Sunday’s race has a chance to be the most action-packed playoff event at Talladega in years — at least from start to finish.
That might sound like hyperbole — the kind you see in all the TV commercials that try to get people to tune in — but there’s reason to believe it might actually be true.
Why? Because two major changes have made it to where playoff drivers simply cannot afford to ride around for 500 miles and wait to race until the end.
First of all, Talladega is now the second race of Round 2 instead of the elimination race. That means drivers have less of a points cushion than they would if two races were already under their belts, so they can’t just try and protect a lead.
Second, the stage points are going to be a massive factor in shaping the race. Playoff drivers absolutely cannot afford to lay back and pass up the opportunity to get a potential 20 stage points.
That means the scramble for stage points at the end of Stages 1 and 2 — which conclude on Lap 55 and Lap 110, respectively — might be extremely dicey.
“We’ve seen in the past that drivers come in here and say, ‘I’ve just got to finish 25th,'” Joey Logano said Friday. “Then they just ride around the back all day until it’s the end of the race and they go up and finish 25th.
“Well, that’s pretty boring. Fans don’t want to see that, so NASCAR has made some good decisions, I think, by making this not the final race in this round, and then also adding the stages you can’t afford to give up those stage points.”
Let’s say a driver gets a fifth-place finish but ends up with no stage points. That’s only 35 points, which Logano noted isn’t that great of a day considering five drivers scored more than 40 points last week at Charlotte.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who needs to rely on stage points to overcome his current deficit, predicted “at least 10 of us racing really hard for that.”
“There are a lot of us within 20 points of each other, so I think that’s gonna be key is how hard we’re gonna race for those stage points,” he said.
Stenhouse isn’t the only one looking at stage points as a key factor in the race. Chase Elliott said his philosophy has been his team needs to use stage points to make up for a lack of playoff points at the start of each round.
“Stage points are really our only way of catching up,” he said. “That’s something I have looked at and something everyone else is looking at, too.”
That said, Elliott doesn’t think those points will be worth making an overly aggressive move at the possible expense of the overall finish.
“I definitely think there is going to be some emphasis on running well in the stages, but I just hope that everybody will want to get to the end as much as they want to have stage finishes, too,” he said. “So I really don’t know, but I could see it being pretty wild to try and get those points.”