Drivers to watch in NASCAR Cup Series race at Talladega

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After a weekend of unknowns on dirt, NASCAR returns to the high banks of Talladega Superspeedway this week.

Superspeedway racing can be unpredictable, but some drivers excel more than others in the full-throttle, fast-paced packs typically featured at Talladega and Daytona.

Here’s who could be in the mix Sunday (3 p.m. ET, Fox) in Alabama:

FRONT RUNNERS

Ryan Blaney

  • Points position: 2nd
  • Last three races: 7th — Richmond; 4th — Martinsville; 5th — Bristol Dirt
  • Recent at Talladega: Won 2 of last 5 races

Blaney may not be Team Penske’s most recent Talladega winner, but the No. 12 Ford has shown recent excellence at the Alabama superspeedway.

Blaney has won two of the last five races at Talladega. He’s also led in eight of the last 11 races there. His success across superspeedways has been impressive, notching three top-10 finishes in the last four such races, including a win at Daytona in August 2021.

Team Penske has combined to win eight of the last 13 races at Talladega. Considering the speed shown by Fords in February’s Daytona 500 — won by Penske driver Austin Cindric with help from Blaney — the No. 12 Ford is almost a guaranteed sight toward the front of this weekend’s field.

Bubba Wallace

  • Points position: 22nd
  • Last three races: 26th — Richmond; 16th — Martinsville; 28th — Bristol Dirt
  • Recent at Talladega: Earned first career win in October 2021

Wallace enters Talladega as the track’s most recent Cup Series winner, leading the field when a caution fell at Lap 117 for Ryan Preece‘s crash in Turn 3. Rain followed and ended the race prematurely.

Wallace has been stout at both Daytona and Talladega. He has finished inside the top two in each of the last three superspeedway events. Another result like that this week could land him in esteemed company as just the fifth driver to accomplish that feat.

Since finishing second at Daytona this year, Wallace has struggled to find success with just three top-20 finishes in the following eight races. But Wallace has led laps in six of his eight Talladega starts and won Stage 2 in each of the two events last year. This could be the week Wallace turns it around.

Brad Keselowski

  • Points position: 30th
  • Last three races: 13th — Richmond; 17th — Martinsville; 11th — Bristol Dirt
  • Recent at Talladega: Defending race winner

Keselowski is the winningest active driver at Talladega with six victories, tying him with Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon for second-most all-time. He also scored the win here in April 2021, his most recent Cup win.

Keselowski, now driving and co-owning the No. 6 Ford for RFK Racing, could use a win now more than ever. The 2012 series champion sits 30th in points after a 100-point penalty levied by NASCAR after the No. 6 team inadequately repaired a tail panel, which is a single-source supplied part teams are not permitted to modify.

Keselowski has failed to finish inside the top 10 since a ninth-place showing at the Daytona 500, where he led 67 laps and scored points in both stages after he and teammate Chris Buescher swept the Duel qualifying races during Speedweeks. The good news is that Keselowski has finished inside the top 15 in four of the last five races after failing to finish on the lead lap at Auto Club, Las Vegas or Phoenix.

The rebranded team is taking steps to erase its early season woes. A win at Talladega would cure a lot of them.

QUESTIONS TO ANSWER

Austin Cindric

  • Points position: 14th
  • Last three races: 20th — Richmond; 11th — Martinsville; 16th — Bristol Dirt
  • Recent at Talladega: Three top-five finishes in six Xfinity starts

Cindric showed off his superspeedway racing skill by winning the Daytona 500 in his second attempt back in February.

The rest of the season has been a struggle for the rookie driver. Cindric sits 14th in points but has just one top 10 since that breakthrough victory, an eight-place finish at Circuit of the Americas.

Cindric is driving a Team Penske Ford, which seems like an automatic advantage heading into Talladega. He also has teammate and three-time Talladega winner Joey Logano to lean on in addition to Blaney. The resources are available and he’s already won one of these types of races. Now to see what he’s learned.

Denny Hamlin

  • Points position: 23rd
  • Last three races: WIN — Richmond; 28th — Martinsville; 35th — Bristol Dirt
  • Recent at Talladega: Four finishes of 7th or better in last five races

With three Daytona 500s under his belt, Hamlin is rightly regarded as a superspeedway ace. His recent record at Talladega is strong too, scoring top 10s in seven of his last 11 starts including a win in October 2020.

But his struggles this season are no secret. In nine races, Hamlin has failed to finish four times this year — twice for crashes, twice for mechanical failures. For perspective, Hamlin completed all but four of the 9.200 laps run in 2021, completing a series-best 99.96% of all laps last season. Outside of his Richmond win on April 3, Hamlin has failed to finish better than 13th (Phoenix) in 2022.

He won seven times in 2020 and twice a year ago, qualifying for the Championship 4 in each of the past three seasons. But with a quarter of the season complete — and a third of the way through the regular season — a good run this week would be a much-needed bump after two finishes outside the top 25.

Kevin Harvick

  • Points position: 13th
  • Last three races: 2nd — Richmond; 14th — Martinsville; 34th — Bristol Dirt
  • Recent at Talladega: Three top 10s in last four races

Harvick’s name may not be one of the first that comes to mind at Talladega, especially considering his lone win at the track came in April 2010.

But Harvick has had some strong results at the 2.66-mile oval lately, bringing home finishes of fourth and eighth in 2021. The 2014 Cup champion has led laps in 23 of the last 29 Talladega events and scored stage points in nine of the 20 stages there.

Crash damage eliminated Harvick at Bristol Dirt, his first DNF since the Daytona 500. But it’s been an otherwise OK season for the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford with one top five and three top 10s in nine races — OK by the standards set by the previous success of Harvick and crew chief Rodney Childers. The team has proven plenty capable this year and should show speed again on Sunday.