Talladega offers plenty of opportunity

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Talladega Superspeedway, site of Sunday‘s NASCAR Cup Series Playoff race, is traditionally regarded as one of the most action-packed, thrilling venues on the NASCAR Cup Series calendar.

And after a dramatic playoff race a week ago at Texas Motor Speedway, expectations are super high for the YellaWood 500 (2 p.m. ET on NBC, NBC Sports App, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

Counting Tyler Reddick‘s victory at Texas, the first four 2022 NASCAR Cup Series Playoff races have been won by non-playoff contenders — an unprecedented streak. The result has been a tightly bunched field of championship chasers trying to point their way into the Round of 8, if not fortunate enough to earn a trophy this round at Talladega or the Charlotte Roval.

Talladega 101: Format, tires, story lines, more | Full weekend schedule

Texas had a great effect on the title contenders. Race runner-up Joey Logano, driver of the No. 22 Team Penske Ford, now leads the championship standings for the third time this season (also one-week tenures following the Phoenix and Darlington-2 races). He‘s 12 points ahead of Trackhouse Racing‘s Ross Chastain, 14 up on reigning series champion, Hendrick Motorsports‘ Kyle Larson, and 15 points ahead of his Penske teammate Ryan Blaney.

MORE: Logano rises to No. 1 in Power Rankings

Logano and 12th-place driver Alex Bowman are separated by only 56 points. Logano and eighth-place Chase Briscoe (in the final transfer position) are separated by only 30 points.

Hendrick Motorsports driver Chase Elliott, the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series champion and this season’s series-best four-race winner who led the standings for 23 weeks, has dropped to seventh place in the championship run. After a DNF at Texas, he‘s now only 11 points up on the elimination line.

Another major shift in the standings has affected Elliott‘s Hendrick Motorsports teammate William Byron. The two-race winner was issued a $50,000 fine and 25-point driver and owner penalties for rough driving — officially, “vehicle contact during a caution period” — at Texas following an incident with fellow playoff competitor, Denny Hamlin, of Joe Gibbs Racing.

The points penalty drops Byron from third place in the standings to 10th — eight points below Briscoe in that final playoff advancement position. Hendrick Motorsports said Tuesday it would appeal Byron‘s penalty.

The good news for both Elliott and Byron, however, is that they are among the favorites for Sunday‘s race at Talladega Superspeedway.

No. 45 23XI Racing driver Bubba Wallace is the defending winner of this playoff race, earning his first career NASCAR Cup Series victory at the big track last fall. Playoff driver Chastain won in April at Talladega — leading only the final lap to take his second career series win. Byron led a race-best 38 laps in that race, but finished 15th. He was runner-up in the 2021 spring race.

Elliott, who is favored by oddsmakers to win this weekend, earned his only NASCAR Cup Series victory at Talladega in 2019 but has six top-10 finishes in 13 starts. Blaney, who is also a favorite, won back-to-back races at Talladega — the 2019 playoff race and 2020 spring event — and is the only driver to win consecutive races at the track since NASCAR Hall of Famer Jeff Gordon swept the 2007 season.

In addition to Chastain, Elliott and Blaney, the only other drivers among the 12 playoff eligible with wins at Talladega are Logano, who has three victories (2015, ‘16 and ‘18) and Hamlin, who has a pair of wins (2014, 2020).

RFK Racing driver/owner Brad Keselowski leads all current drivers with six victories on the Talladega high banks.

With no consensus favorite yet established for the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series championship run, Talladega takes on increased importance even as it‘s considered one of the most unpredictable venues on the circuit.

“It‘s really tough because you can‘t predict when a wreck is going to happen,” Hamlin said, of Talladega strategy. “As a driver, you start to feel the intensity of the pack picking up and you start to see people making aggressive moves. You just have to make a judgment call on whether you want to be part of it at that time.”

Qualifying (one-lap and two rounds) is set for Saturday at 10:30 a.m. ET and will be aired on the NBC Sports App, MRN Radio and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.