Play­off driv­ers tackle chaotic Tal­ladega

Avoid­ing “The Big One” key in sec­ond race of NASCAR play­offs round of 12

USA TODAY US Edition - - FRONT PAGE - Michelle R. Martinelli

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.”

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