By: Pete Pistone – @PPistone | MRN.com on October 12, 2017 | 9:00 A.M. EST
Ricky Stenhouse Jr., the most recent winner at Talladega, is one of the eight playoff drivers with at least one win at Talladega. (Photo: Getty Images)
The dozen drivers still in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoffs have a huge challenge ahead in Sunday’s Alabama 500 at Talladega Superspeedway.
The 2.66-mile Alabama track and its restrictor-plate racing has a long reputation for creating the unexpected and for the second race of round two in the playoffs is expected to continue the trend.
Brad Keselowski boasts the most wins at Talladega among the 12 drivers remaining in the hunt for the championship with four.
But in 2017, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has been the restrictor-plate king with a pair of wins, including this spring’s Talladega visit, which was his first career Cup victory. The Roush Fenway Racing driver brings a great deal of confidence into Sunday’s race given how good he’s been in plate racing this season.
“Nothing is guaranteed when you go there,” Stenhouse Jr. admitted. “I’ve been crashed out of them just as easy as finishing well, so we’ve got to do our job here at Charlotte and get a decent points day out of it and then go to Talladega and see if we can’t get a win, but definitely gonna feel confident going to Talladega for sure.”
Two drivers in the playoff grid have a pair of Talladega wins on their resume, including Jimmie Johnson. The Hendrick Motorsports driver is grateful this year’s schedule was shifted so Talladega is not an elimination race any longer and while a third win would be nice; he’s just hoping to hang on to his playoff spot Sunday.
“I’m happy it’s not a cut off for the Round of 8 but we really need to make it through the race and have a good finish,” Johnson said. “We don’t want to go to Kansas fighting to stay alive in the hunt for an eighth championship.”
The other two-time winner still in the title picture is Jamie McMurray, who finished second behind Stenhouse Jr. at Talladega in the spring. The Chip Ganassi Racing driver, who will be making his 31st career Talladega start Sunday, has been successful plate racing but it still doesn’t tank high on his list of favorite things to do every season.
“I would not say that I like superspeedway racing; I would say that I have been fortunate at that style of racing and we have had really fast cars at those tracks,” McMurray explained.
“We ran really well at Talladega in the spring race and finished second; we’ve been pretty successful there as a team. We’ll go and try to score as many stage points as possible and win the race to hopefully secure a spot in the next round of the playoffs.”
The playoff driver with the most career Talladega starts is Matt Kenseth, who has made 35 Cup appearances at the track. Last year Kenseth and his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates employed the strategy of riding at the back of the field to avoid trouble and advance to the next round. But this season, it appears to be another story.
“Talladega is the most unpredictable race in the playoffs so it’s probably going to end someone’s chance for a championship, but if someone can go in there and win it to lock themselves into the next round, that’s what we’re hoping to do,” said Kenseth’s crew chief Jason Ratcliff.
“Because this weekend is the second race within the Round of 12, you need to try and accumulate as many points as you can. Where our 20 team is at right now, we need to try to do our best to collect some points and even try to win a stage, because every point matters. The goal this weekend will be to run up front, stay up front, avoid trouble the best we can, and to collect as many points as possible.”
Talladega’s unpredictable nature isn’t necessarily just about accidents. Martin Truex Jr., who already has a berth in the next round of the playoffs thanks to his win last week at Charlotte Motor Speedway, made an early exit from the race and the championship hunt last season when his engine expired.
While he can breathe easy knowing the third round of the playoffs awaits, Truex Jr. still has incentive to run well on Sunday.
“We want to be the best we can be, and we want to get those (playoff) bonus points and stop somebody else from getting them,” he said. “But it will definitely be a little bit of a different feeling to go there and not have that pressure, not have to worry about if we go out early for something crazy.”
Ryan Blaney, Chase Elliott, Kyle Larson and Truex are the only playoff drivers that have not visited Victory Lane yet at Talladega in the Monster Energy Cup Series.