Friday 5: Talladega’s unpredictability has playoff drivers on edge

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As he teeters above the cutline, heading into what can be one of NASCAR’s most unpredictable races, Joey Logano admits his position is “not comfortable.”

“It is stressful because your whole season can be decided this weekend and that may be somewhat out of your control,” he said of Sunday’s Round of 12 Cup playoff race at Talladega Superspeedway (2 p.m. ET, NBC).

Logano enters the race six points above the cutline. He has never been eliminated before the Round of 8 in the Cup playoffs.

He’s made the championship race four times, winning the title in 2018. Logano was eliminated after the Round of 8 in 2015 and 2019. He did not make the playoffs in 2017.

Las Vegas, Talladega and the Charlotte Roval make this round unsettling for drivers because of the potential for chaos. One of the reasons Denny Hamlin celebrated his Las Vegas win last weekend so much was because it sent him to the next round.

“I’m more looking forward to it now than worrying about all the ‘what ifs’ of what can happen that can take you out,” Hamlin said. “During the course of my career, I’ve had just about all the ‘what ifs’ actually happen. It’s good to know we’ve got nothing to lose at this point.”

But Logano says someone could lose big in this round.

“This is the round that a true championship contender can be a surprise knockout,” he said.

Ryan Blaney, who enters Sunday’s race fifth in the standings with a 24-point cushion on William Byron – the first driver outside the cutline – says a driver can’t worry about what can happen at Talladega.

“You understand what Talladega is, and you understand you can get wiped out as an innocent bystander,” said Blaney, who has won two of the last four Cup races at Talladega. “It is what it is. If you let it eat at your head and get to you, then you’re kind of behind the eight-ball already. You’ve go to focus on how to win that race.”

Kyle Busch just wants to get a good finish.

Asked about his feelings going into a Talladega playoff race, he says: “Dread it.”

It’s understandable. Busch has never finished better than 11th in a Talladega playoff race. His average finish in Talladega Cup playoff races is 25.7.

He enters Sunday’s race third in the standings, 35 points above the cutline. That can provide some comfort.

Logano and Penske teammate Brad Keselowski, though, hold the final two transfer spots entering Talladega.

Neither has been spectacular, but both have been steady in these playoffs. Logano has finished between fifth and 11th in each playoff race. Keselowski has placed between sixth and 13th in those same races.

“I feel up to last week, we’ve done a tremendous job through the playoffs by getting every point,” Logano said. “That’s been our slogan: ‘Every point.’ Get every one. Every one. We left eight to 10 points on the racetrack last weekend. We’ve got to regroup and be better. That’s on all of us. We’ll regroup and try to make up those eight points.”

The superspeedway races have not been kind to Logano this year.

  • He led entering Turn 3 of the last lap for the Daytona 500 when contact with Keselowski wrecked both.
  • Logano was third when he was clipped by Denny Hamlin at Talladega in the spring. The contact turned Logano and sent his car into the air. His car landed on its roof. Logano was uninjured.
  • He suffered a flat tire with less than 10 laps left while running third in the Daytona regular season finale.

To me, it’s all about seeing the checkered flag,” Logano said. “Being toward the front but mainly seeing the checkered flag on the lead lap will be big for our points day.”

Many other playoff drivers would feel the same way.

2. Looking to rally again

Running at or below the cutline is not new to Alex Bowman.

In his first two playoff appearances (2018 and ’19), Bowman was at or below the cutline throughout the first round before advancing both times. He did the same thing in the first round of these playoffs.

Bowman enters Sunday’s race at Talladega 13 points behind Brad Keselowski for the final transfer spot to the Round of 8.

Bowman said having the experience of running while at or under the cutline previously helps.

“The biggest thing for me is just trying to maximize each and every race and every stage,” he said. “You can’t freak out and try any harder because I’m already trying as hard as I can every week. Approaching every race like normal and really just trying to maximize each and every thing.

“Last year we didn’t change what we were doing that worked. This year we didn’t change what we were doing that hasn’t worked. But just trying to maximize every stage and every race. You can’t really worry about the points. They kind of are what they are right now.

“We’re not in a great spot, and we’re going to a place that’s a huge wild card. But at the same time, we could be on the good side of the wild card and have other guys get torn up and have an opportunity to win the race. So, we’ve just got to wait and see how it shakes out. If it works out for us, it does. And if it doesn’t, it doesn’t.”

3. The race for rides

While the focus for some drivers is on the playoffs, this is a time where other drivers are trying to find a ride for next season.

Among those without Cup rides for next year are Matt DiBenedetto, Ryan Newman and Ryan Preece.

