Playoff drivers tackle chaotic Talladega
Avoiding “The Big One” key in second race of NASCAR playoffs round of 12
Brad Keselowski knows how to win at Talladega Superspeedway, one of NASCAR’s most chaotic and unpredictable tracks, even though he can’t pinpoint what makes him so good.
The No. 2 Ford driver has five wins at the 2.66-mile Alabama track, and he and Team Penske teammate Joey Logano have combined to win six of the last eight races there. Most recently, Keselowski took the checkered flag at the 2017 fall race one year ago while Logano won in April.
But going into Sunday’s 1000Bulbs .com 500 (2 p.m. ET, NBC), the second of three Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoff races in the Round of 12, Keselowski couldn’t explain why he and Logano have been so dominant in recent years.
“You’re always learning,” Keselowski told USA TODAY on Wednesday. “There’s always a new move, a new technique that develops. Racing is so very dynamic, and you just try to soak
it up like a sponge and apply it when it’s time.”
That strategy doesn’t always work out.
“You can study, you can research, you can have the fastest car, you can do all the right things, but if you don’t survive — if you find yourself in the wrong place at the wrong time — none of that matters,” added Keselowski, who’s seventh in the playoff standings and 21 points ahead of the cutoff mark.
The use of restrictor plates at Talladega — as well as at the two annual stops at Daytona International Speedway — is the biggest contributor to its volatility.
They limit the speeds of the cars in the name of safety, but that addition also means it’s harder for cars to pull away from each other.
Drivers are forced to race in packs, so the tiniest mistake by one car can lead to a disaster for several, and it usually does.
Known as “The Big One,” a multiplecar wreck is all but guaranteed at Talladega, and teams outlast the chaos with fast reactions and the best split-second decisions.
It’s why playoff driver Clint Bowyer described it as “500 miles of mind games.”
But there’s no right way to avoid a crash.
While Keselowski said it’s sometimes about the luck of being in the right place, Kevin Harvick — who, 68 points ahead of the cutoff, tops the playoff standings — takes a more intense approach.
“Nine times out of 10, I believe, the aggressor is going to be the guy who comes out on the good side of things just for the fact that you’re making things happen and you’re not waiting for something else to happen,” said Harvick, who has one win at Talladega (spring of 2010).
“When you wait for something else to happen, that’s usually when you get in trouble, because it’s usually someone else’s mess.”
Beyond escaping the on-track madness, there’s the pressure of the play- offs. If Sunday’s winner is a playoff driver, he will automatically advance to the Round of 8, joining Chase Elliott, who won his second race of the season last weekend at Dover International Speedway.
The Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway next weekend is the second playoff elimination race and will shrink the field of contenders from 12 drivers to eight — after starting the 10-race shootout with 16 total.
After Charlotte Motor Speedway’s experiment on the roval course in the first playoff elimination race in September, Talladega looms as the second unpredictable track for championship hopefuls.
“Each round kind of has its own wild-card race,” said Kyle Busch, who is second in the NASCAR Cup Series playoff standings and 63 points ahead of the cutoff.
“You’ve got the Charlotte roval in the first round, Talladega this weekend in the second round, and then Martinsville (Speedway) kind of turned into a crazy race in the third round. It’s all just going to be about trying to maintain and have a good day.
“If you can get top-five finishes, great, that’s going to propel us through with the amount of points we have and the point cushion we have, but wins are the ultimate.”