Podium Preview: YellaWood 500 at Talladega

It's something of a tall task to win the YellaWood 500 at Talladega Superspeedway. (Photo: Sean Gardner | Getty Images)

It’s something of a tall task to win the YellaWood 500 at Talladega Superspeedway. (Photo: Sean Gardner | Getty Images)

Make no mistake that there’s no other Playoff race like the YellaWood 500 at Talladega Superspeedway. While some compare superspeedway racing to chess, some may be wise to compare it to rush hour traffic at 190 mph.

Surely, the intense pace and three to four wide formations prove exhilarating. However, those exciting moments inevitably lead to “The Big Ones,” the byproduct of an innocuous mistake that may wipe out the usual contenders in the latter going. Might this hold true for the latest and upcoming NASCAR Cup Series Playoff race of 2021?

Each race weekend, The Podium Finish’s panelists preview each NASCAR Cup Series points-paying race. This weekend, Ashley HobbsJasmine SharpeKobe Lambeth, Luis TorresMatt SisolerMichelle RaynorNathan SolomonTaylor KitchenTerra Jones and yours truly ponder about Playoff racers’ strategies and the possibility of near normal race weekends returning.

Podium Preview: YellaWood 500 at Talladega
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Question 1
Might we see some intense racing between the likes of Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick at Talladega? (Photo: Landen Ciardullo | The Podium Finish)

Might we see some intense racing between the likes of Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick at Talladega? (Photo: Landen Ciardullo | The Podium Finish)

Talladega typically presents chaos and frenzy especially in the NASCAR Playoffs. Which of the current Round of 12 drivers likely races with absolute aggression versus a conservative game plan?

Hobbs : This is NASCAR – there is no conservation with these men. However, Denny Hamlin already has himself locked into the next round, so compared to the rest of the field, he is good. However, that will not stop him from being a racer and going for the win.

Given Talladega is a track that can end your day (and possibly your Playoff hopes) in the blink of an eye, I reckon all the Playoff drivers will have a plan that suits them and their driving style. Like Hamlin, Kyle Larson is in a pretty good spot with all of his Playoff points. The rest of the pack, as uncertain as this race can be, the Charlotte ROVAL is also an uncertain track. I see the rest of the Playoff field being aggressive, especially those final few laps.  

Shoppe :  Obviously Denny Hamlin being locked in with his Vegas win can do whatever he wants without any stress today in talladega. Kyle Larson while not being totally locked in, his cushion over the cutline affords him some freedom to be aggressive. I don’t really it will come down to aggression versus conservative racing today. Regardless how you approach this wildcard race, luck will dictate where you end up at the end of the day. 

Raynor :  All of them are going to race with aggression at some point of the race and I think it will have to do with the non Playoff cars. They have nothing to lose and will do anything to win which will force the playoffs drivers to become aggressive. As in years past, it doesn’t matter if you are conservative or aggressive because neither pay off in the end. It’s a matter of when to be aggressive and not. It’s luck and who’s pushing you.

Sisoler :  When it comes to Talladega, unless you are absolutely guaranteed into the next round, at a certain point, a playoff driver has to try and get aggressive to go for the victory. Some drivers can afford to go bold (i.e. Denny Hamlin and Kyle Larson), but others may have to play the tactical game, waiting for their moment to strike as to avoid putting themselves in a bad spot coming out of Sunday’s 500-mile race at the largest oval in NASCAR competition.

Lambeth :  After a frustrating finish at Las Vegas, I think Christopher Bell must be aggressive at Talladega if he wants any shot at making the Round of 8. Riding around all day in the back and waiting until the end to move to the front does him no good. Being 25 points away from advancing, two stage wins and a good finish at Talladega would cut down the deficit significantly heading to the Charlotte Roval. I think the No. 20 team should try to get up front and stay there all day long. It gives them the best chance to make a deep playoff run. Bell has to be in a must-win mentality and have luck fall his way.

Tiongson : Denny Hamlin finds himself in a luxurious spot. He can send it with bold passes throughout the race. Sure, he can sit back and wait for the action to unfold. However, that’s not always Hamlin’s M.O. as he showed in this year’s Daytona 500 and the spring Talladega race. With two wins and nearly unmatched consistency, he seems like the best Round of 12 driver who’ll go full out.

