NASCAR: Bubba Wallace earns first Cup Series victory at Talladega

Wallace earned a historic triumph when rain brought an early end to the middle portion of the NASCAR Cup Series’ quarterfinal playoff round.

Bubba Wallace disrupted the NASCAR Cup Series playoff picture in historic fashion on Monday afternoon at Talladega Superspeedway’s YellaWood 500.

As the leader when NASCAR called the race due to inclement weather at lap 117 of 188, Wallace earned the first win of his Cup Series career. He becomes the first African-American driver to win an event at NASCAR’s premier level since the late Wendell Scott in 1963. Wallace, four days away from his 28th birthday, also secured the first win for the No. 23 23XI Racing Toyota. The new team is owned and operated by Wallace’s fellow Cup competitor Denny Hamlin and NBA legend Michael Jordan.

Rain disrupted the Cup Series postseason proceedings, pushing a Sunday event to Monday. The precipitation refused to let up, originally causing an 18-minute delay at lap 74. Once the race reached its midway point (lap 94), it became an official event.

After reaching the landmark under threatening skies, drivers knew that the race could be stopped at any point. Wallace took the lead from Kurt Busch at lap 113 and led what became the last five laps of the race. The event never went green again after a multi-car wreck took out William Byron, Matt DiBenedetto, and Ryan Preece. An ill-fated attempt to dry the track was made, but the weather eventually became too much to bear, leading NASCAR to call a lid on the race weekend.

Wallace’s historic triumph completed a trifecta of first-time winners at Talladega over the past three days, as Tate Fogelman and Brandon Brown each earned their respective first wins in the Camping World Truck and Xfinity circuits.

Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, Kurt Busch, and Christopher Bell rounded out the top five. Points leader Kyle Larson was relegated to a 37th-place finish after his car was damaged in Justin Allgaier’s spin at lap 56, shortly before Chris Buescher took home the first and only stage win.

Bubba’s Big One

One could’ve said that Wallace earning his first Cup Series victory at Talladega was far too cinematic to ever come true. Not only is he a Mobile native but Talladega was the site of last summer’s show of driver solidarity after a rope fashioned into what was originally construed as a noose was found in the garage area. While an FBI investigation determined that there was no hate crime, drivers nonetheless stood alongside Wallace, pushing his car to the front of the starting line during pre-race ceremonies. 

Wallace, however, foresaw a fruitful visit to the superspeedway after promising results both there and Daytona. He led 16 laps during April’s visit to Talladega and wound up in the runner-up spot at Daytona’s regular season finale in August.

“I was sitting there reading over our notes, looking at our previous race here in the spring. I was like, man, our first stage average was pretty damn good,” Wallace recalled. I think we were like fourth on average. After that, we were like 15th to 20th second and in the third stage we ended up I think 18th or so.”

“It made me think about Daytona. We led some laps in Daytona in the summer, even at the 500. We lead some races early on, then kind of survived and get a good finish…For some reason, I had a feeling we were going to win. This was on Friday. I was like, we’re going to go win. (My wife) Amanda said we were going to win. I had a buddy of mine, Mamba, I told him I’m going to go out and win. I got it documented.”

Wallace went head-to-head with Kurt Busch, who will join him at 23XI next season in the No. 45 Toyota, and his team owner trying to work with one of his own teammates. With Hamlin’s semifinal status assured thanks to a win at Las Vegas last weekend, his No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota was pushing the No. 20 Camry of Christopher Bell to the lead. Bell could’ve likewise earned a ticket to the semifinals with a win, which would’ve been his first since the second event of the season at the Daytona road course in February.

Though Hamlin missed out on a JGR jackpot (Bell sits 27 points out of the final transfer spot), he was proud of what Wallace was able to accomplish, saying that watching the No. 23 team earn the victory was like “watching your kid succeed at whatever they’re doing”. Hamlin was pleased with the way Wallace applied lessons learned at prior visits to Talladega and Daytona.

“He made some big changes from Daytona (in February) and Talladega (in April) to Daytona (in August). I mentioned to him this week,” Hamlin, the eventual seventh-place finisher, said. I’ve just seen a transition with him, his willingness to take in information and apply it. I think this is not going to be the last time you’re going to be hearing about his name on a superspeedway. He’s very gifted at them. He has very, very good instincts.”

