Talladega storylines: Survival of the fittest


The relief was evident on Denny Hamlin’s face and in his voice after winning last Sunday’s Round of 12 Cup playoff opener at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Hamlin finally earned his first Cup win at Las Vegas. More importantly, he advanced into the Round of 8 and avoided the prospect of being swept up in chaos over the next two weeks.

As for the other 11 playoff drivers, they’re now subject to having their title hopes severely damaged Sunday (2 p.m. ET, NBC) at the most unpredictable track on the circuit.

Talladega Superspeedway has been part of the Cup playoffs since its inception in 2004, and its craziness only grows during the race for the championship.

According to Racing Insights:

  • 10 of the 17 Talladega playoff races have had at least 10 DNFs
  • 10 of the 17 Talladega playoff races have ended on a last-lap pass
  • Eight of the 17 Talladega playoff races have had at least seven playoff drivers finish outside the top 15

Last year’s playoff race, won by Hamlin, may have been the craziest of them all.

It included a track record 13 cautions; multiple overtime attempts that extended the race 12 laps and nearly 32 miles; and 14 drivers failing to finish due to crashes or, in Michael McDowell‘s case, overheating.

What will Sunday bring?

Penske power

Considering Ford’s lack of performance on 550-horsepower tracks this season, last Sunday’s race at Las Vegas perhaps went as well as it could have for them.

All four Ford playoff drivers finished inside the top 11. Team Penske’s Ryan Blaney led the group with a fifth-place result. Blaney’s teammates, Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano, finished seventh and 11th respectively. In between them was Stewart-Haas Racing’s Kevin Harvick in ninth.

Ford drivers have won all three superspeedway races this season, and Penske drivers have played a role in the outcome for each of them.

Michael McDowell dodged a last-lap wreck started by contact between Logano and Keselowski to win the Daytona 500. In April, Keselowski earned his sixth career Talladega victory. Then last month, Blaney won the regular season finale at Daytona.

Entering Talladega, the Penske trio sit fifth (Blaney, +24), seventh (Logano, +6), and eighth (Keselowski, +4) in the playoff standings. They’ve combined to win five of the last seven Talladega playoff races and nine of the last 14 Talladega Cup races overall.

But while Keselowski won at Talladega in the spring and Logano is a three-time winner there, the one to look out for may be Blaney. Over the past eight Cup superspeedway races, he’s won three and finished inside the top 10 in six.

Superspeedway struggles

Others in the Cup playoff field haven’t been as successful on superspeedways.

That group includes regular season champion Kyle Larson, who is winless in 28 starts on superspeedways at the Cup level. At Talladega specifically, he’s only earned two top-10 finishes in 13 starts.

But with a 57-point cushion above the cutline, Larson doesn’t particularly have to worry about winning. He’s one of four drivers to open the playoffs with four consecutive top 10 finishes. A fifth on Sunday – even if it’s not a victory – could send him into the Round of 8 early.

Another driver has an even bigger winless drought on superspeedways. Martin Truex Jr. is 0-for-66 in his Cup career. At Talladega, he’s finished 20th or worse in his last 10 appearances dating back to the 2016 playoff race. With a 31-point cushion above the cutline, he can’t absorb a major setback like Larson can.

But it could be worse. A ill-fated strategy call and late flat tire left Alex Bowman with a 13-point deficit to the cutline coming out of Las Vegas.

Now comes Talladega. Bowman is capable of running up front there as his runner-up in the spring 2019 race can attest. But his Talladega average finish of 24.6 is the worst among all Cup playoff drivers with at least four starts (Christopher Bell has made three Talladega Cup starts and has an average finish of 28.3).

Bowman’s first four Talladega starts came with the underfunded BK Racing and Tommy Baldwin Racing teams. But even if you take those starts out, that only raises his Talladega average finish to 21.9 through eight starts with Hendrick Motorsports. Not good.

Kaulig goes for four in a row

As the Xfinity Series playoff Round of 12 resumes Saturday at Talladega (4:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN), one big question is if anyone can stop Kaulig Racing at NASCAR’s biggest track.

Kaulig drivers AJ Allmendinger, Justin Haley and Jeb Burton will look to give the organization its fourth consecutive Talladega win, as well as its seventh win in the last nine Xfinity superspeedway races.

Haley swept both Talladega races last year on his way to the Championship 4. Then, this past April, Jeb Burton earned his first career Xfinity win in a rain-shortened race there.

Could it be Allmendinger’s turn Saturday?

Allmendinger, the regular season champion, has never won a superspeedway race in his NASCAR career. He’s getting closer, though, as he’s posted top-five finishes in all three superspeedway races this season, including a runner-up to Haley last month at Daytona.

