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.

The luck factor comes into play this weekend like no other race in the 10 events that make up the Chase for the NASCAR Cup. The Cup Series 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. 

A mystery driver could be in the spotlight this Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway. Thanks mostly to the Next Gen car, we've had two first-time superspeedway winners in the three events thus far this season. Austin Cindric took the checkers in the Daytona 500 and Ross Chastain took the win in the spring Talladega event. These huge oval races seem more a wild card than ever this season, so we could see another surprise, first-time superspeedway

The luck factor comes into play this weekend like no other race in the 10 events that make up the Chase for the NASCAR Cup. The Cup Series 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. 

A mystery driver could be in the spotlight this Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway. Thanks mostly to the Next Gen car, we've had two first-time superspeedway winners in the three events thus far this season. Austin Cindric took the checkers in the Daytona 500 and Ross Chastain took the win in the spring Talladega event. These huge oval races seem more a wild card than ever this season, so we could see another surprise, first-time superspeedway winner. The two biggest threats to the mystery underdog driver's hopes for a Talladega victory 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 Kyle Busch 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 35 races at the famous Alabama oval.

DriverAvg. FinishQuality Passes# of Fastest LapsLaps LedLaps in Top 15Driver Rating
Ryan Blaney16.93,746461972,11291.1
Brad Keselowski15.45,9351043133,14890.8
Joey Logano17.56,226964173,24590.4
Kurt Busch16.68,9531192384,31989.6
Chase Elliott16.53,056471721,69989.3
William Byron19.01,72436941,07385.4
Cole Custer21.089113840883.8
Denny Hamlin16.96,0881334043,09183.5
Kevin Harvick15.76,5031452563,46382.0
Kyle Busch20.47,0061542633,50681.5
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.15.03,527791041,62879.6
Aric Almirola 16.04,10176711,97477.9
Martin Truex Jr.21.16,65996753,16477.3
Daniel Hemric20.74475122576.2
Kyle Larson23.12,82340451,33376.0
Erik Jones19.81,770365096875.7
Bubba Wallace19.21,269435370375.2
Ty Dillon14.31,222411061374.5
Alex Bowman24.42,18152471,15474.2
Christopher Bell22.4893102549473.7

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. Sometimes 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 Ross Chastain surge late to get around Erik Jones on the last lap and grab the impressive victory. His shootout with multiple drivers was set up thanks to tight pack racing in a single file line that mushroomed into three-wide action by the time drivers reached the tri-oval for the last time. This late turn of events gave us a dramatic finish, and it underscores the unpredictability of Talladega races. Chastain was running third-place entering the tri-oval and leapt past both Jones and Kyle Larson to grab the win. Yes, indeed, anything can happen at Talladega. The 41 lead changes were a three-race high for Talladega and were more reminiscent of the events that were held at the track in 2020. Hopefully, we'll see even 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 sandbagging 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 – The 2022 season has had its ups-and-downs for the No. 12 Ford team, but Blaney has been heating up as the playoffs arrived. He has a pair of Top 10s in the last three events and escaped Texas with a strong Top-5 finish this past Sunday. The superspeedway ovals have been a real niche of this driver and team the last few seasons. Blaney has two victories, 142 laps led and three Top 10s since 2019 at Talladega Superspeedway. In addition, he led 36 laps in the season-opening Daytona 500 and cracked the Top 5 in the first ever superspeedway race in the Next Gen car. Blaney led 23 laps at Talladega earlier this season and finished a respectable 11th place in the GEICO 500. He'll be in the mix for the win and automatic berth to the next round of the Chase Sunday afternoon at Talladega.

Chase Elliott – After his crash at Texas this past week, Elliott comes to Talladega in scramble mode to advance in the Chase. Talladega Superspeedway is a good track for him to grab a playoff-extending win and make up ground in the standings. Elliott is a one-time Talladega winner (2019) and has led over 170 laps in 13 starts at the huge Alabama oval. The Hendrick Motorsports star has been very strong on these superspeedway tracks the last couple seasons. Elliott grabbed a Top 10 in the season-opening Daytona 500 and finished a strong seventh-place earlier this season at Talladega. The driver of the No. 9 Chevy qualified on the outside pole and led 31 laps at Daytona a few weeks ago but was rolled up in a late-race crash. Elliott is often racing among the lead pack in the closing laps in these high-risk superspeedway races. 

Austin Cindric – This season's Daytona 500 winner also aced a recent start at Daytona in August. Cindric led 13 laps in the Coke Zero Sugar 400 and finished an impressive third place. That makes first- and third-place Daytona finishes this season for the No. 2 Ford team. Cindric wasn't as lucky or strong in his Talladega start earlier this season, but he gets a golden opportunity to make up for it. The young driver led 45 laps in his Xfinity Series career at the Alabama oval, finished runner-up once and cracked the Top 5 at Talladega at a strong 50-percent rate. His six starts of Xfinity Series experience at this oval are more than enough to fill Cindric with confidence heading into this important playoff race. He's 11 points below the cutoff line to advance, so motivation won't be an issue.   