Shake Your Bootie

Monday marked not only Wallace’s first win in his Cup Series career but it was marked first such triumph for his crew chief Robert “Bootie” Barker.

Barker had not visited victory lane since 2003 while overseeing the endeavors of another No. 23 car, that of Scott Wimmer’s at Bill Davis Racing. The pair won four races en route to a third-place finish in the Busch (now Xfinity) Series standings the year prior, but Barker, despite developing a strong reputation across the sport, was still seeking his first win in 483 Cup Series starts. Barker originally joined 23XI in a behind-the-scenes role but was asked to return to the pit box three races ago, replacing Mike Wheeler (now 23XI’s Director of Race Competition). Barker’s last work as a crew chief came in 2018 with Riley Herbst’s ARCA team.

Working with Wallace required little reconditioning for Barker, who was familiar with his new driver. Barker was attracted to the sheer number of resources available to him at 23XI…and that included its original driver.

“I enjoy the situation I’m in. I enjoy working with Bubba. I feel like he has a lot of upside (and) a lot of potential,” Barker said of Wallace. “My main focus was to make sure the team, the strength of the team, was brought to bear. In other words, I didn’t do anything to inhibit us, make no mistakes, put us in a position to succeed has been my main focus. I knew Bubba could get it done. I knew we had the stuff and the people to support him to knock it out.”

Though it wasn’t their first win, Wallace and Barker’s collaboration ended one of the more dubious, hidden losing streaks in NASCAR history. Primary sponsor McDonald’s, which first entered the sport in 1973, sent a car to victory lane for the first since Jimmy Spencer’s July 1994 triumph, also at Talladega.

Hendrick Horrors

23XI became the first team to win a Cup Series race in its debut season since Hendrick Motorsports, who has sent four representatives in the Round of 12. If anyone wanted the rains to stop, it was that cursed quartet, whose best finishing Chevrolet was Chase Elliott’s No. 9 in 18th.

Larson wound up four laps down in 37th after his No. 5 Chevrolet clipped Allgaier’s spinning No. 77, ruining his handling for the rest of the afternoon. His position only partly improved thanks to his teammate Alex Bowman dropping to 38th after he was involved in a hard wreck that also took out Tyler Reddick. Byron’s unfortunate involvement in DiBenedetto and Preece’s incident doomed him to 36th.

While Larson’s prior endeavors built him a solid cushion (his lead above the cutoff is down to 22 points but he’s second place behind only Hamlin), Byron (44 points back) and Bowman (52) are in undeniable must-win situations if they plan on keeping their championship dreams alive.

Up Next

The NASCAR Cup Series’ Round of 12 concludes next Sunday afternoon at Charlotte Motor Speedway, where the track’s famous “Roval” (part-oval, part-road course) will host the event that determines the eight-driver semifinal lineup (2 p.m. ET, NBC). Returning to the Roval is music to Elliott’s ears: the defending series champion has won each of the last two visits. Elliott is currently the last driver eligible for the semifinal round, as his No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet leads its new rival, 2014 Cup champion Kevin Harvick, by eight points.

For full results, click here

For full standings, click here

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags 

NASCAR: Brad Keselowski steals wild Talladega finish in overtime

Brad Keselowski took home a wild overtime finish in the NASCAR Cup Series at Talladega Superspeedway, his sixth win at the track.

Working overtime on Sunday paid off for Brad Keselowski.

The No. 2 Team Penske Ford stole a wild finish at Talladega Superspeedway’s GEICO 500, passing Matt DiBenedetto on the final lap to earn his 35th victory in the NASCAR Cup Series. Sunday’s race was extended for a two-lap overtime shootout after debris from Martin Truex Jr.’s Toyota brought out a yellow flag. William Byron beat out Daytona 500 winner Michael McDowell for the runner-up spot, while Kevin Harvick and DiBenedetto rounded out the top five.

Keselowski has now earned at least one win in 11 consecutive Cup Series seasons, one of only 16 drivers to hit that mark at the premier level. He also has six wins at Talladega, leading all active drivers and tied for second-most all-time with Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt. Jr. The all-time record is held by Dale Earnhardt Sr. with 10.

“I grew up loving the sport, still love the sport. We fight like husband and wife, but I still love the sport…It’s a hard sport. Any success you have means the world. To have my name on any list…that’s a pretty big deal,” Keselowski said after the win. “Dale’s record is so far out there. Yeah, I have a shot at it, but it’s a distant shot. You have to get to seven before you even think about ten. But it’s still cool to be on the same list as him.”

