What drivers said at Daytona

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A look at what drivers said at Daytona International Speedway following Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series regular season finale

Austin Dillon – WINNER (Clinched Cup playoff spot with win): “It’s crazy. You just never give up and have faith. We had some tough finishes this year, like Charlotte. I beat myself up over that. I made a good move and just didn’t finish it off. Today, we finished it off. I’m so proud of these guys and I’m glad to be going to Victory Lane.”

Tyler Reddick – Finished 2nd: “Because we had to pit before pit road was open, before the rain came; I never got to line up behind all the lead lap cars when they started to pull up for the restart. I knew I was going to have to try really, really hard on that restart. Thankfully, (Kyle Busch) and some of those cars let us go and we were able to get in the mix. Just had to fight really, really hard when everyone singled out and there weren’t many cars left at the end there and tried to get to Austin (Dillon). I knew he was going to need some allies there at the end of the race to go make the move on (Austin Cindric). As it just kind of turned out, he didn’t really use his teammates for that move, but after everything kind of happened with the second pack catching us, I was really glad to be on his rear bumper to pretty much keep anyone from really creating that energy to pass the lead car. A lot of energy comes from that second car and when you have a teammate in that position to be that car absorbing those runs, you can really kind of control what is happening in front of you.”

Austin Cindric – Finished 3rd: “I got hit by another race car going 190, 200 miles an hour. Glad I saved it. Glad I tried to come back through the field, but (Austin Dillon’s) racing for a playoff spot. I totally expect to get drove through. It was just kind of a matter of time. Pretty bummed, you know? We had a shot to win today… We put ourselves in position – not a scratch on (the car). Just… (laughs) Dang it!”

Landon Cassill – Finished 4th: “It really is awesome. We were sitting in a good spot with the rain delay; and even if they would have called it, we would have been happy with that finish. But we wanted to race for it and earn the top-five finish at the end. We did have to survive. There were a lot of fast cars that weren’t in contention at the end, but it’s pretty cool to see the checkered flag that close.”

Noah Gragson – Finished 5th: “It was a strong run for this team, considering that we have one employee at Beard Motorsports. To come home with a top-five, that is big for us. We were in a good spot running third there when (Austin Cindric) was out front and (Austin Dillon) was running second. It seemed like (Cindric) got loose and started down the racetrack and it was a hell of a save by Cindric, but that killed all our momentum. We were in a four-car breakaway; I thought I was going to set myself up to be in a pretty good spot and it just didn’t transpire. We had to regroup and come back for a fifth-place finish and we will take it. Congrats to everybody at RCR and the ECR motor department. They help us out tremendously on this Beard Motorsports team and with one employee, this is a pretty big deal to go up against these organizations with 500-600 employees. So, for the goals that we have, the budget that we are on and the race team that we are; it’s pretty rewarding to be kicking yourself over a fifth-place finish in the Cup series. Very grateful for the opportunity and appreciate all the fan support and for NASCAR in letting us go to the end. I just want to say congratulations to Austin Dillon and his team. It was a lot of fun.”

Cody Ware – Finished 6th: “I think the big thing was just perseverance. There was a lot of attrition in this race and we made sure to be cautiously aggressive in the first part of this race, so to walk away from it and get the chance to race with the leaders and battle all the way up to third and try to fight for the win was really an awesome day. I think this will give us a lot of positive energy and momentum heading into Darlington next weekend, another track where we’ve had some success this year already, so being sixth is a good day. I wish we could have got more. I think it just shows how good of a day we had and I”m definitely gonna go to sleep tonight happy.”

B.J. McLeod – Finished 7th: “First off, it was a crazy day but it was fun executing our plan and getting it to work in our favor because we’ve been doing this a lot, but it’s still hard to pull off. We’ve had small wrecks in the back take us out. There’s really no safe spot, other than the front row or really conservative and today we were able to put it all together and not lose a lap under that first green flag stop and just made things work. There at the end, we had a couple cars behind us to help. (Joey) Logano helped us for a second and when they were helping me I had a shot, but coming to three and four on the last lap I tried to get the right of (Noah Gragson) and it stalled out a little bit and (Gragson) pulled up. When he pulled up, I had to wait until he went back down to even try to get another run and it was just too late. Still, an awesome day for a small team.”

