The penultimate race of the second round of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoffs is now upon us. This one though is much different than any of the other 10 races in the playoffs.
This is Talladega.
Here are the top five storylines for this weekend’s Alabama 500 (2 p.m. ET/NBC/MRN).
Dale Earnhardt Jr’s Final Talladega Start
This is a main storyline anywhere we go in the second half of the Cup season, but this is even bigger this weekend. Talladega is Earnhardt country, and with how this season has gone, this is likely the last chance that the third generation driver can reach victory lane of his Cup career.
But, how popular would it be if Earnhardt can win his last race of his Cup career at the same place that his dad won his last Cup race of his Cup career?
The date of his dads last win of his career, which happened to also be at Talladega?
Oct. 15, 2000.
Sunday’s race is Oct. 15, 2017.
Since the race at Kentucky on July 8, we’ve seen just five different winners in the last 13 races. In fact, Toyota drivers have won 10 of them. Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch have each won four races a piece, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Larson have won two races each and Kasey Kahne one trip to victory lane himself.
In every race since July, Busch, Truex, Larson and Hamlin have obviously been the easy odds on favorites in each.
With Talladega up this weekend, it’s a wildcard race where anyone can win. Ford drivers have won all three plate races this season, so it’s clear that we could have a new winner finally.
Is Kyle Busch In Trouble?
Last year, Busch and his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates didn’t try very hard at Talladega in the Fall. They all were easily going to advance to the next round of the playoffs so long as they don’t get caught up in the “big one.” So, they just rode around at the back all day and escaped.
This year, Talladega isn’t the last race of the second round and Busch is in a much different position.
Despite having 41 playoff points, Busch is sixth in the standings as he’s coming off of a dismal day at Charlotte last weekend where he finished a disappointing 29th. Now, with stage points on the line, he can’t afford to ride around at the back or he could be quickly on the outside looking in. But, if he gets caught up in a melee, he could be on the outside looking in on that scenario too.
Busch is definitely sweating this weekend’s trip to Talladega.
Will Stage Points Cause Carnage?
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. showed us last round that stage points are valuable. He received seven stage points in the first stage at Dover while Ryan Newman got 0. Stenhouse advanced to the second round by two total points over Newman.
With that being said, just 24 points separate Chase Elliott in fourth in the standings to Ryan Blaney who’s 11th in the standings. Just eight drivers move onto the Round of 8. So, with stage points on the line in the first two stages on Sunday, that should make the racing intense.
You can’t afford to give up any points, Stenhouse proved that last round. So, 11 of the 12 playoff drivers have to get stage points. But, only 10 drivers get them each stage.
With as much pushing that were going to see at the end of these stages, will it cause carnage?
I would guess yes.
Stenhouse Going For Dega Sweep
The only shot that Ricky Stenhouse Jr. really has of advancing to the Round of 8 is hampering on a good day on Sunday at Talladega. See, Stenhouse hasn’t had a top 10 finish since his win at Daytona in July. He’s currently 10 points behind the cutoff line and with Kansas up next, he’s not likely going to win there.
But, Talladega he can win at.
Stenhouse earned his first career Cup victory at Talladega back in May. He backed that up with another plate win at Daytona in July. Furthermore, Ford has won all three plate races in 2017, as Kurt Busch won the Daytona 500 in February.
This is Stenhouse’s chance to shock the world again and go for a Talladega sweep.