Sunday offered a bit of redemption for Keselowski after a heartbreak end to the season-opening Daytona 500, another prestigious superspeedway event. Late contact with teammate Joey Logano led to a race-ending wreck that allowed McDowell to sneak away with a victory.

The path to the final lap, the only lap Keselowski led on Sunday, was paved with typical fireworks usually associated with Talladega. Drivers were able to avoid creating “The Big One”, but the end of the first stage was marred by a big wreck that ended with Logano’s No. 22 Ford getting airborne while fighting for the lead. Logano was unharmed but called for changes to the racing package after landing on his roof. He compared the devastating airborne crash Ryan Newman suffered at the end of last season’s opener at Daytona. 

“I’m wondering when we’re going to stop because this is dangerous doing what we’re doing,” Logano said after the wreck. “I got a roll bar in my head. That’s not okay. I’m one hit away from the same situation Ryan Newman just went through. I just don’t feel like that is acceptable. A lot of it is the big spoiler and the big runs and all the pushing. It’s nobody’s fault…It’s a product of this racing. We have to fix it though.”

DiBenedetto ended up winning the first 60-lap stage and remained at or near the front with Keselowski and Ryan Blaney. His No. 21 Wood Brothers Racing Ford took the lead from Erik Jones on lap 177 of 188 on a restart after Quin Houff hit the wall and brought out a caution. He held the lead with assistance from Ford teammates Keselowski and Blaney (whose Penske team also works with WBR through a technical alliance) but the field was pushed back together when Truex lost a tire, setting up a green-white-checkered finish.

The No. 21 led the penultimate lap, but Keselowski got a strong push from the Ford of McDowell to earn the win. As the field wrecked behind them, Keselowski took home his first win of the season, becoming the ninth victorious driver in ten races.

“I saw he was getting a run and I just prayed I got to the start/finish line before it was too late,” Keselowski said of McDowell’s final push in the end. “Matt went to block (Blaney) and I just barely got inside of him with a huge run.  I got a great push from Michael McDowell, which was really helpful and appreciated, so just a big day.”

As for DiBenedetto, he’s left with yet another moral victory. Having developed himself as a fan favorite after picking up respectable finishes in subpar equipment, DiBenedetto is still searching for his first Cup Series win after 222 career starts. He’s in a lame-duck situation in the No. 21, which is set to welcome in Penske’s defending NASCAR Xfinity Series champion Austin Cindric next season.

But DiBenedetto is instead opting to focus on the positives gleaned from Sunday’s events. After a brutal start to the season (sitting 34th in the standings after the third event of the season at Homestead-Miami), the No. 21 Ford has earned seven straight top 20 finishes and has failed to complete only one lap. He’s currently the first driver out of the current playoff bracket, 12 points behind current co-holders Chris Buescher and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. DiBenedetto’s stage win was his first in a points race, previously winning the last one in last summer’s All-Star Open to go to the main exhibition event.

“It was a solid day. We’ll take a top five and had a stage win, so that’s great,” he said. The car was really fast. All the Fords were super good. That was awesome. Our car led great. Ryan really pushed. Our Penske teammates did an excellent job helping us get that stage win, so that was huge. Big credit to them and big for our points situation, so just tough ending.  I jumped up in front of Ryan and he kind of got spit out and hung out and some people were grabbing his quarter panel and such.”

The NASCAR Cup Series returns to action Sunday afternoon at Kansas Speedway for the Buschy McBusch Race 400 (3 p.m. ET, FS1).

Race Notes

  • Byron’s No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet has earned top ten finishes in each of the last eight events.

 

  • Bubba Wallace earned a win in the second 60-lap stage, his first career stage win in a points race (previously winning one in the 2019 All-Star Open). Wallace brought home the No. 23 23XI Racing Toyota home 19th, and is 33 points away from a playoff spot.

 

  • Stage two likewise ended in chaos, as Byron’s Hendrick Motorsports teammates Alex Bowman and Chase Elliott sustained heavy damage. Byron was likewise involved by recovered to finish in second.

