Will Talladega Live Up to the Hype?

Photo courtesy: Talladega Superspeedway

Read any article or watch any commercial for this weekend’s 1000Bulbs.com 500 and you will hear promises of carnage, mayhem and unpredictability. I decided to take a look into several of the previous fall Talladega races to see how realistic those prophecies are.

2013 – 52 lead changes, three caution flags with the last pass for the lead on lap 174 of 188. The three cautions were for fluid on the track on lap four, a two-car accident on lap 80, and a two-car accident on the final lap. The race was won by Jamie McMurray.

2014 – 38 lead changes, six caution flags with a last lap pass for the win. There was a six-car crash on lap 61, an eight-car crash on lap 104, two debris cautions, a single-car accident and a five-car accident during the overtime segment. Brad Keselowski was the race winner.

2015 – 30 lead changes, three caution flags with the last pass for the lead on lap 189 of 196. There was a caution for fluid on the track on lap 133, a caution for fluid on lap 185, and then an 11-car crash on the final lap. Joey Logano was the race winner.

2016 – 31 lead changes, six caution flags, last pass for the lead on lap 148 out of 192. The cautions came at lap 43 for oil on the track, lap 115 for a three car crash, lap 146 for oil on the track, lap 151 for debris, lap 183 for a three car crash, and lap 187 for a single car spin. Joey Logano was once again the race winner, making it three fall race wins in a row for Team Penske.

2017 – 30 lead changes, 11 caution flags and a last lap pass for the win. There was a five-car crash on lap 27, a single-car crash on lap 52, a two-car crash on lap 153, a six-car crash on lap 157, a three-car accident on lap 166, a 16-car crash on lap 173, a five-car crash on lap 179, and a six-car crash on lap 184. Brad Keselowski won the race, passing Ryan Newman on the final lap. This made it four fall wins in a row for Team Penske at Talladega, even after surviving a lot of calamity.

Taking a broad stroke and looking at these past five Talladega races a few things stand out:

  • It’s going to be awfully hard to beat Team Penske. Despite the relative unpredictability in theory of these Talladega races, Team Penske has won every fall event since 2014, and has won six of the last eight races at Talladega.
  • Typically there’s not a lot of action early. There hasn’t been a major accident in any of the past five fall Talladega races until the waning laps. In fact, there have only been two “big ones” with 10 or more cars involved in this stretch of fall Talladega races. There was the big crash on the final lap in 2015 and the 16 car crash on lap 173 last year.
  • The average number of lead changes has dropped significantly after the 2013 and 2014 events. 2015 and 2017 both had 30 lead changes while 2016 had 31. The fall events at Talladega from 2000-2009 averaged 48.3 lead changes.

Anything “can” happen at Talladega but it seems like the fall races, despite all the hype, have been rather tame over these past five events. For everything that the playoffs try to do for NASCAR, I really think it hinders some races, and Talladega is a prime example.

I’ve read several transcripts and heard interviews ever since the checkers flew at Dover of drivers saying they would like to just survive Talladega this weekend and get a solid finish. With Jimmie Johnson’s last-lap mistake at the Roval in the minds of many of these drivers, I do feel several of them are just going to try to ride on Sunday and not put themselves in a bad situation.

On the other hand, maybe, just maybe, there will be enough drivers out there who have little or nothing to lose who will try to keep things exciting. Drivers like Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and teammate Trevor Bayne, the RCR cars of Austin Dillon and Ryan Newman, JGR’s Denny Hamlin, Erik Jones, and Daniel Suarez, Hendrick’s Jimmie Johnson and William Byron, among others, all have every reason to go for the win and they don’t have to worry about playoffs. Jamie McMurray is always strong on the restrictor plate tracks and this may be his last opportunity to win at the Cup level in his career.

I will remain cautiously optimistic that the race on Sunday will provide a fair amount of excitement. But I do feel that a lot of the drivers are going to want to ride around and avoid being in a big crash. If the past five fall Talladega races are any indicator then don’t look for a whole lot of white knuckle driving in the first 2/3 of the race. That last 1/3 could be a doozy though!

What do you think? Will the race follow the pattern of mostly tame fall Talladega races or will we get one that we’ll be talking about for awhile?