Now, as for a driver who’ll play it safe, I expect Kyle Larson and his No. 5 team running toward the back of the pack for the two stages. If he sees an opportunity to maximize on points, he may opt for a late stage surge. On the other hand, when Larson raced with a “nothing to lose” mentality after his Dover win in Oct. 2019, running near the hornet’s nest resulted in a hard crash and a rib injury. Perhaps he’ll try to channel his best Jeff Gordon impression from the fall 2007 race where he’ll sneak his way to the front in the race’s ultimate moments.

Also, Alex Bowman and William Byron find themselves below the cut heading into the YellaWood 500. Look for these two vying for maximum points especially with the unknown one week later at the Charlotte ROVAL.

Sharpe : Who isn’t going to be aggressive for this week’s race? The four drivers looking into clinching a spot for the next round I would hope would be aggressive considering their position.

Even with Hamlin and Larson in a safe spot, doesn’t mean they won’t calm down at this track either. I think I’m keeping an eye on Logano and Blaney this week.

Logano is always aggressive, it’s just his style, but the fact we’re at Talladega this week and he’s craving for another win will make him almost bloodthirsty. This behavior, while great in some situations though, isn’t something you want to overdo at Talladega though, and he’s shown this with several large wrecks throughout his career.

His teammate, Ryan Blaney, is my pick for this week. Not only is he great at super-speedways, but he’s proven this season that he wants to be the new leader within the Team Penske camp. His spotter and crew chief know how to get their driver to the front and I think this will be the race for the team to shine.

Question 2
Are we talking 'bout practice? (Photo: Sean Gardner | Getty Images)

Are we talking ’bout practice? (Photo: Sean Gardner | Getty Images)

Practice and qualifying may return for the 2022 season. Who likely benefits from a near normal weekend schedule, even if it is reduced by a day from what we’ve known?

Torres : People like to bring up Kyle Busch as one man who’ll benefit most from a normal weekend schedule. But I can see everyone gaining a lot, especially with the new car next season. The teams further down the grid like Spire, Rick Ware, and even Roush in particular need the track time.

We’ve seen some drivers test the Next Gen machine, but there’s always room for more track time. Weekends are optimal to learn and I really hope it does come back. The Cup Series needs it because the last thing the sport needs is continuous blunders with the nex car.

We’re entering the unknown in 2022 and the lack of practice won’t do the series any favors in the long haul. There’s more than just sports entertainment. There needs to be common sense so drivers don’t have to face tremendous unknowns.

Jones :  Oh, that’s easy. I can think of about 38 drivers that will benefit! I think it’s safe to say everyone is over the “formula” that determines starting spots and is ready to get back to proving themselves via qualifying laps. 

Practice has always been so crucial – not just to ensure that the car is literally up to speed, but to catch minute things that can ruin an entire race day. 

Throw in the Next Gen car where only a handful of drivers have actually been behind the wheel to test it out and practice will play an even bigger role. 

Kitchen :  Every single driver in the field will benefit from adding practice and qualifying, especially with the Next Gen car.

I am greatly looking forward to qualifying because it gives any driver, regardless of their points standings, a chance to advance their spot in the lineups. 

For example, look at the qualifying rounds from Nashville Superspeedway. Aric Almirola, a driver that virtually had no shot at a pole position based on his points standings and previous race performances was able to acquire the pole. This was only possible because qualifying allowed the lineup of the race to be based on the performance of the cars that week, not on points or overall performance the weeks prior.

On the contrary, qualifying does not always guarantee a top-tier driver the pole or a top 10 starting position every week. Going back to Nashville, Martin Truex Jr. struggled when qualifying and started the race back in 35th. Without qualifying, I believe he would have started the race in the top 10 based on his previous finishes and points standings. However, his failure to qualify well that weekend gave other teams the opportunity to move up in the lineup and start the race where they should based on their equipment and speed. 

All in all, it is a great joy to have qualifying and practice back because it will allow these teams to line up according to their car that week without relying on their performance the week prior.

