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.

This weekend the luck factor comes into play like no other race in the 10 events that make up the Chase for the NASCAR Cup.  NASCAR comes to Talladega Superspeedway for the YellaWood 500 and the wild, pack racing 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. 

Denny Hamlin will be in the spotlight this Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway.  The Joe Gibbs Racing veteran won this event one year ago in a pretty strong performance.  He is also a two-time winner at Talladega and top performing superspeedway driver.  Hamlin is coming off the big win this past Sunday at Las Vegas and is now two-time winner during the Chase playoffs coming into Sunday's YellaWood 500.  Coming back to the scene of his victory last October

This weekend the luck factor comes into play like no other race in the 10 events that make up the Chase for the NASCAR Cup.  NASCAR comes to Talladega Superspeedway for the YellaWood 500 and the wild, pack racing 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. 

Denny Hamlin will be in the spotlight this Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway.  The Joe Gibbs Racing veteran won this event one year ago in a pretty strong performance.  He is also a two-time winner at Talladega and top performing superspeedway driver.  Hamlin is coming off the big win this past Sunday at Las Vegas and is now two-time winner during the Chase playoffs coming into Sunday's YellaWood 500.  Coming back to the scene of his victory last October has to be very confidence-building for the No. 11 Toyota team.  The two biggest threats to Hamlin's hopes for a successful Talladega defense this weekend would be Ryan Blaney and Chase Elliott.  Both are past winners at this 2.66-mile oval and both have performed very well the past few weeks.  The stakes will be high and so will the nerves.  As we saw with both Kevin Harvick and Elliott at Bristol two weeks ago, 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 33 races at the famous Alabama oval.

DriverAvg. FinishQuality Passes# of Fastest LapsLaps LedLaps in Top 15Driver Rating
Ryan Blaney17.43,455421741,89791.1
Brad Keselowski15.65,653983002,98091.0
Joey Logano17.55,902924073,06090.9
Kurt Busch17.08,5581072284,09989.2
Chase Elliott17.32,638441721,43388.1
William Byron17.11,425285682285.7
Cole Custer21.06816031784.4
Denny Hamlin17.25,8141263892,92783.8
Kyle Busch20.86,7331432563,34081.5
Ryan Preece12.0799271236580.6
Kevin Harvick16.26,1281382403,19780.5
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.14.03,33871941,54680.4
Aric Almirola 15.73,95169711,89579.4
Tyler Reddick11.3680172133779.2
Chase Briscoe11.0123919778.7
Ty Dillon12.01,129401056676.9
Martin Truex Jr.21.86,30091732,92576.2
Kyle Larson23.52,56133101,11773.9
Alex Bowman24.61,812434698173.1
Austin Dillon19.42,9357521,17372.5

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., Kyle Larson 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 April we saw Brad Keselowski take full advantage of NASCAR overtime to get around Matt DiBenedetto on the last lap and grab the impressive victory.  His shootout with multiple drivers was set up thanks to a late crash and debris 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 35 lead changes were a five-race low mark for Talladega, but there was still plenty of action and passing back in the pack.  Hopefully, we'll see more passing among the front 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

Denny Hamlin – Coming off the Las Vegas win, and with two wins in the Chase, Hamlin has stepped to the front of the championship discussion.  He'll look to keep things rolling at Talladega Superspeedway.  Hamlin is a two-time Talladega winner (2014 and 2020) 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 29-percent.  Hamlin has been a top performer the last two seasons on these huge ovals.  With a Daytona and Talladega victory, 280 laps led and five Top-5 finishes in the last seven superspeedway events, he really has to be viewed as one of the top contenders to win the YellaWood 500.

Ryan Blaney – While the 2021 season has had its ups-and-downs for the No. 12 Ford team, Blaney has been heating up as the playoffs arrived.  He has two victories, four Top-5 and five Top-10 finishes in the last six events.  The superspeedway ovals have been a real niche of this driver and team the last few seasons.  Blaney has two victories, 96 laps led, three Top-5 and five Top-10 finishes since 2020 on these tracks.  The young Penske Racing star has won two of the last four Talladega races and he's been in contention to win all four of those events.  Blaney won the last superspeedway event which was held at Daytona this Summer.  He'll be in the mix for the win Sunday afternoon at Talladega.     

