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Mark McCarter: Who’ll win at ’Dega? It’s folly to predict, but here’s how the 12 contenders stack up

October 10, 2018

So, who’s going to win.

Or, as the NBC promo breathlessly asks, “Who will survive Talladega?”

Come on. You have to be kidding. You know that history proves it’s impossible to predict. Talladega is not just a speedway. It’s a 200-mph Stephen King novel. It’s scary at every turn, a page-turner till the end.

As this Sunday’s 1000bulbs.com 500 cranks up, 12 drivers remain eligible for the NASCAR championship. Unlike the early years of the elimination-style playoffs, Talladega is not a “cut-off” race. It’s the second of three races in the Round of 12, allowing some bit of forgiveness for a contender whose car might leave the speedway behind a wrecker.

Now is an appropriate time to remind of some bit of history: Five times, a non-contending driver has won the fall race at Talladega since the playoff format began in 2004, more than at any other speedway.

History tells you it’s folly to predict, but it also provides some insight. For instance, Ford seems to hold the edge in performance. Roush-Yates Engines have been a faster and more dependable. Ford has won six in a row and nine of the last 12 there.

Penske Racing has been dominant, too. Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski have won the last two events at Talladega, and they’ve combined for six of the last eight.

Here’s a look at the 12 remaining contenders:

Kevin Harvick (3,101 Cup points): One win, 15 top 10s in 35 ’Dega starts. Average finish 15.1. Tied with Kyle Busch with seven wins in 2018. Barring catastrophe, he seems lock to make the final four.

Kyle Busch (3,096): One win, six top 5s at a track he openly deplores. Average finish of 20.5. He struggled at Dover and was lucky to finish eighth, but he’s still the title favorite.

Martin Truex Jr. (3,069): The defending NASCAR champ is 0-for-27 at Talladega, with just eight top 10s. He has four wins on the season, but he can’t afford some 30th-plus finish to remain secure in points.

Joey Logano (3,064): He’s won three of the last six at Talladega, and has an average finish of 17.7 for his career. Anywhere in between first and 17th, and you can write him into the Round of 8.

Chase Elliott (3,056): Write him into the Round of 8 officially, having just won at Dover. He’s had two top 5s in five ’Dega starts, but expect a conservative run on Sunday.

Kurt Busch (3,054): Another 0-for-Dega guy, but he has found his way into the top 10 in 19 of his 35 starts. Another top 10 will likely advance him to the next tier.

Brad Keselowski (3,054): A five-time Talladega winner, he’s the favorite again this time. Only 21 points above the cut-line, a win gives him a “whew!” and turns the season’s Big Three — Harvick, Kyle Busch and Truex — into a Big Four.

Ryan Blaney (3,043): He’s twice cracked the top 10 in eight starts, and in a Penske Ford, Talladega provides him the opportunity to put some daylight between himself and the bottom four.

Aric Almirola (3,033): Don’t sleep on this guy. He’s gone fourth, fifth and seventh in his most recent Talladega starts. But Dover — where he was dominating before late-laps cautions narrowed the field — may prove a missed opportunity.

Clint Bowyer (3,033): He’s somehow hanging in despite a rash of bad luck, including major issues at Dover. Talladega is a favorite place for Bowyer, a two-time winner, so don’t be surprised to see his luck turn Sunday.

Kyle Larson (3,031): He’s never finished higher than sixth at Talladega, and it’ll take that or better to keep him in the hunt.

Alex Bowman (3,009): He was eighth last spring in only his sixth Talladega start, but the Chevys just don’t seem to have the juice that’s needed. A win at Kansas on the following weekend may be his only chance to advance.

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