What matters at Talladega: Stages invite early risk for points safety net

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What matters in today’s race and how can teams maximize the day at Talladega Superspeedway without actually securing a good finish? Let’s dive into the analytics and trends shaping today’s YellaWood 500 (2 p.m. ET on NBC):

A Talladega strategy for points instead of glory?

In his last five Talladega starts, Brad Keselowski earned just one top-10 finish. That finish, a win, came this past spring, the product of a last-lap pass.

But Keselowski’s record isn’t as fruitless as it seems. His 163 points scored ranks as the second most of any driver in the tapered spacer era, trailing only Ryan Blaney’s 187. The key to Keselowski’s points production has been stage finishes. Of his 163 points, 50 came as a result of stage finishes — none for the stage win, but as high as second (twice, for nine points apiece). The remaining 113 points, 22.6 per race, is on par with a driver averaging a 15th-place result without any single top-10 stage finish.

Devising his races in this manner isn’t memorable — we remember race wins, not stage finishes — but one cannot argue with the effectiveness in which his plans were deployed. Keselowski, contrary to his traditional stat line, has been one of Talladega’s most reliable point-getters, fulfilling precisely what he set out to accomplish while utilizing NASCAR’s current method for rewarding points.

It’s a feature, not a bug, of the stage-racing era. The rules fix, divisive among fans, has made Talladega a more inviting host to all teams, allowing for different pathways to points. Both of today’s stage finishes are hedges against inclusion in a late-race crash, but those hedges contain significant risk.

Talladega, at least relative to Daytona, protects its frontrunners from inclusion in “Big Ones,” crashes containing four or more cars. Dating back to 2013, cars running in positions first through sixth were included in these crashes as often as 28.6% of the time. The lead car was included in just 8.7% of Talladega’s big accidents, the lowest rate inside the top 30.

But getting to the front and staying there is a feat in itself. Most drivers must traverse through a high-risk gaggle in the middle of the running order, with crash inclusion rates as high as 45.7% between positions seventh through 23rd.

Staying in the front is also a chore. Leads were retained for 20 laps or longer just twice in the last five races (Blaney in the spring of 2020 and Denny Hamlin this past spring). It’s easier for most drivers to ride in the rear and punt on stage finishes, but for those looking to pad their cushion in the standings, the ends of stages provide a challenge that didn’t previously exist before 2017, the year of stage racing’s inception.

Across Talladega’s nine most recent races, nine accidents containing four or more cars came within the first two stages. There were only six early accidents in the 11 races from 2011-16, before the modern points incentive existed. For a track already containing more risk than usual, stages create additional risk distributed earlier in the event.

Those aiming for stage finishes will have clearly considered the risk, deeming it worth it for valuable point opportunities that might not realistically exist for them elsewhere.

When riding in the rear goes right

Trailing the lead pack for the majority of a race at Talladega has its rewards. And while stage points are not among them, a good chance of survival is.

Positions 29th or worse see crash inclusion rates of 11.4% or better. As attrition grows, this low rate climbs the running order, helping protect teams predominately driving as lead-lap trail cars. Two drivers have utilized this tactic to great effect.

Ryan Newman’s 138 points ranks as the fifth-biggest tally of the last five races and contained just one points-worthy stage finish (sixth in the 2019 spring race). Ryan Preece earned 134 points, the sixth-biggest tally, while earning just two top-10 stage finishes. Collectively, they earned five top-10 race finishes while averaging running positions of 22.0 and 18.0, respectively. Newman is one of five drivers who secured three top-10 results across the last five Talladega races. His 10.4-place finishing average trails only Blaney’s 10.2-place mark.

In April’s race at Talladega, just two top-10 finishers, Blaney and Michael McDowell, also earned points in both stages. Four top-10 race finishers — Austin Dillon, Tyler Reddick, Cole Custer and Kaz Grala — didn’t score a stage point.

The need for a fast car is less than usual, but slow cars do not win

In the wise words of 23-year-old William Byron, when it comes to drafting tacks, “You can’t win with a turd.”

Having a fast car is popularly downplayed as something irrelevant on the superspeedways of Talladega and Daytona, but cars that are fast enough within the pack and out front tend to be the cars most likely to win. In Talladega races utilizing a horsepower and aero package similar to what we’ll see today, the winners typically emerged from those with good standings in the speed rankings:

  • Chase Elliott won the 2019 spring race, the first with the tapered spacer, after ranking second in speed per Motorsports Analytics.
  • Blaney ranked 10th in speed en route to his 2019 win, a race in which fellow Team Penske drivers ranked first (Joey Logano) and fourth (Keselowski).
  • Blaney ranked 12th in speed, and 10th in the final quarter of the race specifically, in his 2020 spring race victory.
  • Keselowski turned the fourth-fastest lap at Talladega this past spring and his median lap ranked seventh en route to a win.

Dating back to 2005, the fastest car in a single race at Talladega won 12.5% of the time, a small conversion rate compared to the typical 40% mark. But this doesn’t mean teams are scared off by having fast cars; to be sure, fast drafting cars are useful tools when paired with diligent driving and attempts at reducing risk.

The source of the fastest vehicles should surprise no one. Cars from Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing and Penske appear well suited, in terms of speed, for today’s race in Talladega. Originating from those three organizations, Alex Bowman (ranked first in average median lap time at drafting tracks), Logano (second), Kyle Busch (third), Christopher Bell (fourth), Kyle Larson (fifth), Byron (ninth), Blaney (10th) and Elliott (11th) each seemingly have good enough drafting speed that’s required for a standout performance.