But last week in Las Vegas, JR Motorsports came out firing to start the playoffs. Non-playoff driver Josh Berry led a 1-2-3 finish for JRM, with playoff contenders Justin Allgaier and Noah Gragson behind him.

Together, JRM and Kaulig have combined to win 12 of the last 19 Xfinity superspeedway races. However, JRM has not won on a superspeedway since Gragson’s victory in the 2020 season opener at Daytona.

On to Phoenix?

The Round of 8 continues in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series playoffs Saturday at Talladega (1 p.m. ET, FS1).

The first ticket to the Nov. 5 championship race at Phoenix Raceway was up for grabs last weekend at Las Vegas. But part-time driver Christian Eckes shredded it with his first career Truck win, while multiple playoff drivers faltered.

Eckes led a 1-2-3-4 finish for ThorSport Racing. Playoff drivers Ben Rhodes and Matt Crafton finished second and third, respectively.

Rhodes currently leads the Round of 8 with a 34-point cushion above the cutline. Also above the cutline are John Hunter Nemechek (+28), Stewart Friesen (+9) and Crafton (+5).

Reigning series champion Sheldon Creed (-5) is the first driver below the cutline. He is followed by Carson Hocevar (-16), Zane Smith (-19) and Chandler Smith (-24).

Since the current playoff format debuted in the Trucks in 2016, no driver in playoff contention has won at Talladega.

Christopher Bell, now in his first Cup playoff run, was closest back in 2017. On his way to winning the Truck title that year, he finished second at Talladega behind NBC Sports’ Parker Kligerman.

NASCAR Saturday schedule at Sonoma Raceway


Cup and Xfinity teams will be on track Saturday at Sonoma Raceway.

Cup teams will practice and qualify for Sunday’s race. Xfinity teams will qualify and race Saturday on the 1.99-mile road course in Northern California.

Sonoma Raceway


Saturday: Mostly cloudy with a high of 75 degrees. Forecast is for mostly cloudy skies, a high of 71 degrees and no chance of rain at the start of the Xfinity race.

Saturday, June 10

(All times Eastern)

Garage open

  • 12 p.m. – 8 p.m.  — Cup Series
  • 1 p.m. — Xfinity Series

Track activity

  • 3 – 4 p.m. — Xfinity qualifying (FS1)
  • 5 – 6 p.m. — Cup practice  (FS2)
  • 6 – 7 p.m. — Cup qualifying  (FS2)
  • 8 p.m. — Xfinity race (79 laps, 156.95 miles; FS1, Performance Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Alpha Prime Racing’s road woes don’t keep team from competing


SONOMA, Calif. — Alpha Prime Racing owner Tommy Joe Martins laughs. He can. His Xfinity Series cars all are here at Sonoma Raceway.

At one point last week, it was not certain if his team’s cars would make it to Portland International Raceway.

“It was probably the toughest professional week I’ve had of my NASCAR career,” Martins told NBC Sports on Friday at Sonoma.

MORE: Kyle Larson leads Xfinity practice at Sonoma

The Alpha Prime Racing team had both its trucks break down and one of its haulers have mechanical issues last week on the way to the Pacific Northwest.

“We basically sent four pieces of equipment on the road and three of them broke,” Martins said.

For a time, the car Sage Karam is driving this weekend at Sonoma was left in a hauler in Kansas City because there wasn’t room in the dually Martins sent. It had room only for the car that was needed at Portland and other equipment. Karam’s car, which was to be a backup at Portland, was left behind.

“It’s a very helpless feeling when you feel like your stuff is stuck on the side of the road,” Martins said.

He still has one truck still in St. Louis and another in Oregon. Martins estimates the mechanical issues will cost his team about $50,000 when everything is totaled.

Trouble started well before the team left its Mooresville, North Carolina, race shop for Portland.

The Xfinity Series race at Charlotte was scheduled to run May 27. Rain forced that event to be rescheduled to May 29. Martins said the team had planned to send its trucks to Portland on May 28. With the race pushed back to the 29th, the travel schedule tightened.

It got worse.

After the Xfinity race started, rain came. With the Coca-Cola 600 scheduled for 3 p.m. ET that day – after being delayed by rain from Sunday – the rest of the Xfinity race was pushed back until after the 600. That further tightened the window on Xfinity teams to make it to Portland.

The Xfinity race ended around 11:30 p.m. ET on May 29. Alpha Prime Racing’s haulers left the shop around 6 a.m. ET on May 30.

The two trucks traveled together until issues in St. Louis.

The truck hauling the Nos. 44 and 45 cars had engine issues in St. Louis. The other truck kept going until it had mechanical issues with its hauler in Kansas City. The air bags on the hauler failed.