 

  • Kaz Grala, making his third Cup Series start, finished sixth. Grala, driving the No. 16 Kaulig Racing Chevrolet, has earned two top ten finishes in his first three starts. It was a victorious weekend for Kaulig Racing, which owns two top ten finishes in three Cup starts this season (the other earned by AJ Allmendinger at the Daytona road course). Kaulig’s No. 10 Chevrolet won the rain-shortened Xfinity race on Sunday, as Jeb Burton earned his first career win on the circuit. Burton is the son of 2002 Daytona 500 champion Ward.

 

  • Jeb’s cousin Harrison, son of former driver and current NBC Sports analyst Jeff, made his first Cup Series start, finishing 20th in the No. 96 Gaunt Bros. Racing Toyota. Harrison currently drives the No. 20 Toyota for Joe Gibbs on the Xfinity level, winning four races last season.

 

  • Kyle Larson completed only three laps in Sunday’s event, released to a last-place finish due to engine woes.

 

  • Rookies Chase Briscoe (11th) and Anthony Alfredo (12th) earned their best career finishes

For full results, click here

For full standings, click here

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Denny Hamlin takes home wild, controversial Talladega thriller

Four hours, a dozen extra laps, and countless wrecks later, Denny Hamlin earned a win at Talladega at the halfway mark of the NASCAR playoffs.

Being forced out of bounds is a conversation more often reserved for another Sunday sport. It came to NASCAR this weekend, but it didn’t change the victorious end result for Denny Hamlin.

In the last of 12 overtime laps at Talladega Superspeedway, Hamlin’s No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota appeared to be under the yellow line at the edge of the track’s bottom lane. Advancing one’s position below that line leads to a penalty. However, NASCAR determined that Hamlin was forced down below, leading to a penalty to apparent runner-up Matt DiBenedetto, who was ruled to have forced Hamlin below that line.

As for Hamlin, he moved on to his seventh victory of the season at the YellaWood 500, one that clinched his spot his the next round of the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs. The final stages of his victory saw the No. 11 Toyota navigate its way through several multi-car accidents that have become Talladega’s trademark.

“I hate that’s the way I had to do it. You got to play the game the way it’s designed to be played,” Hamlin said after the race. “We put ourselves in a good position there. Got really fortunate where the wreck didn’t seem like it was going to happen.  We were in the 20s I think on the first (overtime).  Come in, let’s get fuel just in case there’s more (overtimes). At that point, we were just kind of punting hoping that we were going to get somewhere in the top 15.”

“It just kept wreck after wreck. Made it to where we didn’t have to worry about fuel. Everybody else did. Things worked out for us. We made the right move at the right time.”

NASCAR Vice President of Competition Scott Miller defended NASCAR’s decision to call the penalty after the race.

“It was pretty clear-cut,” Miller said. “(DiBenedetto) hung a left, drove those guys down below the line.  We called that twice on (Joey Logano) during the race, so nothing different there.”

While runner-up Erik Jones called for eliminating the yellow line rule, Miller stated that such a concept was not being considered.

Hamlin started on the pole and led 24 of the first 26 laps of the race originally scheduled for 188 circuits. By lap 32, he had lost the draft and shifted to the back of the field, mostly content to be a spectator while several big wrecks took out a good portion of the dozen-driver playoff field. Incidents took out Joey Logano, Kyle Busch, Clint Bowyer, and Aric Almirola throughout the course of the afternoon. As Miller mentioned, Logano was penalized twice for going below the line prior to his departure. Kurt Busch was likewise caught up in a wreck but already clinched his spot in the next round by virtue of a win last weekend as Las Vegas. The bottom four drivers after next week’s race will be eliminated from title contention.

The postseason carnage allowed several underdog contenders to fight for the win. DiBenedetto, eliminated from the first round of the postseason, nearly stole his NASCAR victory in his 206th Cup Series start, but was done in by the yellow line rule. In his place, Jones, Hamlin’s current teammate and free-agent-to-be, finished second. Ty Dillon finished third, the best career finish for the No. 13 Germain Racing Chevrolet. That team will be shut down at the end of the season, with their charter set to be sold to a new team organized by Hamlin and NBA legend Michael Jordan. Their debut car will be driven by Bubba Wallace, who led ten laps late in the race before getting involved in a pair of late incidents.

William Byron finished fourth, while Chase Elliott rounded out the top five. The latter was originally also called for a yellow line penalty, but the infraction was later rescinded by NASCAR.

The final segment of the Round of 12 will come at the Bank of America Roval 400, held at the road course at Charlotte Motor Speedway next Sunday afternoon (2:30 p.m. ET, NBC).