Corey LaJoie knows the feeling well, although he doesn’t have to go through that this year.

“Every year, up until this one, it was always uncertainty,” said LaJoie, who will return to Spire Motorsports next season. “A lot of times, my deals didn’t get done until late December or early January. Just when the music stopped, you hoped you had a seat you were holding on to. It’s really kind of a weird spot to know where I’m going to be at least next year and possibly many years after that.”

LaJoie sees those struggles play out with DiBenedetto, his friend.

DiBenedetto will not return to the Wood Brothers after this season. Harrison Burton will take over that ride next season. DiBenedetto has yet to secure a ride for next season.

“I’ve been working on everything,” he told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio this week. “It’s just crazy.

The performance of our team is obvious, and the things we’ve done to make some great improvements and be fast and performing very consistently, but still, as it is pertains to next year, man, it’s odd. Any door that kind of seems to crack open, closes.

“I’m trying to figure out what God’s plan is and what that means because, at this moment, I’ve got zero. Absolutely nothing. So it’s a very weird landscape.”

DiBenedetto also acknowledged the lack of sponsorship that he brings hurts.

“Now that I’m in a free agency market, I don’t have the funding behind me,” he told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.

LaJoie knows that all too well.

“Unfortunately, where we’re at as a sport in its entirety is the only thing makes you stand out is how much sponsorship you bring with you,” LaJoie said. “You can write all the letters you want to and have all the good runs, win all the poles and have all the wins under your belt. If you don’t have good partners that continue to back you and keep growing their investment in the sport as much as my brand each and every year, then you’re going to be on the bottom of anybody’s list in terms of drivers.”

4. Admiration for former champ

Jimmie Johnson, the seven-time Cup champion, completed his first season running road courses and street courses in the NTT IndyCar Series last weekend.

It was not an easy transition.

Johnson placed 17th in the season-ending race at Long Beach. He finished on the lead lap in three of the last four races of the season after not recording a lead-lap finish in the first eight races.

Despite the challenges, he earned praised from some of his former NASCAR competitors for racing in another series.

“I know he’s gotten a lot of grief over this year, but it’s like ‘Give the guy a break,'” Ryan Blaney said. “He’s done plenty enough for NASCAR and he wants to try something else. … I feel like any motorsports racer wants to do that. You want to try new things and see how these cars compare to other cars, what’s different, what’s similar.

“He had a great opportunity to go do that. I think he’s done a good job this year, honestly. He’s gotten better and better. I got a chance to talk to him a good bit at Indy (when NASCAR and IndyCar raced on the same weekend in August) and watch him. He’s having a lot of fun with it, too.”

Kyle Larson said: “For him to step out of his comfort zone and try something new and dedicate a lot of time and effort to it, I think is amazing. … I hope to see him do some oval stuff.”

5. Another year together

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. confirmed Thursday what had been expected for some time. He’ll be back with JTG Daugherty Racing in the 2022 season.

The team had already stated it would be a single-car entry. It had only one charter this year, running Ryan Preece’s car without a charter. With the rising cost of the charter, JTG Daugherty Racing passed on securing one for its second car.

NASCAR Daytona Drafting Test
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is 21st in the points heading into Sunday’s race at Talladega. (Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images)

“I’m just looking forward to a third season with the team,” Stenhouse said. “I felt like this year was kind of like the first year with the organization, with the way last year went and the way it was kind of thrown on us and not being able to hang out with the guys and be in the shop and really spend time with each other.

“And now, I’m enjoying … we went to the Daytona test with the new car, and I felt like we had a successful test. It’s been fun going to the race shop and helping kind of design the cockpit of the car, where we want things, and just kind of make it custom to what I need and working with everybody in the shop. So, I think next year could be our best year yet, and even my best year in Cup in general. So I’m really looking forward to the opportunity that next year presents.”

As for being a single-car team instead of having two drivers, Stenhouse said there would be adjustments.

“I definitely think it could be a negative on one hand, and then a positive on the other,” he sad. “Obviously, when you’re practicing and testing, you can have more ideas and run different things through both cars. It definitely helps kind of speed the process up. But we would also have to share the seat when it comes to testing. So, I feel like what I look for in a race car and what somebody looks for in a race car and the way they drive, is sometimes totally different.

“So, I feel like we’re going to be able to kind of build around me and at least the set-ups and things like that will be more around what I’m looking for in the race car, and all our focus will be on one car. I feel like that will be a positive thing. I know everybody at JTG Daugherty Racing so far has been all in on the new car and trying to speed the process along.”