Martin Truex Jr. – Finished 8th (Missed final Cup playoff spot by three points): “We just had too much damage at the end. We had a good spot on the restart and we got a good restart. We got (Austin Cindric) up front, which is what we were trying to do, but just couldn’t keep up. Just too much damage. It’s s shame. We knew it was going to be tough with so many cars out of the race and the distance between me and (Ryan Blaney). It was going to be hard to hang on to fourth or better with a car that torn up.”

Kyle Busch – Finished 10th: (Referring to Lap 138 crash before red flag): “Honestly, it was just the previous lap, there was nothing there and then that lap it was just – it just dropped. So what do you do? You can’t checkup that fast so you just have to try to drive through it. Thankfully, I was on the high side and I saw water and I saw everything and saw everybody wrecking in front of me and I got on the fence right there and started rolling right on the wall. Everybody was coming across the track in front of me. I was then just trying to figure out everybody to slide back down and get out of the way and for me to continue on my merry way. There’s really nothing you can do in that situation. It was way too late to call anything and overall, I felt good about our car all day. Our Interstate Batteries Camry was fast and we had good speed. Ran up front, led some laps and won a stage.”

Bubba Wallace – Finished 11th: “I didn’t have that feeling that I’ve had at previous speedway stuff. Our DoorDash Camry TRD was good, but it wasn’t great. Made the necessary moves to get us up to the front, but I didn’t do a good job of keeping it at the front. At the same time, you’re kind of focused on the big picture. Fell to the back a little bit and knew we could get back up there and we did. But then luck ran out. We did miss two wrecks and got caught up in the third and the fourth. We salvaged a good finish, but what we needed was a win. All in all, it’s Daytona and it’s a crapshoot.”

Joey Logano – Finished 12th: “I think we’re in great shape (for the playoffs). …We scored a lot of points the last few weeks, so we’re doing a lot of really good things here recently. We just have to keep pushing and trying to figure out where a little bit more speed is, but we just have to keep executing with what we’ve got. We’ve got great execution, a great pit crew, great calls on the box. We’ve got to keep that going.”

Alex Bowman — Finished 14th: “We had a good day going. Led some laps. Was super aggressive all day. Hate that we got into (Chase Briscoe). When he moved up in front of me, I just couldn’t get off of him. Bummer to crash him like that and get caught up in that, that ruined our day, too, but yeah, 14th with the way our day went, I’ll take it. Excited for Darlington.”

Ryan Blaney – Finished 15th (Clinched final Cup playoff spot by three points): “It definitely didn’t start out very good. We had to battle through adversity all day, but props to the whole 12 group for continuing to work on it and fix it and just trying to keep it in the game. After that wreck everything was kind of out of our hands and we were just trying to do the best we could to try and complete all the laps. You never know what can happen, so props to them. Fortunately, we were able to gain some points there at the end and locked us in. It was definitely nerve racking, but a lot of props to the 12 team.”

Cole Custer – Finished 16th: “That was a long day but I appreciate the guys sticking it out and giving me a chance to make it to the end. Our Autodesk/HaasTooling.com Ford Mustang doesn’t look as nice as it did to start this morning but we gained 10 or 11 spots just by putting in the work to make it drivable after the wreck. I’m ready to get to Darlington and see what we’ve got next weekend.”

Erik Jones – Finished 17th: “We had a really fast FOCUSfactor Chevy today and were able to run up front, lead laps and thought we had a really good shot at winning. Unfortunately, we had damage from the caution that brought out the red flag and couldn’t make the repairs to meet minimum speed and finish the race. I hate we aren’t in the Playoffs this year, but proud of everyone on the 43 team and the hard work they’ve put in this year. We’ll keep building and use these next 10 weeks to continue to learn this car and try to get the FOCUSfactor Chevy in victory lane.”