Chase Elliott – On the strength of his runner-up finish at Las Vegas this past week, Elliott has thrust his name into the championship discussion.  The driver of the No. 9 Chevrolet is turning things up a notch in an effort to defend his 2020 title.  Talladega Superspeedway is a good track for him to grab a playoff-extending win and makeup ground in the standings. Elliott is a one-time Talladega winner (2019) and he's led over 170 laps in 11 starts at the huge Alabama oval.  The Hendrick Motorsports star has been very strong on these superspeedway tracks the last couple seasons.  Elliott owns two runner-up finishes, three Top-5 and four Top-10 finishes in his last five starts between Daytona and Talladega.  He's often racing among the lead pack in the closing laps in these high-risk races. 

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 two of the three races to-date.  However, the speed of the No. 22 Ford in these superspeedway events is undeniable.  Logano has led a combined 61 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.

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

Kevin Harvick – The Stewart Haas Racing star has been a steady performer this season on the superspeedway tracks.  Harvick has registered a pair of fourth-place finishes and one 15th-place finish in the three events to-date.  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 recent seasons.  Harvick hasn't been just riding in line either, as he's led 33-combined laps in these Daytona and Talladega races in 2021.  Harvick's 17-career Top-10 finishes at Talladega Superspeedway sit at a very respectable 42-percent rate for this high-risk style of racing.

Tyler Reddick – The young driver put on an impressive display at Las Vegas this past weekend.  Reddick led 5 laps and cruised to a sixth-place finish in the South Point 400.  He may be eliminated from the Chase for the Cup, but Reddick has been on point most of this season.  The driver of the No. 8 Chevrolet has been pretty dialed-in on these big ovals this season.  With finishes of 27th-, seventh- and fifth-place, Reddick has been pretty impressive.  He has two Top-10 finishes in three-career Cup starts at Talladega Superspeedway and his average finish is checking in at a very impressive 11.3.  Given this driver and team's current momentum and superspeedway results, we expect Reddick to crack the Top 10 Sunday in the YellaWood 500.   

Brad Keselowski – The six-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 April's GEICO 500 with a last-lap pass for the victory.  While he's experienced some bad luck on the superspeedway ovals the last few seasons, Keselowski always brings good speed and supreme knowledge of this style of racing to every Talladega and Daytona event.  The Penske Racing star sports a better-than-average 48-percent Top-10 rate at Talladega and he's led 300 laps for his career at this facility. 

Austin Dillon – Some drivers outside of the Chase playoffs will have some impact this weekend, and Dillon will be one of those names.  The Richard Childress Racing veteran has been quite dependable in recent superspeedway outings.  Dillon has two Top-10 and three Top-15 finishes in his last four starts between Daytona and Talladega.  He earned a strong third-place finish in the season-opening Daytona 500 and a steady eighth-place finish in April's GEICO 500.  Dillon now has two Top-10 and four Top-15 finishes in his last five starts at the Alabama oval.  The driver of the No. 3 Chevrolet should easily crack the Top 15 this weekend and possibly the Top 10 in Sunday's YellaWood 500. 

Sleepers – Drivers with good history at Talladega & solid upside

William Byron – With this fantasy racing selection comes some risk.  Byron has been wildly inconsistent of late, but he is racing for his playoff life this weekend at Talladega.  Facing elimination headed toward the Round of 8 in the Chase, Byron urgently needs a great finish at Talladega Superspeedway.  There are indicators that show he may pull off a stunning run.  Byron has struggled at Daytona, but he's flourished at Talladega the last couple seasons.  He finished fourth-place in this event one year ago and he returned to Alabama in this Spring of this year to grab an impressive runner-up finish in the GEICO 500.  That brings his career average finish at this oval down to a reasonable 17.1.  Byron could strike out this weekend but we believe it's more likely he could hit it really big.       

Michael McDowell – We haven't forgotten about this season's Daytona 500 winner.  While McDowell has fallen on hard times since the mid-Summer, his prowess at superspeedway racing cannot be overlooked.  The Front Row Motorsports veteran followed up his season-opening Daytona win with an impressive third-place finish at Talladega in April.  He now has a pair of Top-5 finishes in his last four Talladega starts.  The lessons that McDowell has learned over the years in this form of racing have been hard-earned but he now understands the ins-and-outs of racing in the draft.  The critical nature of who to partner with, and the importance of knowing when to make your move in the closing laps.    

Ryan Newman – It's been a lean season for the Roush Fenway Racing veteran, but the superspeedway ovals have been a highlight for sure.  Dating back to this event one year ago, Newman has earned two Top-10 and three Top-15 finishes in the four superspeedway events since last season's YellaWood 500.  The driver of the No. 6 Ford grabbed an impressive sixth-place finish in that event.  The last time out in this style of racing, Newman earned an impressive third-place finish in the Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona.  Those efforts added to an already impressive career resume in this style of racing.  Newman's 16-career Talladega Top 10's checks in at a respectable 41-percent rate. 