Kyle Busch – The last four races have been nothing short of a nightmare for Busch, but there's ample reason to believe a trend-bucking performance could be on order this Sunday at Talladega. Superspeedway racing hasn't really been a strength of this driver and team over the years, but Busch has been exceptional this season on the big ovals with this new Next-Gen car. He has finishes of sixth-, third- and 10th-place along with 38 combined laps led in the two Daytona and one Talladega race to date. The GEICO 500 at Talladega was the most impressive of the three, as he led three laps and finished a brilliant third place after battling with Ross Chastain and a number of other drivers on the last lap for the win.     

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

Martin Truex Jr. – Truex has typically been on our slow down list whenever we visit Talladega, but not this time around. The Joe Gibbs Racing veteran has bucked his bad luck tag this season on the superspeedway ovals and grabbed finishes of 13th, fifth and eighth place in the big oval events of Daytona and Talladega. The fifth-place finish came at Talladega in April, when Truex qualified on the outside pole in the GEICO 500. It was an uncharacteristic performance for Truex at this track, as he's a career 26-percent Top-10 finisher at Talladega. Prior to that April performance, he hadn't visited the Top 10 there since 2015. Truex is looking to end the season strong and it appears his team has some speed for these superspeedway ovals.

Michael McDowell – McDowell is one of a handful of drivers to collect two or more Top 10s this season in the three superspeedway events thus far. The Front Row Motorsports veteran grabbed a seventh-place finish in the Daytona 500 and a similarly impressive eighth-place finish at Talladega in April. The 2021 Daytona 500 winner has always been a skilled hand when it comes to this style of high-stakes racing. McDowell knows the cues of when to go and who to go with in the closing laps of these races, which is often the biggest factor in contending for wins and grabbing Top 10s in these wild events. McDowell has never won at Talladega but has visited the Top 10 in three of his last six starts there.

Bubba Wallace – The winner of this event one year ago returns to the scene to defend his title. Wallace did some impressive racing in last season's YellaWood 500 and got a little help from Mother Nature, as rain cut that event about 70 laps short of full distance. Still, Wallace did tremendous work to keep both Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano behind him in those frantic laps before the final caution of that day. The 23XI Racing driver has been proficient in 2022 in this form of racing in the Next Gen car. Wallace has led 29 laps in the three events and grabbed a runner-up finish in the Daytona 500 and an 11th-place finish five weeks ago at Daytona. He has led a significant number of laps in his last four Talladega starts,  a pattern which should continue this weekend.

Austin Dillon – Our most recent superspeedway winner (at Daytona in August) makes the solid plays list for the YellaWood 500. Dillon led 10 laps and held off teammate, Tyler Reddick, to capture the win in the Coke Zero Sugar 400. The RCR veteran also notched an impressive runner-up finish the last time the NASCAR Cup Series visited Talladega in April. Dillon has really impressed on these big ovals in the new generation stock car. The driver of the No. 3 Chevrolet has never won at this track, but he has finishes of eighth-, 11th- and second-place in his last three visits to central Alabama. That level of performance is well better than his career averages at Talladega and the uptick is worth noting. Dillon has always been an above average performer in this style of racing. 

Sleepers – Drivers with good history at Talladega & solid upside

Denny Hamlin – Hamlin is still alive in the playoffs, which may provide the motivational edge he needs to be a big performer at Talladega this Sunday. The Joe Gibbs Racing star is a two-time winner at the Alabama oval and has led well over 400 laps here. Hamlin cracks the Top 10 at Talladega at a decent 42-percent rate, which is pretty good for this high-stakes form of racing. The driver of the No. 11 Toyota hasn't been one of the better performers on the superspeedways in the Next-Gen car, so that's why we've bumped him down to the sleepers list this weekend. However, Hamlin did lead 13 laps recently at Daytona and appear poised for a Top-10 finish before a late-race accident would take him out. Hamlin is a top fantasy racing play in this important playoff race.

Tyler Reddick – The young driver hasn't been a top performer on the big ovals this season, but his most recent outing left an indelible impression. Reddick qualified sixth, led 13 laps and finished runner-up five weeks ago at Daytona. It was easily his best superspeedway performance of the season. Coming off a big win at Texas this past weekend, his third victory of the season, Reddick looks primed to make a big splash at Talladega Superspeedway despite the fact that he's been eliminated from the playoffs. With one victory, one runner-up finish and three Top 5s in the last five events, Reddick has been one of the top performers of the last several weeks.