Race Notes

  • With Hamlin and Busch moving on through wins, Kevin Harvick is likewise moving on to the next round of the playoffs through points. Harvick and Hamlin have united to win 16 of the first 31 races this Cup Series season.

 

  • Ryan Newman (6th) earned his first top ten finish since returning from an injury sustained in a terrifying wreck at the end of the 2020 Daytona 500 in February.

 

  • Brendan Gaughan (35th) got caught up in the first wreck that brought out a red flag, an incident that caused Kurt Busch’s No. 1 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet to go airborne. Gaughan, 45, was making the final start of his NASCAR career. The fan-favorite partook in only one full-time Cup Series season (2005) but won ten races at the Xfinity and Cup Series levels.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR Cup Series Preview: YellaWood 500 (Talladega)

The NASCAR Cup Series prepares to take a chaotic trip to Talladega Superspeedway, as the playoffs hit their midway mark.

What: YellaWood 500
Where: Talladega Superspeedway, Talladega, AL
When: Sunday, 2 p.m. ET
Watch: NBC

This weekend, the hardest postseason hits in Alabama may come not in Tuscaloosa, but Talladega.

The NASCAR Cup Series playoffs hit their midway mark in both their second stage and overall, as Talladega hosts the YellaWood 500 on Sunday afternoon. With its propensity for tightly-packed racing, wrecks capable of taking out more than half the field, and surprise winners, one lap has the potential to repaint the entire playoff picture.

“The playoff race in Talladega is pretty wild because you have probably two-thirds of the field has been eliminated that’s really not racing for much except trying to win and you have some other ones that are going to be fighting tooth and nail for stage points,” Denny Hamlin said in a prerace teleconference earlier this week. “I suspect it’ll be pretty wild again, but I’m confident that all of our cars are good enough to win every time we go there.”

By virtue of his win last weekend at Las Vegas, Kurt Busch is the long participant amongst the dozen playoff drivers remaining to have clinched his spot in the Round of 8.

The Track

First Cup Series Race: 1969
Length: 2.66 miles (188 laps, 500 miles)
Most Wins: Dale Earnhardt (10)

Talladega is the longest track on the NASCAR circuit, and one of the most chaotic. Speeds often near or exceed 200 miles per hour, though restrictor plates and tapered spaces in the car have made efforts to restrict airflow and allow more horsepower. The latter effort of tapered spaces was introduced at the most recent Talladega event, the GEICO 500 back in June. Such a setup creates tightly-packed racing and little wiggle room, though this does notably level the playing field and expand the list of potential winners. It also prevents cars from breaking away from the rest of the pack.

The most renowned feature of Talladega is “The Big One”, the name given to the massive crash that packed racing can produce. It can eliminate half the field and alter playoff destinies. Twelve drivers have earned their first win at Talladega, including Raphael Lessard, who earned a victory in Saturday afternoon’s Gander RV & Outdoor Truck Series race.

Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

They Said It

“The pressure is off. There’s not going to be any consequences for the next two weeks. But still, we want to gain points. We want to put some points in our pocket from the stages and the finish at Talladega and the Roval just to build up towards the season end. That’s how we’re going to make it to the Championship 4 is to still keep putting the pressure on, but we know we can slip up, or as Mark Martin said, you can stub your toe every now and then but you’ve just got to learn from it.”Kurt Busch on how he’s approaching the next two weeks

“It’s the best-case scenario driving the No. 21 car, having the fast Fords under us to go there, and not only that, the big thing is having our Penske teammates. Brad, Joey, and Ryan are incredible plate racers and obviously our cars, the Fords are fast, and having all the Fords on the racetrack. Great situation, and we’ll be aware of everyone else’s situations, too, but as I said before, it’s a fun situation: go out there and we’re just trying to win races and have some fun and rack up points.”Eliminated playoff driver Matt DiBenedetto racing with Team Penske drivers

Three To Watch

Austin Dillon (Starting 12th)

No. 3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet

Dillon is starting last amongst the playoff drivers, though one can work their way up through the field at Talladega. He and his team would certainly know a thing or two about winning that way. 20 years prior, Dillon’s predecessor in the No. 3, the late, great Dale Earnhardt, earned a win by going from 18th to the front of the field over the final six laps of the 2000 Winston 500. Tragically, it wound up being the 76th and final win of his NASCAR Cup Series career before his death at the Daytona 500 four months later.