Solomon :  A lot of younger drivers will benefit from the return of practice to race weekend. Guys like Tyler Reddick, Chase Briscoe, and Cole Custer don’t have a ton of Cup Series experience, and I believe practice will help them. As for veterans, I look at Kyle Busch as a driver who will benefit from practice. He needs time to fine tune the car before the race to run competitively. He often cannot get his car to where he needs it until towards the end of the race when it’s too late.

Overall, almost everyone will benefit from practice except maybe someone like Kyle Larson. He’s known to show up and win with whatever he’s given, so practice may allow other drivers to catch up to Larson by race time.

By and large, the TPF team nails two laps around Talladega without getting in “The Big One!” Now, let’s reflect on last Sunday’s South Point 400 at Las Vegas with our race and points reports!
Mr. Hamlin delivered on some goodies for Torres and Solomon.

Mr. Hamlin delivered on some goodies for Torres and Solomon.

Meanwhile, Ashley Hobbs leads the way like Emily Prentiss with the BAU.

Meanwhile, Ashley Hobbs leads the way like Emily Prentiss with the BAU.

Next, Ashley Hobbs considers the numbers that might prove worthwhile for Sunday’s YellaWood 500 at Talladega. Perhaps it’s the winning combination for the Powerball.
First, consider how your favorite team fares in the YellaWood 500 at Talladega.

First, consider how your favorite team fares in the YellaWood 500 at Talladega.

Since 2004, the YellaWood 500 at Talladega has an average starting spot of 11.2, led an average of 23.1 laps, started within the top five 35.29% of the time and started within the top 10 70.59% of the time.

Since 2004, the YellaWood 500 at Talladega has an average starting spot of 11.2, led an average of 23.1 laps, started within the top five 35.29% of the time and started within the top 10 70.59% of the time.

You're a sneaky one, Joey Logano.

You’re a sneaky one, Joey Logano.

Next, we consider those important trends in the past 10 Talladega fall races.

Next, we consider those important trends in the past 10 Talladega fall races.

Here, we consider the trends at Talladega in the past five races.

Here, we consider the trends at Talladega in the past five races.

Oh, if only.

Oh, if only.

Now, let’s look at the top 10 starters for Sunday’s YellaWood 500 at Talladega!
Row 1
Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch (Photo: Landen Ciardullo | The Podium Finish)

Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch (Photo: Landen Ciardullo | The Podium Finish)

Row 2
Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney (Photo: Landen Ciardullo | The Podium Finish)

Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney (Photo: Landen Ciardullo | The Podium Finish)

Row 3
Kyle Larson and Martin Truex Jr (Photo: Stephen Conley and Landen Ciardullo | The Podium Finish)

Kyle Larson and Martin Truex Jr (Photo: Stephen Conley and Landen Ciardullo | The Podium Finish)

Row 4
Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano (Photo: Stephen Conley | The Podium Finish)

Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano (Photo: Stephen Conley | The Podium Finish)

Row 5
Kevin Harvick and William Byron (Photo: Landen Ciardullo | The Podium Finish)

Kevin Harvick and William Byron (Photo: Landen Ciardullo | The Podium Finish)

Lastly, it’s time for us to reveal our picks for Sunday’s YellaWood 500 at Talladega!
We've tried our best.

We’ve tried our best.

Tiongson : While I hoped to save him for Martinsville, the time is now for wins. I’m behind our panelists by quite a bit and need maximum points. So, I’m counting on Denny Hamlin to capture his third Talladega win in his No. 11 FedEx Toyota Camry. After all, an average finish of 15.2 in the past five Talladega races seems respectable with a checkers or wreckers type race awaiting us.

Jones : He has come so close so many times at Talladega, just like at Daytona. With nothing to lose, why not make it two wins this season for Michael McDowell?!

Torres : Never truly count out Ryan Blaney on the superspeedways. He has the momentum because of winning the August race at Daytona. However, I don’t see anything changing where the Ford camp doesn’t win at Talladega. It’ll likely be yet another Penske dominant race. Just the race winner will be different as Blaney will punch his ticket into the next round and continue his career season.