So, Alpha Prime Racing had a truck that worked in Kansas City with a hauler that didn’t and a truck that didn’t work in St. Louis with a hauler that did.

The truck in Kansas City went back to St. Louis to attach to the hauler and take those cars and equipment to Portland. Martins then had to find something to haul the stranded equipment in Kansas City and a driver. He eventually did. A dually left North Carolina for Kansas City. Once there, what fit in the dually was taken to Portland and what didn’t, including Karam’s Sonoma car stayed behind.

Yet, more trouble was headed for Martins and his team.

The truck that had gone back from Kansas City to St. Louis to take hauler that worked then broke down about 200 miles from Portland.

“I laugh knowing that we’re on the other side of it,” Martins said Friday of all the issues his team had transporting cars and equipment across the country.

“We’ve started to make plans and corrections for it not happening again,” he said.

That hauler that was left in Kansas City? It was repaired and transported to Sonoma, arriving earlier this week.

“Our guys are troopers,” Martins said. “Both of our (truck) drivers were just awesome about the whole thing. … They went through hell week as far as driving somewhere, fly back and pick something up, drive again and now are going to have to do the same thing getting back.”

When the garage opened Friday at Sonoma, Alpha Prime Racing had all its cars.

“I don’t think we had any major issues here, so that was good,” Martins said.

The focus is back on the track. Karam was 24th on the speed chart in Friday’s practice, leading Alpha Prime Racing’s effort. Dylan Lupton was 32nd. Jeffrey Earnhardt was last among 41 cars.

After Saturday night’s race, the team heads back to North Carolina for a well-earned weekend off.

Kyle Larson leads Xfinity practice at Sonoma


SONOMA, Calif. — Kyle Larson posted the fastest lap in Friday’s Xfinity Series practice at Sonoma Raceway.

This is the first time the series has raced at the 1.99-mile road course in Northern California. Teams got 50 minutes of practice Friday.

Larson led the way with a lap of 90.392 mph. He was more than a second faster than the rest of the field.

MORE: Xfinity practice results Sonoma

Sheldon Creed was second on the speed chart with a lap of 89.066 mph. He was followed by AJ Allmendinger (89.052 mph), Cole Custer (89.020) and Ty Gibbs (88.989).

Larson, Allmendinger and Gibbs are among seven Cup drivers are entered in the Xfinity race. Aric Almirola was seventh on the speed chart with a lap of 88.750 mph. Ross Chastain was ninth with a lap of 88.625 mph. Daniel Suarez was 16th with a lap of 88.300 mph. Ty Dillon was 33rd with a lap of 86.828 mph.

Anthony Alfredo will go to a backup car after a crash in practice. He was uninjured in the incident that damaged the right side of his car.

Qualifying is scheduled for 3 p.m. ET Saturday. The race is scheduled to begin at 8:20 p.m. ET Saturday.

Anthony Alfredo’s car after a crash in Xfinity practice Friday at Sonoma Raceway. He was uninjured. (Photo: Dustin Long)

Saturday Sonoma Xfinity race: Start time, TV info, weather


The Xfinity Series will compete for the first time at Sonoma Raceway this weekend. This is one of eight road course events on the Xfinity schedule this season.

Seven Cup drivers are scheduled to compete in Saturday’s race, including AJ Allmendinger, Kyle Larson and Daniel Suarez, who won last year’s Cup race at this track Allmendinger has won 11 of 25 career road course starts in the Xfinity Series.

Details for Saturday’s Xfinity race at Sonoma Raceway

(All times Eastern)

START: Golden State Warrior Patrick Baldwin Jr. will give the command to start engines at 8:08 p.m. … The green flag is scheduled to wave at 8:20 p.m.

PRERACE: Xfinity garage opens at 1 p.m. … Qualifying begins at 3 p.m. … Driver introductions begin at 7:35 p.m. … The invocation will be given by Earl Smith, team pastor for the Golden State Warriors and San Francisco 49ers, at 8 p.m. … The national anthem will be performed by 9-year-old Isis Mikayle Castillo at 8:01 p.m.

DISTANCE: The race is 79 laps (156.95 miles) on the 1.99-mile road course.

STAGES: Stage 1 ends at Lap 20. Stage 2 ends at Lap 45.

STARTING LINEUP: Qualifying begins at 3 p.m. Saturday

TV/RADIO: FS1 will broadcast the race at 8 p.m. ... Coverage begins at 7:30 p.m. … Performance Racing Network coverage begins at 7:30 p.m. and can be heard on goprn.com. … SiriusXN NASCAR Radio will carry the PRN broadcast.

FORECAST: Weather Underground — Mostly cloudy with a high of 72 degrees and a zero percent chance of rain at the start of the race.

LAST TIME: This is the first time the Xfinity Series has raced at Sonoma.