(Photo credit: Amy Kontras-USA TODAY Sports)
One of the most highly anticipated races on the NASCAR Cup Series playoff slate is Sunday's YellaWood 500 at the famed full-action track, Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway (2 p.m. ET on NBC, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
Hendrick Motorsports' Chase Elliott -- always the Talladega fan favorite -- is the defending race winner of this event on the 2.66-mile speedway. The 2020 series champion and Georgia native is still racing for his first victory of this season - an example of the multiple motivators sure to add to the excitement of Talladega.
Whether hoping to secure a win to advance to another playoff round or simply to claim a first trophy of the season, there are plenty of intriguing scenarios when it comes to competing on NASCAR's biggest track.
One driver that won't be dependent on his Talladega showing, however, is Hendrick Motorsports' William Byron, who punched his ticket to the Round of 8 with a dramatic victory last week at Texas in a race that dramatically shuffled the playoff standings.
With his series-best, career-best single season sixth victory, Byron is already on to the next round. The rest of the playoff 12 are fairly close in points -- from Joe Gibbs Racing's Denny Hamlin, who holds a 37-point advantage on the cutoff line to Hendrick Motorsports' Kyle Larson, who led almost 100 laps last weekend, but crashed in the closing minutes of the race and now holds only a tenuous two-point edge in that crucial eighth place position over 23XI Racing's Bubba Wallace for the final transfer spot.
RFK Racing driver Chris Buescher (22 points on the cutline), JGR's Christopher Bell (20), regular season champion JGR's Martin Truex Jr. (19), Trackhouse Racing's Ross Chastain (12), RFK's Brad Keselowski (8) and Larson (2) are currently above the cutoff line.
Needing a good weekend, Wallace's 23XI Racing teammate Tyler Reddick -- who like Larson won a race in the Playoff's opening round -- is ranked 10th, three points off Larson. Team Penske's Ryan Blaney is 11 points back and two-time series champion Kyle Busch is now 17 points back -- both suffering DNFs at Texas.
Busch earned his second Talladega victory just this Spring and his Richard Childress Racing team is historically strong on the big tracks such as Talladega and Daytona.
Eleven former Talladega winners are in the race and six of them are playoff drivers. The winningest active 'Dega driver is Keselowski, whose six trophies are twice more than anyone else he'll compete against Sunday. Reigning series champion, Team Penske's Joey Logano has three wins. Elliott, Busch, Hamlin and Blaney each have a pair of trophies. Blaney's wins in 2019-20 make him the most recent driver to earn back-to-back trophies.
Wallace, Trackhouse Racing's Chastain, Stewart-Haas Racing teammates Kevin Harvick and Aric Almirola and JTG Daugherty Racing's Ricky Stenhouse Jr. all have a Talladega win too.
"Talladega is just so unpredictable," said Denny Hamlin, driver of the No. 11 JGR Toyota. "Everyone wanted to maximize their points at Texas last week because Talladega and the [Charlotte] ROVAL are very iffy. We feel pretty good about the position we're in, but we still have to go into this week trying to get stage points and put ourselves in a good position to get another good finish before the ROVAL."
An interesting fact about this Talladega race. No Talladega Playoff race winner has gone on to win the championship that same year. Larson won the title in 2021 with the worst ever Talladega finish (37th) for a playoff driver.
There is no practice this week. Busch Light pole qualifying is set for Saturday (4:30 p.m. ET on the USA Network).
--CRAFTSMAN Truck Series playoffs return to competition at Talladega
The NASCAR CRAFTSMAN Truck Series returns to Playoff action after an off week with Saturday's Love's RV Stop 250 (1 p.m. ET, FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) at the famed Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway.
There have been seven different race winners in as many Talladega Playoff races for the Truck Series. Matt DiBenedetto is the 2022 race winner. Grant Enfinger (2016) is the only current Playoff competitor with a past Playoff victory at Talladega.
TRICON Garage driver Corey Heim, the regular season champion, has already earned his spot in the Championship 4 with a victory in this round's opener at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway two weeks ago. His three challengers for the title remain to be set among a highly motivated closely ranked group of Playoff drivers.
McAnally-Hilgemann Racing's Christian Eckes, who won both stages and led the most laps (150) at Bristol, enters Saturday's race with a comfortable 29-point edge atop the points standings. Niece Motorsports' Carson Hocevar is 18-points above the four-driver cutoff line and GMS Racing's Enfinger holds a 14-point edge to the good.
Reigning series champion Zane Smith (-14), Ben Rhodes (-19), rookie Nick Sanchez (-22) and Ty Majeski (-22) are currently below the cutoff line.
The Alabama-native Enfinger boasts the best finishing record among Playoff drivers at his home-state track with the 2016 victory and three top-10 finishes in nine starts. The 2021 series champion Rhodes, has a pair of top-five finishes in seven starts. Eckes is the only other driver among the Playoff 8 with a top-five and his 11.5 average finish in two starts is tops among the championship challengers.
The Sunoco Rookie of the Year candidate Sanchez joins seven other drivers making their Talladega debut this weekend.
Zane Smith, who will be competing full-time with Trackhouse Racing in the NASCAR Cup Series next year, has advanced to the Championship 4 three times, but he does not have a top-10 in three previous Talladega Playoff races.
Of note, TRICON Garage co-owner and former NASCAR Cup Series regular David Gilliland will drive the No. 1 Toyota at Talladega. It is his second race of the season and his first at the big track since winning the pole and finishing third in the 2018 race there.
Former series champion Brett Moffitt will join Front Row Motorsports this weekend in the No. 34 Ford as Smith's teammate. And NASCAR Xfinity Series Playoff competitor Parker Kligerman -- a two-time NASCAR CRAFTSMAN Truck Series Talladega winner -- is also entered this weekend in the No. 75 Henderson Motorsport Chevrolet.
There is no practice this weekend. Qualifying is slated for Saturday at 9:30 a.m. ET (FS2).
By Holly Cain, NASCAR Wire Service. Special to Field Level Media