Kevin Harvick – Finished 20th: (NBC Sports red flag interview – On Lap 138 crash before red flag) “We made it through the first part of the wreck there and obviously, there was a lot of carnage. I saw the bottom two cars starting to come back up the racetrack so I gassed it up and, so close, but the car maintained plenty of speed. You can see it come out of there, so I guess that’s all subjective. You have to be subjective to what is minimum speed because when the caution comes out we are the leader – when the light comes on. I don’t know.” (NBC – Is this something you want to discuss with NASCAR on how they make that decision?) “Well, I think they’re making it up as they go. It’s just one of those deals.”

Aric Almirola – Finished 21st: “A few things didn’t work out. I was in position and there was maybe a move I could have made differently to try and get to the lead, but my help that was pushing me – (Chris Buescher) – wasn’t clear, so I didn’t take the run. Looking back on it, maybe I wish I would have, but I would have just been in the lead and I would have been the first one to the rain, so I feel like I would have wrecked either way. I just hate it. I obviously wanted to win so we could get our team into the playoffs, but we’ve still got a lot of racing left to do this year and proud of everybody on our race team. I’m just thankful to Smithfield and Ford and everybody that supports this program. We’ll go race hard for 10 more weeks and get ready for next year then.”

Todd Gilliland – Finished 23rd: “Track conditions seemed fine, I guess, up until they weren’t right there. I was obviously at the back of that pack. I’ve never seen everyone spin out that quick, so I guess the track was probably pretty wet. That sucks, for sure. I felt like we had a good First Phase Ford Mustang today. We got sixth place in the second stage. We were racing up there with the guys that were supposed to be. Overall, I felt like our car was OK. That kind of sucks to end it like that, but it was typical Daytona.”

Daniel Suarez – Finished 24th: “We knew the rain was coming… It was raining next door. It was just a matter of time. Why would we wait for that?… I don’t know. Maybe I’m a little biased because I was in the front, but there’s nothing you can do. Sometimes, you are running 200 mph and you’re able to turn left. And then you see a few drops hard and you’re just spinning.” (Do you think they should have called cars to pit road earlier?) “I feel like they have a lot of technology to know that the rain is very, very close. I don’t think it’s hard to not put us in that position.”

Denny Hamlin – Finished 25th: “We ran into rain in the middle of turn one and just lost it.” (Is there anything that could’ve been done?) “Just throw the caution before the rain came. We had rain down the front. So about 10 seconds before we got into turn one, it was raining. I’m sure the fans felt it and then they watched us all pile in there.”

Chris Buescher – Finished 27th: “We saw rain. Our Fifth Third Bank Mustang was really fast. Everybody did their jobs and I felt like I was doing mine fairly well up there and had a run. We were definitely in a good spot and it was raining when we got to turn one and we all wiped out. We wiped out all the lead cars, so whoever wins this race wasn’t even in contention. It’s just ridiculous from my point of view.”

Justin Haley – Finished 28th: “Yeah, it was raining for a good lap before we got into turn one, my spotter said. Coming out of (turn) two the previous lap, it was raining and we just lost traction. It’s pretty unacceptable. I thought we did a good job all day with our Celsius Chevrolet and we put ourselves in position. Brett Griffin (spotter) and Trent Owens (crew chief) called that; we stayed out hoping for rain earlier. It’s just tough. I fight for my ride, fight for my life, every day. We take these small opportunities and try to make something of it.”

