By Jared Turner
Buckle your seatbelts. The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoffs are about to get wild.
With one race down and two to go in the Round of 12, Sunday’s race at Talladega Superspeedway has all the potential in the world to be a game-changer.
As the only restrictor-plate race in the playoffs, Talladega narrows the playing field between the haves and the have-nots in such a way that virtually anyone can end up in Victory Lane. All things considered, a more equal playing field is not a bad thing.
However, the downside to competing at the high-speed 2.66-mile track is the increased probability of being caught up in the “Big One” — the all-too-familiar moniker for the familiar and often frightening multi-car wrecks created by the close-quarters racing at Talladega.
If a playoff driver can leave Talladega with his race car and championship hopes at least remotely intact, most will consider it a fairly successful afternoon.
“Talladega, yeah, I know that when the thing is over, we will have had a shot to win and we will also have a good shot to get crashed,” said Jamie McMurray, one of 11 drivers vying for seven remaining spots in the Round of 8. “We will just have to wait and see how it plays out.”
A former winner at Talladega, McMurray has a clear strategy in mind.
“I view Talladega as going there and racing as hard as I can every single lap trying to get as many stage points as I can,” the Chip Ganassi Racing driver said after finishing fifth last Sunday at Charlotte Motor Speedway, host to the first of three races in the Round of 12. “I really feel like we will have to win a race (in this playoff round) in order to advance, unless we have three races like we had today.”
Sitting a single point behind McMurray — who currently holds the eighth and final transfer spot for the next round — is Matt Kenseth. Like McMurray, Kenseth approaches Talladega with caution. While the outcome of the race could be a major home run for his hopes of advancing, it could also be disastrous.
“We’ll just go there and do our best, try to figure out a plan,” Kenseth said. “Hopefully, we’re fast enough to be in that lead group. The guys that got fast cars there typically can stay out of trouble and you can go race other people. It’s when you’re hanging on and everybody’s in a different lane that you find yourself in trouble. Hopefully, our car’s fast.”
One position and one point behind Kenseth in the playoff standings is Brad Keselowski, a four-time Talladega winner. With only Talladega and Kansas Speedway left in the Round of 12, the Team Penske driver not surprisingly sees Talladega as his best opportunity to punch his ticket to the next round.
“It seems like Charlotte and Kansas we have just not been able to connect what we’re looking for here the last two fall races,” Keselowski said after finishing 15th this past weekend at Charlotte. “Hopefully, we can go to Talladega and connect with what we’re looking for.”
As for Charlotte winner Martin Truex Jr., he’s already locked into the Round of 8. So, instead of having to worry about all the hazards that come with racing at Talladega, the Furniture Row Racing driver can breathe a major sigh of relief knowing that come whatever may, he is moving on.
“You have no idea, man,” Truex said when asked about being locked into the next round. “It feels unbelievable. I’ve never went there before and not been nervous about crashing or something bad happening. Seems like we’ve always had bad luck there, so it’s going to be fun next week.”