There’s always a sense of desperation within segments of the NASCAR Cup Series garage when it comes to the annual spring race at Talladega Superspeedway, but it’s emanating from a completely different cast of characters this time.
For example, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has always been a competitive superspeedway racer, but still hasn’t lived down the 2018 races at Daytona International Speedway where he caused three multi-car crashes over two races.
The carnage was a byproduct of his desperation to win, the only real chance he had to qualify for the Cup Series Playoffs during his tenure with Roush Fenway Racing, combined with a naturally aggressive driving style that has followed him throughout his career.
He had led the highest level of the sport in crashes over the past three seasons. They were calling him Wrecky Stenhouse. It was probably, unfortunately, earned.
Stenhouse has been a completely different driver this season, having not caused any incidents while carrying the consistency to the best overall start of his career. The two-time NASCAR Xfinity Series champion is 14th in the standings with a 13.1 average finish.
Stenhouse doesn’t have to win on Sunday and his approach reflects that reality.
“I’m not sitting here and saying like hey, we have to go get stage points,” Stenhouse said. “Just like at Daytona, if the opportunity arises, then we’ll go get them. If I feel like things are getting too dicey and something could happen and we won’t make it to the end of the race, then I’ll back out.”
Wouldn’t it be something if a slightly more conservative approach made the difference?
It certainly has for Denny Hamlin. His most recent Daytona 500 victory in 2020 came as a result of not blocking Ryan Newman and Ryan Blaney on the final lap and passing them both when they crashed on the final lap.
Hamlin is the standard in modern superspeedway races, and his status near the top of the standings annually allows him the flexibility to be more selective in his aggression.
“If you watch (Hamlin) yeah, he has teammates out there (but) he makes moves constantly, that benefits him and his team,” Stenhouse said. “I feel like that’s why he’s won so many Daytona 500s and that’s why he’s in mix at the end of these races.”
Meanwhile, the desperation is going to come from unfamiliar names on Sunday, with many expected contenders still mired deep in the standings.
Aric Almirola has a Cup Series superspeedway victory with Richard Petty Motorsports in 2014. He’s 27th in points after a miserable start to the season with just three top-10s and only three lead lap finishes. At 77 points out of a playoff spot, he’s realistically in must-win territory after the first nine races.
“I think pointing our way in from here is a long shot for sure,” Almirola said. “Especially just because we haven’t scored a lot of stage points anyway and our cars have been off, so a good day for us is similar to what we ran at Richmond — flirt with a top 10 and (maybe) score a few stage points.”
That won’t be good enough to make the playoffs from here, but a win on Sunday certainly would.
“We’re going tp need to win, and Talladega is a great opportunity for us to do that, but we can’t do that if we’re on a wrecker,” Almirola added. “So I think it is important for us to be mindful of that, making sure that we get to the finish so that we have a shot to win the race.”
Erik Jones is in his first season with Petty and is spot above Almirola. He has a superspeedway win with Joe Gibbs Racing in 2018 and made the playoffs in 2018-19. Cole Custer won a race at Kentucky last year and is 25th in points.
Meanwhile, in his first season with Chip Ganassi Racing, Ross Chastain hasn’t had a car capable of running near the front and is 24th in the standings.
What’s his approach?
“I heard a Trucks series veteran say a long time ago that we’ll probably crash but it’s the art of getting through it with minimal damage or no damage so we can be there at the end,” Chastain said.
“What I learned at the 500 will pay off, although it was a smaller pack most of the race after the first big crash. … I don’t know if anyone can feel favorable going to Talladega. It’s just Talladega. We’ll race and work with Team Chevy, Kurt Busch and see what we can come out with.”
Having won last weekend at Richmond to punch his own ticket into the playoffs, Alex Bowman says avoiding terminal damage and simply surviving to the end is most of the battle.
“You’ve got to be there at the end and that’s really hard to do at superspeedways these days,” Bowman said. “Everybody is just continually getting more aggressive, continually feeling like they can throw huge blocks and not cause crashes and push each other really aggressively and not crash.
“Surprise! We crash a lot. It’s just tough to make it to the end. I think knowing when to be aggressive is key. It’s different each and every speedway race. It kind of has a flow to how the race goes and it’s kind of a guessing game, to a point. I feel like there’s definitely some guys that have it a little more scienced-out than I do, but we just have to do what we can to survive to the end and be aggressive when it counts.”
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