong fifth-place finish here in June.  Jones has shown over the last three seasons that he has some skill at this style of racing.  He collected a big win in the summer race at Daytona in 2018 and he has four Top 10's in the last nine combined starts between Daytona and Talladega.  That is a respectable 44-percent Top-10 rate.     

John Hunter Nemechek – The rookie driver has shown maturity past his years in superspeedway racing this season.  Nemechek has racked up finishes of 11th-, eighth- and 11th-place between Daytona and Talladega.  It takes good speed and a good team effort to make this happen, but it also takes skill, good instincts and great split-second decision making by the driver.  This is the Front Row Motorsports driver's first Cup Series season so we don't have a lot of data to go on other than 2020.  However, when we look back on Nemechek's Xfinity Series career on the superspeedway ovals we see three Top 10's in four starts, so it's no coincidence he's doing well in NASCAR's top division on these style tracks.

Brendan Gaughan – The 45-year-old veteran is going to call it a career after this weekend.  The YellaWood 500 will be Gaughan's last start of his 67-start NASCAR Cup Series career.  The last few seasons Gaughan has become a superspeedway specialist and has only started the four Daytona and Talladega events of each campaign.  Small team, Beard Oil Racing, has gotten a lot of bang for the buck in these part-time starts.  Gaughan has racked up three Top 10's in his last four starts between Daytona and Talladega, including two of those this season alone.  With an average finish of 12.0 on the big ovals in 2020, Gaughan makes an intriguing fantasy racing play in weekly lineup and salary cap leagues this week.  

Slow Down – Drivers to avoid this week

Matt Kenseth – Kenseth is entering the home stretch of his fill-in season of racing for owner Chip Ganassi in the No. 42 Chevrolet.  It's been a long, challenging road for the semi-retired driver.  Things have been looking up of late with a pair of Top-15 finishes in his last four starts, however, we have to remain skeptical coming to Talladega this week.  Kenseth is a one-time Talladega winner (2012) but he doesn't possess the consistency at this oval that would indicate a fantasy racing start.  He hasn't cracked the Top 10 in his last seven Talladega starts and that dates back to the 2015 season.  Kenseth's two starts this year between Daytona and Talladega have been disappointing DNF's.  He's a risky fantasy racing selection for this 500-mile battle. 

Ryan Newman – For many years Newman has been a steady superspeedway performer.  The veteran driver has 15-career Talladega Top 10's and 12-career Daytona Top 10's to his credit.  He's also a past Daytona 500 champion (2008).  However, the driver of the No. 6 Ford just hasn't been quite the same since taking his wild ride at the finish of this season's Daytona 500.  Newman was hurt in that scary accident and since returning to action, he hasn't been the same.  The Roush Fenway Racing driver has just one Top 10 this season and is limping to a career-worst points finish in 2020.  Whatever happened inside that car at Daytona in February seems to have left Newman a changed driver.  His average finish of 23.0 this season on the superspeedway ovals is very uncharacteristic. 

Kyle Busch – The Joe Gibbs Racing star has been consistent of late, but this week we're traveling to one of the worst tracks in his Cup Series resume.  The ovals of Daytona and Talladega have been a love/hate affair for this driver for years.  Busch has just two Top-10 finishes in his last 10-combined starts between Daytona and Talladega.  That recent 20-percent rate reflects his career performance at this oval as well.  The driver of the No. 18 Toyota has eight Top-10 finishes in 30 starts (27-percent) and 20.7-career average finish at Talladega.  Busch has a high ceiling for this race just based on who he is and the team he races with, but wisdom points to the fantasy racing bench this week.  It's better to save a start for him on one of the upcoming intermediate ovals.  

Martin Truex Jr. This will be one of the few times this year to give Truex a break in weekly lineup leagues.  Coming off a great Top-5 performance at Las Vegas this past week, his playoff status is rock solid based on points.  While he'd like to win at Talladega and get the automatic ticket to advance in the Chase, the work ahead is pretty daunting.  The one weakness of the Joe Gibbs Racing star has been the superspeedway ovals.  Truex has only scored two Top-10 finishes in his last 10 races between Daytona and Talladega, and both of those came at Daytona.  Further, eight of those finishes across the span have been outside the Top 20 with three DNF's.  The speed to succeed has been there for the team, but Truex's luck and skill at this style of racing just don't come together most starts.  It's best to dismiss any fantasy racing expectations for Truex this weekend.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mark Taylor
Taylor is RotoWire's senior NASCAR writer. A nine-time FSWA finalist, Taylor was named the Racing Writer of the Year in 2008, 2009, 2010, 2016 and 2017. He is also a military historian, focused specifically on World War II and the U.S. Navy's efforts in the Pacific.
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