Fate is something we as humans all face and one driver has recently faced his fate both on and off the track more than any driver in the 40-car field for Sunday’s GEICO 500.
The last time the NASCAR Cup Series visited Talladega Superspeedway, all that separated no. 6 Ryan Newman from winning his first race in two-plus years was a margin of 0.007 seconds in the October 2019 1000bulbs.com 500, a race won by no. 12 Ryan Blaney.
Coming to the checkers in February’s Daytona 500, four months later, it was Newman and Blaney but a bump from Blaney accidentally triggered a horrific wreck coming to the checkers.
Fate may not have been kind to Newman on-track, but it goes without saying that has been kind to him off-track in his survival, recovery and return to the track after his Daytona 500 wreck.
Newman starts 14th in Sunday’s GEICO 500, his first time on a high-banked superspeedway track since the February accident, with his eyes on his first Talladega win in his 37th start at the track.
In the last five Talladega races, Newman has only finished outside the top 10 once, in October 2018, and has finished second twice, in October 2017 and October 2019. He has also had a similar record at Daytona, Talladega’s sister track, where he has scored five top 10s in his last six races there. The numbers certainly suggest that Newman will be a prime contender in Sunday’s race, even with the Daytona 500 wreck possibly fresh in his mind.
Newman’s wreck was fresh in the minds of NASCAR engineers who undertook the task of adjusting the high-banked superspeedway package ahead of Sunday’s race. Among the changes made were:
- The elimination of aero ducts.
- Reduction in the throttle body size from 59/64 inches to 57/64 inches (less intake by the throttle body).
- Updated roll bar padding specifications
- Oil reservoir tank or overflow expansion tank must contain a check valve.
- Slip tape must be applied along the entire length of the lower, rearward-facing surfaces of the rear bumper cover and extension.
- Addition of a lower main roll bar support bar (No. 20)/intrusion plate and upper main roll bar support bar (No. 21).
The elimination of the aero ducts is designed to lessen the likelihood of tandem racing but the additional requirement to apply slip tape to the rear bumper cover and extension of the cars is designed to make bump drafting more stable. A big assistance to these changes and the other more-safety-focused changes is the reduced throttle body size, which will lead to around 40-50 less horsepower for the Cup cars.
“I would say that slowing the cars down surely should and would help from an aero liftoff standpoint. I would say our findings from the Ryan Newman crash, his liftoff was not due to an aero event but from him getting into the wall,” NASCAR Senior Vice President of Racing Innovation John Probst said. “The idea there is reducing the speeds of the car, slowing them down. We would expect speeds under the 200 mile-an-hour barrier here. So from that standpoint slowing the cars down, keep from having as violent wrecks.”
All 40 Cup drivers will start Sunday without any practice time, a change from the 50-minute practice session originally scheduled for the race weekend. Advancements have made it possible for the teams to not need practice time to work out the new technical changes, however.
“Working through the changes with our teams, I would say that we’re at the point now with a lot of the simulation that while these changes, when we list them out, may seem like a lot for the teams, it boils down to a lot of power and drag type things,” Probst said. “Having worked through it with them, we don’t feel right now we need to add any practice time to the Talladega schedule for this.”
Front row starters no. 19 Martin Truex Jr. and no. 11 Denny Hamlin will lead the field to Sunday’s GEICO 500. Hamlin and Truex are the most recent winners in 2020 with Hamlin claiming his third win in 2020 and third Homestead-Miami win June 14 and Truex getting his first win of 2020 and the second at Martinsville June 10.
Truex starts on the pole in a bid for his first high-banked superspeedway win in the Cup Series, with teammate Hamlin starting second in a bid for his second Talladega win.
The GEICO 500 is the first of two Talladega races scheduled for the 2020 season which means that Hamlin will need better luck than he had in previous GEICO 500s. While Hamlin has four consecutive top 10s in the fall Talladega race, he has not finished inside the top 10 in a GEICO 500 since 2015.
On row 2, each looking for their first win of 2020, is no. 18 Kyle Busch starting third and no. 48 Jimmie Johnson starting fourth.
Busch won at Talladega in April 2008 while Johnson has one up on Busch with two wins at Talladega coming in May 2006 and April 2011. However, both Busch and Johnson are in the midst of winless streaks of their own.
Busch is winless in his last 44 points-paying starts at Talladega and Daytona, with his last win coming in the July 2008 Coke Zero 400 at Daytona, just less than three months removed from his last Talladega win.
Johnson is winless in his last 107 Cup starts, dating back to June 2017 when he won at Dover for his 83rd and most recent Cup win, which is by far the longest winless streak of his career, besting his previous streak of 25 races, set back in 2016 between the March Fontana and October Charlotte races that Johnson won en route to his seventh Cup title.
While the droughts are discouraging, some signs point to possible success Sunday.
For Johnson, that sign is the 70 laps in the June 10 Martinsville race, which is the most he’s led since leading 81 laps en route to winning at Bristol in April 2017.
For Busch, it is the 14 laps led and having one of the best cars in the field during February’s Daytona 500 before falling out due to an engine failure.
If either Cup champion were to win on Sunday, it would not only mean a Playoff berth but it might also be the start of further success this season for either driver.
Last year’s Talladega winners no. 9 Chase Elliott and no. 12 Ryan Blaney start 11th and 12th, respectively. Elliott has won once in 2020 while Blaney has yet to win this season.
Top 20 in Cup points:
1. Kevin Harvick (463 points; 2 wins, starts 5th)
2. Chase Elliott (-8 behind Harvick; 1 win, starts 11th)
3. Joey Logano (-29; 2 wins, starts 9th)
4. Brad Keselowski (-51; 2 wins, starts 6th)
5. Ryan Blaney (-52, starts 12th)
6. Martin Truex Jr. (-53, starts 1st)
7. Denny Hamlin (-68; 3 wins, starts 2nd)
8. Alex Bowman (-83; 1 win, starts 8th)
9. Kyle Busch (-104; starts 3rd)
10. Kurt Busch (338 points, +59 over 17th place Tyler Reddick; starts 7th)
11. Jimmie Johnson (+43; starts 4th)
12. Clint Bowyer (+37; starts 10th)
13. Aric Almirola (+24; starts 15th)
14. Matt DiBenedetto (+22; starts 23rd)
15. William Byron (+12; starts 19th)
16. Austin Dillon (281 points, +2; starts 17th)
17. Tyler Reddick (279 points, -2 behind 16th place Austin Dillon; starts 16th)
18. Erik Jones (-8; starts 18th)
19. Chris Buescher (-48; starts 21st)
20. Bubba Wallace (-50; starts 24th)
Rookie of the Year battle:
No. 8 Tyler Reddick (279 points)
No. 38 John Hunter Nemechek (-70)
No. 95 Christopher Bell (-83)
No. 41 Cole Custer (-98)
No. 15 Brennan Poole (-188)
No. 00 Quin Houff (-227)
Coverage of the GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway starts at 3 p.m. EST (TV: FOX; Radio: MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
Stages will be 60 laps/60 laps/68 laps with the race ending at lap 188. The race is official after lap 94, should there be inclement weather or any adverse circumstances preventing the race from completing the entirety of its advertised distance.