“Seeing him come from the back to the front and make the moves he made, he was known as a speedway racer and the things he could do in the draft. I think that was amazing,” Dillon said this week. “Obviously, there’s a lot of history there. That’s 20 years ago and I think that would be fitting for us to go win at Talladega and lock ourselves into the next round of the Playoffs…Things are lining up and we’ll try to make it happen.”

Dillon’s performance in the opening round of 16 drivers (2nd, 4th, and 12th over the three-race stretch) surprised many, but his Round of 12 got off to a tough start with a lost belt relegating him to a 32nd-place finish at Richmond last week. Considering he’s 32 points behind the cutoff to the next round, a win at Talladega might be his best chance to move on.

Mandatory Credit: Peter Casey-USA TODAY Sports

Ryan Blaney (Starting 14th)

No. 12 Team Penske Ford

A brutal opening round ended Blaney’s championship hopes before they could truly get started. His struggles might go as far back as the immediate aftermath of his only victory of 2020, a narrow .007-second victory over Ricky Stenhouse Jr. back at the June event. Since then, Blaney has earned only five top-ten finishes, including a seventh-place posting at Las Vegas last weekend.

Blaney’s elimination, however, offers him a bittersweet silver lining that allows him to go all-out at Talladega, where he has won consecutive races. The first half of that victorious couple came last fall, ironically also by a .007-second margin, holding off Ryan Newman to earn his Round of 8 seed. He became the first driver since Jeff Gordon in 2007 to earn consecutive victories at Talladega. He has a long way to go to catch up to Earnhardt, and another win would make him the first to win three in a row since Dale Earnhardt Jr. took home a quartet between 2001 and 2003. Armed with the power of consequence-free racing, Blaney could be ready to join an even more prestigious group.

Brendan Gaughan (Starting 39th)

No. 62 Beard Motorsports Chevrolet

Gaughan has a brand of immunity even more important than Blaney’s…Sunday will mark his final NASCAR start.

The retiring 45-year-old was a full-time driver on the Cup Series circuit for only one season (racing a No. 77 Dodge partially funded by Roger Penske in 2005), his eccentric personality and friendly demeanor made him a favorite amongst fans. Gaughan has earned 10 wins on the Xfinity and Truck Series levels and has won championships on off-road circuits and what is now ARCA Menards Series West.

With the assistance of Beard Motorsports, Gaughan has made brief cameos at the Cup Series by running every race at Daytona and Talladega since 2017. He nearly stole last season’s fall event, but The Big One struck with less than 10 laps to go, flipping his No. 62 airborne and pushing him back to 27th. There’d be no better way to say goodbye than a visit to victory lane.

For the full starting lineup, click here.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

 

NASCAR: Drivers ready for fresh, new chaos at Talladega

NASCAR’s visits to Talladega Superspeedway have always been unpredictable, but adjustments to Sunday’s race could bring a new form of bedlam.

The NASCAR Cup Series’ yearly pair of visits to Talladega Superspeedway produce untold gallons of sweat even during their normal visits in April and October. Affectionately known as “‘Dega”, the longest track on the circuit (2.66 miles) routinely hosts tightly-packed racing and speeds that regular linger around 180-190 miles an an hour. These factors often play a big role in producing “The Big One”, the name given to the multi-car pile-ups that can turn contenders into afterthoughts in the blink of an eye.

Now add a new rules package and a lack of practice and testing…all on the first full day of summer.

The potential for chaos in Sunday’s GEICO 500 (3 p.m. ET, Fox) became so great that NASCAR forced James Davison to push his series debut a week. Davison, an Australian-born driver whose experience has come mostly on the open-wheel and sports car disciplines, was set to pilot the No. 77 Chevrolet for Spire Motorsports (the car that won last year’s rain-shortened summer race at Daytona with Justin Haley behind the wheel), but NASCAR rescinded their approval just days prior to the race. Davison will instead premiere at next weekend’s doubleheader at Pocono Raceway and was replaced by B.J. McLeod (who will start 30th).