Chase Briscoe – Finished 31st: “Down on the back straightaway off of (Turn 2), Joey (Logano) decided to go to the bottom, so I felt like following him was probably my best decision there. We got such a big run that I kind of shoved him out that I felt like if I could get up, I could maybe take the lead. Looking back on it, I should have just stayed behind and shoved him. He’s just really good around this place and is always there at the end. When I got up in front of (Alex Bowman), he started shoving me pretty hard through three and four and was getting me loose. He got to my left-rear and that was a little bit on me just being lazy covering it and not knowing and whenever we lost the banking out of four it just spun me around. It’s unfortunate for my Mahindra Tractor guys. We kind of just rode around early in the race just trying to get to the end and then once we got our track position was just gonna try to maintain it. I don’t have a lot of experience leading races here and that’s what happens whenever you aren’t aggressive enough making moves, so I just have to put it in the notebook and go onto Darlington next week to start the playoffs and hopefully start a good run.”

Michael McDowell – Finished 32nd: “I’m not really sure what happened. Obviously, we were all racing pretty hard there knowing that there’s weather coming and we’re past halfway. I just have to go back and look at it. I don’t want to say anything silly, but felt like I had a good push from (Tyler Reddick) and had a run on (Joey Logano) and pulled out. I’m not sure if (Reddick) got me a little bit or if (Logano) just blocked a little bit too hard. It’s superspeedway racing trying to get ourselves locked into the playoffs in our Horizon Hobby Ford Mustang. We were going for it. You can see the weather is right there, so it’s unfortunate. We fought so hard to put ourselves in position to have a shot at making the playoffs. I felt like that was our shot. We had to go for it and it didn’t work out, but if I’d have lifted and the rain would have came and finished second, I would have been pretty upset with myself.”

Ross Chastain – Finished 33rd: “I’m proud of the effort by our No. 1 Jockey Chevrolet team and Trackhouse Racing. It’s been an incredible 26 weeks. Now we can reset and be ready for 10 weeks of experiencing something I’ve never experienced with the Playoffs; my crew chief, my spotter and my team haven’t experienced.”

William Byron – Finished 34th: “It just looked like they checked up in front of us. I don’t know exactly what happened in the front of the line. I hadn’t checked up and was just going to keep rolling straight through, but they came across me from the top. It’s just unfortunate. We had just gotten our No. 24 Axalta Camaro ZL1 a little bit better. I felt like we were in a good spot. I was happy with how the car was handling and it felt good to be in the mix.”

Brad Keselowski – Finished 35th: “It’s frustrating, but whenever your season is down to one race, you’ve got a lot more going on than just that one race. Our team put a lot of effort into getting this car ready. They brought a great car, so I hurt for them that we didn’t get a chance to show it.”

Christopher Bell – Finished 36th: “It looked like (Erik Jones) just got a little bit loose and then the rest of it was, you know, ‘along for the ride.’ … Looking at it – just a stack-up. Normal speedway race. Disappointed for our group. This Rheem car was obviously competitive. Started up front and was able to stay up there. We’ll go on to start the playoffs next week.”

Kyle Larson – Finished 37th: “I guess it was the timing belt maybe, or something like that. I didn’t really have much of an indication. I’m sure they’ll dig through the data and see if it was happening earlier than when it really let go there. Bummer. I’m sure we’ll drop a few spots in the points, so that will hurt for the playoffs. But I guess there’s one positive – I didn’t get caught up in a crash. We’re safe, good to go race next weekend and get our playoffs started.”

Dr. Diandra: How much does Talladega shake up the playoffs?

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Talladega Superspeedway is known for shaking up the playoffs. But how well deserved is that reputation?

Playoff drivers usually view the first race in the second round of the playoffs as the best chance to earn points, earn stage points and maybe even a win given that Talladega is the second race. Now that Texas is in the rear-view mirror, let’s turn our data analysis tools to Talladega.

The shake-up index

Determining how much one race shuffles the playoffs standings requires a simple metric that is applicable to all the years NASCAR has had stages and playoffs. In a rare point of consistency, Talladega has remained the 31st race of the season since 2017, when stage racing started.

After trying a couple different approaches, I finally settled on playoff rankings. These rankings are a zero-sum game. For each driver who moves up a position, another driver must move down.

