USA TODAY Sports’ Mike Hembree previews the Alabama 500 at Talladega Superspeedway.

The return to a track drivers fear and fans love is here. That’s right, Talladega Superspeedway is the site of this Sunday’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoff race.

In a twist this year, the sanctioning body moved the track’s date up a week, taking it out of the second-round elimination slot. While all 12 drivers will have a chance to advance to the third round at Kansas Speedway on Oct. 22, many of their hopes may get dashed this weekend.

NASCAR’s largest circuit, at 2.66 miles, offers high-speed, breathtaking racing that sees the cars draft in clumps thanks to restrictor plates. When physics comes into play, the result can be white-knuckle wrecks and airborne cars.

How the playoff drivers have fared at Talladega, and what to watch for Sunday (Alabama 500, 2 p.m. ET, NBC):


1. Martin Truex Jr. (3,106 points)

Car: No. 78 Toyota

Team: Furniture Row Racing

Best Talladega finish: Fifth (fall 2006, spring 2015)

Notable: The points leader and title favorite is a definitive 0-for-25 at Talladega and 0-for-50 at restrictor-plate tracks. Fortunately for him, that doesn’t matter, because Truex can enjoy a Sunday drive after his win last week at Charlotte Motor Speedway secured his spot in the next round. 

2. Kyle Larson (3,072)

Car: No. 42 Chevrolet

Team: Chip Ganassi Racing

Best Talladega finish: Sixth (fall 2016)

Notable: Look for Larson to be in the lead pack in the closing laps and pushing for a win. He has a penchant for putting the squeeze on in plate racing, which can be good and bad.

3. Kevin Harvick (3,069)

Car: No. 4 Ford

Team: Stewart-Haas Racing

Best Talladega finish: First (spring 2010)

Notable: Two years ago, Harvick was at the center of controversy after his wreck on a green-white-checkered finish with his motor expiring froze the field and preserved his spot in the next round. After finishes of of 36th and 17th to wrap the first round this season, he got back on track last week with a third-place result. Look for him to be in the mix Sunday. 

4. Chase Elliott (3,059)

Car: No. 24 Chevrolet

Team: Hendrick Motorsports

Best Talladega finish: Fifth (spring 2015)

Notable: His Hall of Fame father Bill scored two wins and 22 top-10s here. Chase is just 21, but already has shown a penchant for plate racing. In just three Cup races at Talladega, he has started first, fourth and eighth. If he can avoid trouble, he’ll score a top-10 finish. He’s been on the brink of his first career Cup win several times this season, and if he scores it here, he’ll bring the house down.

5. Denny Hamlin (3,056)

Car: No. 11 Toyota

Team: Joe Gibbs Racing

Best Talladega finish: First (spring 2014)

Notable: Look for Hamlin and teammates Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth to work some draft magic behind that Toyota power. 

6. Kyle Busch (3,055)

Car: No. 18 Toyota

Team: Joe Gibbs Racing

Best Talladega finish: First (spring 2008)

Notable: While Busch dropped in the standings after his disastrous day at Charlotte, which ended with him needing medical attention for heat exhaustion after the race, he remains a strong contender for the crown with two wins in the first four playoff races. But Talladega has doomed his playoff hopes more often then he’d care to talk about.

7. Jimmie Johnson (3,051)

Car: No. 48 Chevrolet

Team: Hendrick Motorsports

Best Talladega finish: First (spring 2009, 2011)

Notable: He and crew chief Chad Knaus have proven they can work through almost any situation and score a great finish. Johnson, the reigning champion who is seeking a record eighth title, will take care of his equipment and drive a smart race. But what about those around him?

8. Jamie McMurray (3,044)

Car: No. 1 Chevrolet

Team: Chip Ganassi Racing

Best Talladega finish: First (fall 2009, 2013)

Notable: McMurray has an average start of 9.5 and average finish of 13.0 this season. He’d probably be pretty happy with that Sunday.

9. Matt Kenseth (3,043)

Car: No. 20 Toyota

Team: Joe Gibbs Racing

Best Talladega finish: First (fall 2012)

Notable: Kenseth hasn’t finished better than 23rd in his past five starts here. That’s no bueno. While the veteran watches his final season at JGR – and perhaps in the series – come to a close, it doesn’t seem as if he has the momentum to reach the next round.

10. Brad Keselowski (3,042)

Car: No. 2 Ford

Team: Team Penske

Best Talladega finish: First (spring 2009, 2012, 2016; fall 2014)

Notable: He has more wins than any other playoff driver here. So, his confidence is high and that should carry some weight Sunday. But his title hopes ended here last year when his engine expired, sending him to a 38th-place finish.

11. Ryan Blaney (3,039)

Car: No. 21 Ford

Team: Wood Brothers Racing

Best Talladega finish: Fourth (spring 2015)

Notable: He has two top-10s in six starts at Talladega and has shown acumen early in his career at restrictor-plate racing. While Fords haven’t shown they have the power to match the Toyotas of Truex and the Gibbs drivers, plate racing could change the game. If Blaney can work with fellow Ford drivers, look for him to get a strong finish.

12. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (3,034)

Car: No. 17 Ford

Team: Roush Fenway Racing

Best Talladega finish: First (spring 2017)

Notable: With two wins in three restrictor-plate races this year, Stenhouse finally has broken through and become a contender in his fifth full-time year. Expect another stellar performance from him to help propel him into the third round.

Follow Tucker on Twitter @HeatherR_Tucker



Show Thumbnails

Show Captions