Sharpe : Blaney has been a strong contender when it comes to superspeedways. Between Daytona and Talladega, he always finishes up in the top ten. Taking into consideration the chaos that is produced during these types of races, being able to finish up front is a huge accomplishment.

Solomon : Brad Keselowski is the modern day king of Talladega. With six wins at the track, he’s learned how to navigate the race and stay out of big wrecks. Keselowski now has TJ Majors in his ear, one of the best spotters in the sport, especially on superspeedways. I believe Keselowski will run up front to sweep Talladega this season and advance to the Round of 8.

Raynor : Keselowski has six wins and the Fords work well together.

Hobbs : Oh Talladega… how you make this so difficult. For no other reason than statistics, I look for Austin Dillon to spoil the Playoff driver party and be victorious for the first time this year.

TPF Stats : The Machine is playing by the rules. Since Denny Hamlin has already been chosen, P2 comes up to the plate for TPF victory! Look out world – Tyler Reddick is going to spoil the Playoff party and keep the 10* (because let’s be real, Kyle Larson will be locked in come race end) gentlemen on the edge of their seats for another week.

Shoppe : There’s no real point to looking into stats, performance and playoff situation when making a pick for Talladega. It comes down to who won’t crash! Lately, one guy has been the smartest when it comes to avoiding accidents at these races. Ryan Newman perseveres through the chaos and wins in likely his last chance to score a win in his successful yet underrated Cup series career!

Kitchen : William Byron is an in-between pick. He is not a driver that would absolutely be expected to win this weekend, but he is also not a driver that would absolutely struggle either. The last three races at the track, Byron has finished better and better. He finished the race 11th back in June of 2020, fourth in October of 2020, and finally second this spring. I say the stats only get better from here with a win.

Shoppe : I need points, and I need them badly to stay in the championship hunt. So with that being said, why not pull the trigger with the guy who came soo close to winning last year in this fall race at Talladega, and come to think of it, was really close in the spring race too. I am going with William Byron because, why not? Something about Talladega and a No. 24 Chevrolet just seems to go hand-in-hand.

Lambeth : Chris Buescher has looked strong on superspeedways this year and made things interesting several weeks ago at Daytona. With Tate Fogleman and Brandon Brown picking up surprise wins on Saturday, Buescher has potential to add to the feel-good storylines coming out of Dega!

We’re ready for some racing. How about you? What do you think are the biggest storylines heading into the race? Who are your favorites to win?  Tweet us now @ThePodiumFinish and tell us now!

Thanks as always to the TPF team for their amazing efforts this week!  Stay safe and wash your hands often. Help yourself, your family and friends by getting the COVID-19 vaccine! Take the shot to save your life and others! Also, thanks for reading our content throughout this season.

The opinions and thoughts expressed in Podium Preview are solely of the authors. They do not reflect any organizations affiliated with the participants and author outside of TPF. This weekly feature is strictly for entertainment purposes. Ultimately, they are not indicative of TPF, the organization and its staff.

Also, if you are shopping for NASCAR or racing die-casts, be sure to check out our friends at Circle B Diecast! If your order is $20 or more, be sure to use coupon code TPF2021 for free shipping! Tell them we sent you and buy some new die-casts now!

Rob Tiongson

Rob Tiongson is a 30-something motorsports journalist who enjoys sports like baseball, basketball, football, soccer, track and field and hockey. A Boston native turned Austinite, racing was the first sport that caught his eyes.

From interviews to retrospective articles, if it's about anything with an engine and four wheels, it'll be here on TPF, by him or by one of his talented columnists who have a passion for racing.

Currently seeking a sports writing, public relations, or sports marketing career, particularly in motorsports. He enjoys editing and writing articles and features, as well as photography. Moreover, he enjoys time with his family and friends, traveling, cooking, working out and being a fun uncle or "funcle" to his nephew, niece and cat.

Tiongson, a graduate of Southern New Hampshire University with a Bachelor of Arts in Communication, pursues his Master of Arts in Digital Communications at St. Bonaventure University. Indeed, while Tiongson is proud to be from Massachusetts, he's just as happy to be a Texan.

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