Matt DiBenedetto – The Wood Brothers Racing veteran doesn't have the career numbers at Talladega to endorse a fantasy racing start this Sunday, but his last two outings there is what we want focus our attention on.  He led 10 laps in this event one year ago, but would get shuffled in the end and finish 21st.  DiBenedetto returned this spring to Talladega and put on an impressive show.  He led a surprising 28 laps and would stick with the leaders in the end and finish a Talladega career-best fifth-place.  The uptick in speed on these big ovals for the No. 21 Ford team has been quite noticeable in 2021.  DiBenedetto may be flying under the fantasy racing radar of most players this Sunday, and that makes him a good pick for the YellaWood 500.

Ryan Preece – The JTG Daugherty Racing driver has been a consistent performer on these ovals in the last two seasons.  Preece has grabbed one Top-5, three Top-10 and five Top-15 finishes in his last seven starts between Daytona and Talladega.  All that performance adds up to a 16.4 average finish over the last two seasons, which is a very respectable mark.  Talladega Superspeedway has been a good track for Preece for his full Cup Series career.  He's earned two Top-10 and four Top-15 finishes for a strong 12.0 average finish at this track alone.  In the Spring at Talladega, Preece even led a career-best 9 laps.  He's a lower tier driver to lean on in fantasy racing leagues this week.

Justin Haley – The 22-year-old driver will make a Cup Series start this weekend at Talladega for Kaulig Racing.  This small race team has an excellent superspeedway program.  The No. 16 Chevrolet team earned a strong sixth-place finish earlier this season at Talladega with Kaz Grala behind the wheel.  Haley will take that same speed into Sunday's YellaWood 500.  The young driver has one Top-10 and three Top-15 finishes the last two seasons between the ovals of Daytona and Talladega.  The average finish checks in at a very respectable 15.0.  Haley finds ways to stay on the lead lap and compete with the much larger teams on these huge ovals.  He should bring good fantasy value in the lower tiers of weekly lineup and salary cap leagues this weekend. 

Slow Down – Drivers to avoid this week

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. – The JTG Daugherty Racing veteran used to be one of the go-to guys when it came to Daytona and Talladega.  Unfortunately, he's fallen on hard times in this style of racing and has reverted from hero to zero in a very short period of time.  Stenhosue has failed to crack the Top 10 in his last five-combined Daytona and Talladega events.  He's crashed out of two of those races and failed to finish on the lead lap in any of the five.  The one-time Talladega winner has finished 38th- and 33rd- in his last two Talladega starts, and more concerning he has led zero laps led in those two starts.  The speed Stenhouse used to display in these superspeedway events is conspicuously absent. 

Kyle Larson – There aren't many weekends to fade Larson in 2021, but this would be one of them.  The Hendrick Motorsports star has looked superhuman at times this season, but superspeedway racing is not his cup of tea.  Larson has crashed out of his last three-straight Talladega starts and now has five DNF's vs. just two-career Top 10's at the Alabama oval.  His 15-percent Top-10 rate at this track is well below any fantasy racing expectations.  The 23.5 average finish at Talladega is also another stark warning sign.  While he seems to excel at short track and intermediate oval racing, superspeedway racing in the big packs and drafting doesn't seem to be Larson's specialty.    

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 no Top-10 finishes in his last seven-combined starts between Daytona and Talladega.  Those struggles reflect his career performance at this oval as well.  The driver of the No. 18 Toyota has eight Top-10 finishes in 32 starts (25-percent) and 20.8-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 one Top-10 finish in his last seven races between Daytona and Talladega, and the lone Top 10 came at Daytona.  Further, six of those finishes across the span have been outside the Top 20 with one DNF.  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.

Want to Read More?
Subscribe to RotoWire to see the full article.

We reserve some of our best content for our paid subscribers. Plus, if you choose to subscribe you can discuss this article with the author and the rest of the RotoWire community.

Get Instant Access To This Article Get Access To This Article
RotoWire Community
Join Our Subscriber-Only NASCAR Chat
Chat with our writers and other RotoWire NASCAR fans for all the pre-game info and in-game banter.
Join The Discussion
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.
NASCAR DFS: PrizePicks Selections for the Ambetter Health 400
NASCAR DFS: PrizePicks Selections for the Ambetter Health 400
NASCAR DFS:  Ambetter Health 400
NASCAR DFS: Ambetter Health 400
NASCAR DFS Trucks: Fr8 208
NASCAR DFS Trucks: Fr8 208
Ambetter Health 400 Preview: New Slot for Atlanta
Ambetter Health 400 Preview: New Slot for Atlanta