Brad Keselowski – The six-time Talladega winner has been largely irrelevant in fantasy racing circles this season, but he's been getting his act together in recent races. Keselowski nabbed a seventh-place finish at Darlington recently and a pole position and eighth-place finish this past weekend at Texas. The owner and driver of the No. 6 Ford has been coming to life and finally getting some results in this new Next Gen car. Keselowski's last of six Talladega wins came in 2021 and he typically cracks the Top 10 here at a decent 48-percent rate. Talladega Superspeedway was not only the site of Keselowski's first Cup Series win, but it's been a track of tremendous success over the years.  

William Byron – Byron has definitely flipped the switch on since the playoffs began. The young driver has finishes of eighth, sixth, third and seventh place since the Chase began and rides a four-race Top-10 streak into Talladega this weekend. Byron is in great position for a deep drive into the Chase playoffs, assuming he doesn't find trouble Sunday at Talladega. The driver of the No. 24 Chevrolet has been a bit of a tough-luck performer on the superspeedways this season with just one Top-15 finish and two finishes outside the Top 30. However, that better performance did come at Talladega in April. Byron led 38 laps in that event and battled among the leaders for significant portions of the GEICO 500. He has a pretty high ceiling for Sunday's YellaWood 500.        

Erik Jones – The Petty GMS Racing driver has been pretty sharp in recent races. Jones won at Darlington a few weeks ago and he's fresh off a strong sixth-place finish at Texas. The driver of the No. 43 Chevrolet has been a mixed-bag performer on the big ovals this season. Jones has managed a strong 50 laps led in the three events to date, but the finishes have been harder to come by for the veteran. Crashes have been the primary problem for Jones, but he did manage to squeeze in a strong sixth-place finish in April at Talladega. That bodes well for this Sunday's YellaWood 500. He's cracked the Top 10 in four of his last five starts at Talladega Superspeedway, boosting his career Top-10 rate to 46 percent.

Ross Chastain – We would be irresponsible if we left out April's Talladega winner in this sleepers list for the YellaWood 500. Granted, the veteran driver has been a high-risk, high-reward performer on the big ovals this season, with two DNFs at Daytona alongside his big victory at Talladega in the spring. Chastain will bring that same home run potential and an equal strikeout risk in this Sunday's 500-mile battle. The Trackhouse Racing veteran drove through the late block of Kyle Larson and just edged Erik Jones to the finish line in a dramatic last-lap pass for the win, and he'll bring that experience and ability to this Sunday's Talladega Superspeedway playoff race. He's still thick in the hunt for playoff advancement, which will make Chastain a dangerous driver in this wild Chase for the Cup race.   

Slow Down – Drivers to avoid this week

Kevin Harvick – Everything has seemed to go wrong for Harvick the last several weeks. He ended the regular season with a crash and a DNF and then started the Chase for the Cup with two consecutive DNFs at Darlington and Kansas. The 19th-place result at Texas this past week is equally disappointing for the No. 4 SHR Ford team. Harvick is a one-time Talladega winner and he typically cracks the Top 10 here at a respectable 44-percent rate. He rides a three-race Talladega Top-10 streak into Sunday's action, but his recent struggles are just too puzzling to ignore. He's been eliminated from the playoffs and is quite frankly limping into this 500-mile event.

Joey Logano – The Penske Racing star is a three-time Talladega winner, but his luck in superspeedway racing in the Next Gen car has taken a hit this season. Logano has uncharacteristic finishes of 21st, 32nd and 12th place this year on the big tracks. The No. 22 Ford team is coming off a big runner-up finish at Texas this past week, but we believe that will be hard for Logano to replicate at Talladega. It has been an inconsistent playoffs thus far for Logano and his Penske Racing squad, and we don't see that changing for Sunday's YellaWood 500. Unfortunately, we view him as a high-risk fantasy racing driver for this weekend.

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. Stenhouse has failed to crack the Top 10 in his last four Talladega events. He's crashed out of two of those races and failed to finish on the lead lap in all but one. The one-time Talladega winner has crashed out of all three superspeedway events this season and has a lowly average finish of 26.7 this season between Daytona and Talladega. The speed Stenhouse used to display in these superspeedway events is conspicuously absent in 2022.

Christopher Bell – Bell has been a steady fantasy racing performer in recent weeks, but we're sliding him into the slow down list for this weekend. The Joe Gibbs Racing youngster has had absolutely no luck racing on the big ovals in the Next-Gen car this season. Two crashes and DNFs along with one finish outside the Top 20 have combined to give Bell an average finish of 30.7 between the three superspeedway events this season. Speed in the No. 20 Toyota has looked reasonably good and qualifying has been excellent, but Bell has been unable to translate that good pace into good finishes. Coming off a crash and DNF at Texas this past week, Bell will have a ton of pressure to perform and advance into the Round of 8, which may be more pressure than he can bear.  

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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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