The first graph is playoff ranking as a function of race for the second playoff segment of 2021. It’s a bit of a mess, but stay with me.

A scatter graph of rank changes to help determine how much shaking-up Talladega actually does

Playoff rank runs along the left side of the graph. The highest ranked driver is at the top and the 12th ranked at the bottom.

The leftmost set of dots shows the rankings coming out of Bristol, after eliminating the lowest four drivers and re-seeding the rest. The second column of dots show the rankings after Las Vegas, which was the first race in the second round in 2021.

Each driver is represented in a different color, with lines connecting his rankings. For example, the dark purple lines show Denny Hamlin rising from third to first over these three races. The light blue lines at the bottom show Alex Bowman plummeting from seventh to 12th.

The messier the lines between two races, the more the playoffs were shaken up. Because it’s hard to quantify “messiness,” I counted each time one driver’s line crossed another driver’s line.

Each crossing indicates two drivers changed places in the rankings. The number of intersections between Bristol and Las Vegas, for example, tells you how much Las Vegas shook up the standings.

Three intersecting lines count as three shake-ups because there are three pairs of drivers crossing.

In 2021, Las Vegas had nine intersections, Talladega 13 and the Roval only five. This seems consistent with our hypothesis that Talladega is the biggest shaker-upper in the second round.

Talladega Timeline

In addition to being only one point, the 2021 Talladega contest poses another problem. Bubba Wallace won the rain-shortened race, which went 311 miles instead of the scheduled 500 miles.

That raises the possibility that 2021 might not be the most representative year for Talladega races. I therefore repeated the analysis going back to 2017. Since we didn’t have stage racing — and thus stage points — before 2017, it doesn’t make sense to compare previous years.

The table below shows the shake-up index from 2017-2021. Note that the first and third races changed from year to year.

A table summarizing the shake-up index for Talladega and other races in the second playoff round from 2017-2021

This five years of data show that Talladega wasn’t always the race that most shook-up this round of playoffs. From 2017-19, Dover and Charlotte held that honor. That’s surprising, especially in 2017. That’s the year 26 of 40 cars failed to finish the Talladega race and NASCAR parked Jimmie Johnson and Matt DiBenedetto.

In 2020, the three races had just about equal shake-up indices.

The Roval has been the third playoff race for only two years. It was equally chaotic with Talladega in terms of affecting the standings in 2020, but less so in 2021. Kansas beat the Roval for switching up the playoff standings twice.

 A caveat for the first race

If you’re surprised to see a larger shake-up for the first race in the second round of the playoffs, you’re not alone.

The 2021 fall Las Vegas race was remarkably uneventful. There were only two DNFs, both non-playoff cars. And one single-car accident that, again, didn’t involve a playoff car. Yet it had a shake-up index of nine.

It turns out that this is a side-effect of the re-seeding protocol.

The graph below shows the same time period as the rankings graph, but reports total points for the top-12 drivers.

A scatter plot showing how points changed for the top-12 playoff drivers in 2021 in the second round of the playoffs

Immediately after re-seeding, the drivers are separated by 57 points from first to 12th. If you omit Kyle Larson’s 30-point lead, the bottom 11 drivers are separated by only 27 points.

Since a driver can earn a maximum of 60 points in a single race, the first race in a round has a lot more impact in changing the standings. In effect, the first race decompresses the re-seeding compression.

After Las Vegas, the 12 playoff drivers were separated by 78 points. After Talladega, the margin grew to 98 points.

The larger numbers for the first races in any round are more due to the re-seeding-induced points compression than to the nature of the track.

Applied to 2022

Drivers don’t have to win at Talladega. They just have to finish ahead of the other playoff drivers. In fact, if a given driver can’t win, the next best case for him is if none of the other playoff drivers win, either.

The largest drop in positions a driver has seen from Talladega is five — and that’s from the rain-shortened 2021 race. On the other hand, drivers have also seen as much as an eight-position gain in the standings following Talladega. That gain was after the 2017 race where more than half the field failed to finish, but at least one driver has come out of the fall Talladega race each of the last four years up at least three positions.