NASCAR’s ability to be one of the few American sports leagues running during the coronavirus pandemic has been built on its ability to shorten race weekends from a whole weekend to a single day. Cup Series haulers arrived at Talladega on Saturday evening while the lower-tier Xfinity circuit ran its 300-mile event (won by Haley). In this shrinking process, practices and qualifying have been eliminated (save for a session prior to last month’s Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte) and the field has been set by either inverting the finishing order from the prior race or through a random draw. That latter format is how Martin Truex Jr.’s No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota will lead the field to the green flag on Sunday. In another metaphorical victory lap for the sport, Talladega will welcome in 5,000 fans to the race.

Those who repopulate the grandstands will see 40 cars take their first laps in a track characterized by its chaos. It’s an idea that makes even some of NASCAR’s most seasoned names a bit more cautious. Kurt Busch, for example, is worried not about his No. 1 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet, but rather how other cars will be as they pack into Talladega’s congested lanes.

“With our group at Ganassi and the restrictor plate races that we’ve run together, our set-up balance has been really good in practice right off the truck,” Busch said in a Friday afternoon press conference. “So there haven’t been those challenges of where are we for balance, it allows go on offense right away. The problem with that is other teams. Are they just as good right off the truck? We don’t need to be caught up in a goofy situation early-on.”

Talladega is one of two “restrictor plate” tracks on the NASCAR circuit, the other being Daytona. Installed at an engine’s intake to restrict air and limit its power, the concept was introduced in 1987 and used through last season’s Daytona 500. Currently, NASCAR uses a modified plate concept known as tapered spacers similar to the ones used on other tracks and effectively keep the cars under 200 miles an hour. These modifications are for the safety of the drivers and fans but produce tight racing that often led to massive get-togethers in the cramped asphalt quarters.

Further safety innovations now come into play as NASCAR prepares to make its first visit a restrictor plate track since the most recent Daytona 500 in February. That race ended in near-tragedy, as Ryan Newman’s No. 6 Roush Fenway Racing Ford was involved in a violent airborne wreck while going for the win on the final lap. In the tense aftermath, Newman was removed from the mangled car and taken to the hospital, where he was diagnosed with serious but non-life-threatening injuries.

Two days later, Newman walked out of the hospital unassisted, accompanied by his daughters Brooklyn and Ashlyn. A head injury sustained in the accident temporarily sidelined him, but the pandemic-induced pause caused him to miss only three Cup Series events. Ironically, a safety feature known as the “Newman Bar” (a bar across the front of the car’s roll cage) was the result of Newman’s crusade to improve driver safety after he was involved in a separate airborne wreck at Talladega in 2009. Some credited the innovation for saving Newman from further injury in February.

Though Newman walked away relatively unscathed, NASCAR made some further adjustments in the name of safety to Talladega set-ups. Smaller holes in the tapered spacers will lead to lowered horsepower and the elimination of aero ducts on superspeedways could cut down on tandem drafting (further analysis on the changes can be found from Fox Sports’ Bob Pockrass here).

“The idea there is reducing the speeds of the car, slowing them down,” NASCAR’s Senior Director of Safety Engineering John Patalak explained in another conference call. “In general, when we can slow the speeds down, it’s going to be of benefit for the crash itself, for the driver in the car. It will also affect the loads on the vehicle and how the SAFER barrier responds. Directionally, it’s the right way to go.”

While the speeds are expected to be down, the fact that not a single lap has been run with such a setup only ensures the potential for chaos to rise.

Drivers, however, are confident in both their own and their rivals’ abilities to keep things under relative control. Ryan Blaney, the winner of last fall’s Talladega playoff event, was particularly excited about the new adjustments.

“There’s a fine line. You need the draft to work to where you get runs on cars, but not monstrous drafts where it’s dangerous to kind of block them and things like that,” Blaney said after a top-three run at last Sunday’s Dixie Vodka 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. “Hopefully, we can find a fair in between. I’m looking forward to it.  I know NASCAR did their research on hopefully trying to figure out a good balance of that.”

“I’ll know in the first couple laps how big the runs are, what kind of gap I need to have to the person behind me to give me the run forward. I’ll know pretty quick what to do with the package,” Homestead winner Denny Hamlin added. “I think we have probably a pretty good idea of it anyway. These ducts are actually a pretty new thing.  Obviously the horsepower being down, that might counter the ducts a little bit with the runs.”

“These drivers are so good, they’re going to figure it out pretty quick. I wouldn’t expect anything out of the ordinary.”

For those spaced out in the massive Alabama gallery, eager to see yet another exciting installment in NASCAR’s return, that last sentence is all they want to hear when it comes to Talladega.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags