It has been a month since NASCAR returned to on-track racing amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, and a number of firsts have occurred since the sport’s return. From midweek races to series’ doubleheaders at the same track and even quadruple-header weekends among the sport’s three major national division series, NASCAR has provided its share of resolving the unexpected and creating memories through the first half of the 2020 season. With Talladega Superspeedway next on the schedule, the unexpected is a term that every driver and team can annually anticipate from the drop of the green flag to the checkered. It is also a venue that can provide the element of surprise for anyone, especially for this year’s Cup rookie class.
When the first green flag of the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series season flew at Daytona International Speedway in February, six rookies embarked on a yearlong journey filled with firsts and a new approach towards each track like none other from their previous seasons. This weekend will mark their first time racing at Talladega, one of the world’s fastest racing venues, in NASCAR’s premier series, which has not raced on a superspeedway event since the Daytona 500 in February.
For years, Talladega is a track that does not yield a simple race-winning path for anyone after 500 miles. It is a track that requires patience, aggression and boldness for any competitor to emerge victorious ahead of a steaming pack of other competitors fighting towards the same goal. It is also a track that can make any dreams come true. Since its inception in 1969, 11 competitors have scored their first Cup win at Talladega, not since Ricky Stenhouse Jr. made the last accomplishment in 2017, which provides a golden opportunity for any rookie competitor to shine and rise to the occasion against NASCAR’s elite.
Twelve races into the 2020 season, the reigning two-time NASCAR Xfinity Series champion Tyler Reddick leads the Cup rookie standings. The Corning, California, native is coming off a career run last weekend at Homestead, where he finished fourth and picked up his first top-five career finish in the Cup Series. To go along with two additional top-10 results and fast racecars prepared by his team and crew chief Randall Burnett, Reddick is slowly peaking towards his first Cup win. When it comes to Talladega, there are two advantages for Reddick. The first is that Reddick is a former winner at the superspeedway event, having won last year’s Xfinity race at the track despite encountering early on-track issues. The second is that his team, Richard Childress Racing, has a rich history at Talladega with 12 wins, six poles and over 70 top-10 results, achieving results with names like Dale Earnhardt, Kevin Harvick and Clint Bowyer. With the results, Reddick looks to add his name to RCR legacy’s at the superspeedway venue in Alabama and extend his recent stretch of solid performances.
Pursuing Reddick in the rookie standings is John Hunter Nemechek. The second-generation driver from Mooresville, North Carolina, has achieved three top-15 results since May, including his first top-10 career finish at Darlington Raceway (ninth), and has displayed a model of consistency in his first full-time season in NASCAR’s premier series. Nemechek has raced at Talladega seven times between the Xfinity and Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series, his best result being sixth in the 2017 Truck Series season and last year’s Xfinity Series season. An advantage Nemechek has towards Talladega is that his team, Front Row Motorsports, is competitive at superspeedway events (Daytona and Talladega). Since FRM’s started racing in the Cup Series in 2005, the team has notched 20 top-10 results, more than half coming at Talladega. In addition, Talladega serves as the track where the team notched its first Cup career win in 2013, when David Ragan and David Gilliland recorded a thrilling one-two finish for the team. With his consistent start, Nemechek looks to take the next step to finish at the front of the field and etch his name as the next upset winner at the world’s fastest racing venues.
Next is Christopher Bell. The Norman, Oklahoma, native has achieved a multitude of accomplishments in racing, from sprint cars to stock cars. This includes winning the 2013 USAC National Midget title, three Chili Bowl sprint car titles, a NASCAR win at Eldora, the 2017 Truck Series championship and a combined 23 wins across the Truck and Xfinity Series in 14 different tracks, including his first road course win at Road America last season. There are a handful of accomplishments that Bell has yet to achieve, among which includes winning a Cup race and winning a superspeedway event. Thus far, Bell has achieved three top-10 results in his rookie Cup season and has raced at Talladega five times between the Xfinity and Truck Series, his best result being second in the 2017 Truck Series season and third in last year’s Xfinity Series season. His team, Leavine Family Racing, is competitive at superspeedway events despite scoring two top-10 career finishes at Talladega and his crew chief, Jason Ratcliff, has won at the track once in the 2011 Xfinity season with Kyle Busch. With his recent stride in producing decent results, Bell also looks to take the next step in his rookie Cup season by finishing towards the front and placing himself in position to emerge as an upset winner at a track that is very familiar with upset tales.
While the last seven results since May have not fallen in the favors of Cole Custer, the Ladera Ranch, California, native remains in pursuit of his first breakthrough moment in the Cup Series while driving for one of the sport’s competitive teams, Stewart-Haas Racing. Entering this weekend, Custer has achieved one top-10 career finish in the Cup Series and has raced at Talladega four times between the Xfinity and Truck Series, with a best result of ninth in the 2018 Xfinity season. In 2018, Stewart-Haas Racing achieved its first Cup win at Talladega on a day where all four SHR cars led the field the majority of the race before Aric Almirola scored a breakthrough win of his career. This serves as an advantage for Custer to race towards the front competitively with a championship-winning team and possibly achieve his moment in NASCAR’s premier series.
When it comes to Talladega Superspeedway, Brennan Poole has a notable moment at the track that is deemed heartbreaking. In 2016, Poole, driving for Chip Ganassi Racing, dodged a last-lap incident between Joey Logano and Elliott Sadler in the tri-oval to nip Justin Allgaier at the finish line and score what appeared to have been his first Xfinity Series career win. Upon reviewing the footage, however, NASCAR determined that Sadler, who had managed to straighten his car and continued to race despite wrecking, was ahead of the field at the moment of caution, which resulted in Sadler winning while Poole was demoted to third. To date, this remains the closest Poole has come in winning at Talladega. The Woodlands, Texas, native has raced at the track three additional times between the Truck and Xfinity Series, but all finishes have been outside the top 20. In his first 12 Cup career starts this season, Poole has recorded a career-best result of 16th from this year’s Daytona 500, but has finished as high as 24th in the last seven races. This weekend serves as an opportunity for Poole to hone his driving skills against the current Cup stars and claim the win that was taken away from him four years ago.
Lastly, Quin Houff also looks to achieve a breakthrough moment of his racing career on the track. Through the first 12 races of this season, Houff has finished in the top 30 twice (Darlington & Bristol) while sustaining three DNFs and finishing outside the top 30 in five of the last six Cup races. Houff’s team, StarCom Racing, has raced in NASCAR since 2017 and has finished in the top 15 twice, both coming at Daytona and Talladega. Like Poole, Houff sets his focus on this weekend to etch his name against the sport’s elite.
This year’s rookie Cup class are among six of multiple stars that includes Matt DiBenedetto, William Byron, James Davison, Ty Dillon, Brendan Gaughan, Gray Gaulding, Joey Gase, Timmy Hill, Corey LaJoie, Michael McDowell, B.J. McLeod, Ryan Preece, Daniel Suarez, Bubba Wallace and J.J. Yeley who will pursue their first win in the Cup Series this weekend at Talladega.
All Cup Series competitors, including this year’s rookie class, will receive their first of two opportunities this season to conquer Talladega on June 21 with the race to air at 3 p.m. ET on FOX.