As far as the stats for this year’s second round playoffs so far: Last week’s Texas race had a shake-up index of 14. That’s higher than all but the first year of the stage-racing playoff era.

And the William Byron penalty (which Hendrick Motorsports is contesting) has a shake-up index of seven.

NASCAR weekend schedule for Talladega Superspeedway

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The NASCAR Cup Series playoffs roll into Talladega Superspeedway, a center of uncertainty, for the second race in the Round of 12 this weekend.

Sunday’s race (2 p.m. ET, NBC) could place the first driver in the Round of 8. Any playoff driver who wins the race automatically advances to the next round.

Through the playoffs to date, playoff drivers are batting zero in the race-win category. Non-playoff drivers — Tyler Reddick, Chris Buescher, Bubba Wallace and Erik Jones — have scored wins in the first four playoff races.

Joey Logano leads the playoff points entering the race. Ross Chastain, who won at Talladega earlier this year, is second.

The four drivers below the cutline are Austin Cindric, William Byron, Christopher Bell and Alex Bowman. Byron was above the line earlier this week but was penalized 25 points for spinning Denny Hamlin under caution last Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway. That move lifted Chase Briscoe above the cutline.

Playoff races also are scheduled for the Xfinity Series (Saturday, 4 p.m. ET, USA Network) and the Camping World Truck Series (Saturday, 12:30 p.m., FS1) at Talladega.

Here’s a look at the Talladega weekend schedule:

Talladega Superspeedway (Cup, Xfinity and Truck)

Weekend weather

Friday: Sunny. High of 78.

Saturday: Partly cloudy. High of 74.

Sunday: Intervals of clouds and sun. High of 75.

Friday, Sept. 30

(All times Eastern)

Garage open

  • 9 a.m. – 6 p.m. — Truck Series
  • 10:30 a.m. – 7:30 p.m. — Xfinity Series
  • 2 – 7 p.m. — Cup Series

Track activity

  • 3:30 – 5 p.m. — Truck Series qualifying
  • 5:30 – 7 p.m. — Xfinity Series qualifying (USA Network)

Saturday, Oct. 1

Garage open

  • 8:30 a.m. – 12:30 p.m. — Cup Series
  • 9:30 a.m. — Truck Series
  • 1 p.m. — Xfinity Series

Track activity

  • 10:30 a.m. – Noon — Cup Series qualifying (NBC Sports app, Motor Racing Network, Sirius XM NASCAR Radio)
  • 12:30 p.m. — Truck Series race (94 laps, 250 miles; FS1, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)
  • 4 p.m. — Xfinity Series race (113 laps, 300 miles; USA Network, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Sunday, Oct. 2

Garage open

  • 11 a.m. — Cup Series

Track activity

  • 2 p.m. — Cup Series race (188 laps, 500 miles; NBC, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Short-track ace Sam Ard shares Xfinity record with Noah Gragson

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Former two-time Xfinity Series champion Sam Ard’s name returned to the forefront in the past week as Noah Gragson tied Ard’s series record for consecutive victories at four.

Although Ard has been nominated for the NASCAR Hall of Fame, his exploits generally aren’t well-known among many who follow the modern sport of stock car racing. He was on the Hall voting list for the 2023 class but was not elected.

In the 1970s and ’80s, Ard was a short-track master in the vein of stars like Jack Ingram, Harry Gant and Butch Lindley, drivers who could show up at virtually any half-mile track across the country and take home the trophy.

He won the NASCAR Late Model (now the Xfinity Series) championship in 1983 and 1984, scoring 18 wins across those two seasons. He put together four victories in a row late in the 1983 season, winning at South Boston, Virginia; Martinsville, Virginia; Rougemont, North Carolina and Charlotte.

Ard was so dominant in 1984 that he had wrapped up the seasonal championship with two races remaining. In 28 series starts that year, he had 24 top-five finishes and 26 top-10 runs. He won eight times.

