Things to watch during Sunday’s Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway

TALLADEGA, Ala. — Cup teams return to the high banks of Talladega Superspeedway for Sunday afternoon race (3 p.m. ET). This is the third drafting style race of the season, one that provides an opportunity for winless drivers.

Here are three things to watch during Sunday’s race:

1. The perfect position

It’s easy for a driver to say where they want to be on the final lap of a race on a road course, short track or intermediate track — at the front of the pack. The answer is not as simple for a drafting style race.

Leading on the final lap at Talladega, Daytona or Atlanta could set up a scenario where a driver crosses the finish line first. It could also create a scenario where the driver loses the race because they couldn’t properly block the run from drivers behind them coming out of the final turn.

So where do drivers prefer to be on the final lap at Talladega?

“I feel like out front (at Talladega) is a big thing,” Austin Dillon said. “Second’s never bad either. So either one of those positions is solid. I think the further forward you are, the better odds you have of kind of dictating the ending of the race.”

When a driver is out front at a superspeedway, they have to manage the lanes behind them and block any potential runs that may form. To Dillon’s point, the leader can dictate where other cars go as they attempt to make a race-winning pass on the final lap.

Managing the lanes is easier at Daytona than it is at Talladega, a much wider track. There is greater distance to cover when blocking a run, and making this move late can often lead to a wreck that piles up the field and ends the race.

“When you’re leading on the last lap here, all you’re thinking is ‘Will somebody just wreck,’” said Brad Keselowski, a six-time Talladega winner.

“And then when you’re running second or third, you’re like ‘I’m gonna get this guy and I’m gonna pass them and I’m gonna make a move and just please let me have that opportunity.’”

No one knows if that opportunity to make the final pass on a superspeedway will arise. Ryan Blaney, who has three wins at Talladega, said that predicting if there will be a caution on the final lap is like trying to guess the lottery.

All Blaney can do is put himself in position to potentially capitalize on mistakes by other drivers so that he can race for the win. This is an objective he shares with multiple other drivers in the field.

“I’ve rewatched a lot of the races lately and it seems like if you’re third or fourth in line on the bottom and you just stay there that you’re still in the mix at the end of the race,” Ricky Stenhouse Jr. said.

2. Not necessarily a must win

Cup teams have completed nine races this season. Chevrolet has won six times. Toyota has won three. Ford, however, has not celebrated in victory lane since Blaney’s win at Martinsville last October.

Next up on the schedule is Talladega, the track where Blaney won last October and where Ford drivers took four of the top five spots behind Kyle Busch in last season’s spring race.

Does this past success mean that Talladega is a “must win” for Ford drivers? Not necessarily. They view it as more of an opportunity to get points ahead of other races where they may struggle.

“It’s definitely a better opportunity for us,” Keselowski said. “We have more speed as a manufacturer at these types of tracks.

“We need to capitalize on that. I think it’s a great opportunity for — not just Ford to win — but for our team to win and RFK. And we need to come out of here with great finishes.”

3. Comfort in the pack

Talladega marks the third drafting style race of the season. It’s also the third test for the new Ford Dark Horse Mustang and the new Toyota Camry XSE.

Prior to the season, there were questions about how the new bodies would push at Daytona, Atlanta and Talladega. Tyler Reddick said that the old Camry body was not great for drafting and that it played a role in him spinning in the 2023 Daytona 500.

Chase Briscoe had similar concerns ahead of the season. He said that he “was a little worried” when comparing the Dark Horse bumpers to those on last season’s Mustang.

So far, the results have been promising. The Ford and Toyota drivers did not notice any issues when pushing with the new bodies at Daytona and Atlanta. The Chevrolet drivers were able to give and receive pushes with the same Camaro that they used the last two seasons.

The hope is that Talladega will give drivers throughout the field more confidence.

“I feel pretty good being pushed by whatever car,” Ricky Stenhouse Jr. said. “I think if you look at the Fords and Toyotas, they definitely have made it easier for them to push. So them being behind you is definitely no big deal.”

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