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An ode to Talladega: NASCAR’s most chaotic, haunted playoff race is also its best

Talladega Superspeedway may not technically be haunted, but it could be the way everyone talks it up.

This weekend, the NASCAR Cup Series makes its return trip to Talladega, this time as the second of three races in the second round of the playoffs. Sandwiched between relatively safe, normal races at Dover — where Chase Elliott won last weekend — and Kansas to end the round, NASCAR interjects Talladega to serve as the complete opposite end of that spectrum.

Calm, chaos, calm, to put it in layman’s terms.

And boy does it work.

For the past several seasons, the fall Talladega race has been the least-anticipated playoff event for many drivers, especially those perilously close to the bubble. You’re guaranteed at least one, if not more, “Big One’s” over the course of 118 laps — and whether you love the place or hate it largely depends on how close you get to those massive pileups.

There’s a number of reasons why Talladega consistently breeds such colossal wrecks, but the easiest explanation is two-fold. First — and again, we’ll go for a simplistic explanation here — is that the high-banking on the track makes the cars go faster than they do at almost any other track (and is also part of the reason NASCAR introduced restrictor plates to temper some of that speed). And, secondly, considering the substantial width of the track and the fact that restrictor plates tend to group cars together, sometimes you can see drivers go three, four, and even five-wide on straightaways.

So, super fast cars, inches apart, unable to distance themselves because of mandatory technology.

Yep, those wrecks make sense now.

And all that carnage at Talladega doesn’t begin to touch the track’s infamous legacy.

The ghost stories floating around that track are almost tailor-made for the Halloween season (In fact, there’s even a short parody film about the “curse” called The Legend of Hallowdega). Between the legend that Talladega was built on an old American Indian burial ground, or that it was cursed, there’s always a readily-available explanation if ever something goes wrong at the track.

Excuse me — when, not if, something goes wrong.

There are also countless instances of on-track oddities or misfortunes at Talladega, too. Countless drivers and crew members have died in extreme circumstances at the track, from a 1975 gas tank explosion that killed Richard Petty’s brother-in-law to Davey Allison’s helicopter crash in the infield in 1993.

Then there’s Bobby Isaac, who famously quit in the middle of a race at Talladega and said afterward: “I heard a voice telling me to park this thing, and that’s exactly what I’m going to do.”

So all of this means ... what exactly?

That the fall Talladega race, if not the best race all season, is easily the best of NASCAR’s 10-race playoffs.

Last season, Brad Keselowski’s win at Talladega propelled him through to the third round of the playoffs and eventually earned him the final spot in the championship four at Homestead. But just as easily as Talladega giveth, like it did for Keselowski last year, it taketh away.

For drivers like Alex Bowman, Kyle Larson, Clint Bowyer and Aric Almirola, this is the perfect opportunity to steal a win and force your way into the third round of the playoffs. For those atop the leader board, guys like Martin Truex Jr. or Kevin Harvick or Kyle Busch, you’re just hoping to survive and advance.

Really if you think about it, Talladega in the playoffs is somewhat like the Roval at Charlotte Motor Speedway — unpredictable, chaotic, messy, strange and chock-full of action down to the last 100 yards. Talladega has all that, too - plus a 50-year head start in terms of history, prestige, legacy and its overall aura.

Oh, and the ghost stories. You can’t forget about those.

For drivers, Talladega is a bear. Get caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, and it’s truly a track that can torpedo an entire season. The only way it’d be worse is if it too were a cutoff race — at least the Cup Series schedule-makers are benevolent enough to give drivers a chance recover the week after at Kansas.

But whenever you’ve got the fastest cars, mixed with high stakes, a propensity for catastrophic wrecks, and no margin (literally) for error, sprinkled in with a heaping helping of spooky folk tales and strange, unexplained happenings?

Well, you’ve got the perfect recipe for the best playoff race NASCAR puts on.

This week’s NASCAR race at Talladega: What you need to know.

Race: Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series 1000Bulbs.com 500.

Distance: 188 laps, or 500.08 miles.

Where: Talladega Superspeedway, a 2.66-mile asphalt tri-oval in Lincoln, Alabama.

When: 2 p.m. Sunday.

TV: NBC.

Radio: MRN.

Last year’s winner: Brad Keselowski.

Worth mentioning: Dale Earnhardt’s win in this race in 2000 was his final Cup Series victory, as he died in a final lap crash in the 2001 Daytona 500.

Who’s Hot/Who’s Not

HOT

Chase Elliott: His second Cup Series win, this time at Dover, not only vindicates his runner-up finish there from last season, but also advances him through to the next round of the playoffs.

Joey Logano: Logano’s had a tendency this year to ride near the front of the pack without capitalizing, but another Top 5 on Sunday has him well-positioned to advance further.

NOT

Clint Bowyer: He barely advanced through to the second round of the playoffs, and an opening-round DNF at Dover has only tanked his chances of scraping through to round three.

Alex Bowman: If not for the mayhem at the end of the Charlotte Roval race, Bowman likely wouldn’t have advanced to this round — he’ll need luck on his side at Talladega if he has any hope of advancing again.

Brendan Marks: 704-358-5889; @brendanrmarks

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