In the next-to-last race of the 1984 season, at North Carolina Speedway in Rockingham, Ard suffered critical head injuries when his car slid in fluid from another vehicle and hit the track’s outside wall.

That crash effectively ended Ard’s career and impacted the rest of his life. Ard often talked of learning to walk again as part of his recovery. He said he would use a walker in a pile of sawdust in his backyard so that the landing would be softer when he fell.

Ard eventually was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease. In 2006, responding to Ard’s financial problems, drivers Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Dale Earnhardt Jr., among others, launched a drive to raise funds for his family.

Ard, a native of Scranton, S.C., died in April 2017. He was 78.

 

 

 

 

 

Drivers to watch in Cup Series race at Talladega Superspeedway

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The NASCAR Cup Series playoffs will reach a critical point Sunday in a 500-mile chase at treacherous Talladega Superspeedway.

The overriding factor in any race at Talladega, NASCAR’s biggest track, is the unknown. With cars running so fast and so close together, multi-car accidents are not only possible but expected, and it’s easy to become the innocent victim of someone else’s mistake.

MORE: NASCAR penalizes William Byron for spinning Denny Hamlin

The tension is doubled for the 12 playoff drivers. A bad finish at Talladega could open the door for a probable playoff exit at the end of the round Oct. 9 at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval.

The playoffs to date have seen four wins by non-playoff drivers, an unprecedented result. Tyler Reddick was the most recent to join that list with a win last Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway.

A look at drivers to watch at Talladega:

FRONTRUNNERS

Denny Hamlin

  • Points position: 6th
  • Last three races: 10th at Texas, 9th at Bristol, 2nd at Kansas
  • Past at Talladega: 2 career wins

Although he hasn’t won, Hamlin has finished in the top 10 in all four playoff races. In the past six races at Talladega, he has four finishes of seventh or better. Now if he can just keep people from running into him…

William Byron

  • Points position: 3rd
  • Last three races: 7th at Texas, 3rd at Bristol, 6th at Kansas
  • Past at Talladega: Best career finish is a second

Byron stands alone as the only playoff driver who has been able to avoid major crashes and trouble in the pits, and he has finished in the top 10 in all four playoff races. After Tuesday’s penalty for his incident with Denny Hamlin at Texas, he sits below the cutline entering Sunday’s race.

Brad Keselowski

  • Points position: 24th
  • Last three races: 8th at Texas, 13th at Bristol, 25th at Kansas
  • Past at Talladega: 6 wins, the active leader

Even in trying times, Keselowski is a threat at Talladega, where he last won in April 2021 (his last Cup victory). He has led 268 laps there in the past 13 races.

QUESTIONS TO ANSWER

Kyle Busch

  • Points position: 15th
  • Last three races: 36th at Texas, 34th at Bristol, 26th at Kansas
  • Past at Talladega: 1 career win, in 2008

Is Busch going to steadily disappear into the mist as he rides out the final weeks of his final year with Joe Gibbs Racing? His best finish in the past four races is 26th. On the positive side this week, he’s the only driver to finish in the top 10 in this year’s three races at Daytona and Talladega.

Chase Elliott

  • Points position: 8th
  • Last three races: 32nd at Texas, 2nd at Bristol, 11th at Kansas
  • Past at Talladega: 1 career win, in 2019

Can Elliott rebound from a fiery finish and a 32nd-place run at Texas? Playoff points give him some comfort, but a second career win at Talladega would be greatly appreciated in the Hendrick camp.

Martin Truex Jr.

  • Points position: 17th
  • Last three races: 31st at Texas, 36th at Bristol, 5th at Kansas
  • Past at Talladega: Best career finish is 5th

Will one of the sport’s most enduring mysteries continue at Talladega? In 70 career starts at Daytona and Talladega, Truex, a former champion and a smooth driver, has zero wins. At Talladega, he has only three top-five finishes in 35 starts.