NASCAR Cup Series  GEICO 500

TALLADEGA, ALABAMA - APRIL 25: Ryan Blaney, driver of the #12 Menards/Sylvania Ford, leads the field during the NASCAR Cup Series GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway on April 25, 2021 in Talladega, Alabama. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series Playoff race at Talladega Superspeedway may be the great unknown for most competitors, but for those driving Fords, it could be a welcome opportunity.

Led by Team Penske, Ford drivers have dominated the recent action at NASCAR’s longest closed course, and that’s sufficient cause for optimism entering the YellaWood 500 (2 p.m. ET on NBC, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

Fords have won 10 of the last 12 races at the 2.66-mile track, with Team Penske drivers Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano and Ryan Blaney accounting for eight of those victories. Blaney has won two of the last four events.

Over the last dozen races, the only cracks in the mastery of the Ford drivers have been Chase Elliott’s victory in a Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet in 2019 and Denny Hamlin’s triumph in a Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota in last year’s Playoff race.

Though Talladega is a track many drivers dread because of the close-quarters drafting and potential for multicar accidents, Keselowski and Logano in particular may well relish the chance to improve their relative positions in the Playoff standings.

Coming off a workmanlike seventh-place finish in last Sunday’s Round of 12 opener at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Keselowski is eighth in the standings, a mere four points ahead of William Byron, the first driver below the current cutline for the Round of 8. 

Keselowski can point to six victories at Talladega, most among active drivers. He has led laps in 10 of the last 11 races there and has suffered only four DNFs (three for crashes) in 25 career starts.

Logano has three Talladega wins to his credit but has crashed out of the last two events. Given his current seventh-place position in the standings—just six points above the cutline — that’s a trend he hopes to end on Sunday.

In Logano’s view, the best way to accomplish that is for the Ford drivers to work together, whether they’re in the Playoff or not.

“Whether it’s a Ford in the Playoffs or a Ford out of the Playoffs, I think you’re going to see the Blue Ovals stick together and try to work out the best race possible,” Logano said. “I think that’s not only the best way to get yourself to the front, but it’s the safest way.

“If you have people that are on your side, and they’re not putting you in horrible positions, those are probably the cars you want to have around you. Most likely, that’s going to be a teammate or a Ford teammate—or maybe there’s just a few you can count on one hand that you can trust outside of that.”

Hamlin is the only driver who can view the YellaWood 500 with relative comfort. With his victory last Sunday at Las Vegas, Hamlin already has earned a spot in the Round of 8 without having to sweat out the final two races in the Round of 12 at Talladega and the Charlotte ROVAL. 

That’s a huge source of relief to the driver of the No. 11 Toyota, who doesn’t have a top 10 to show for his three starts at the Roval. 

“Definitely—especially with the rest of this crazy round coming up,” Hamlin said. “Talladega and the ROVAL are places where you don’t always have control over your own result, so it’s good to know we don’t have to worry about what might happen these next two weeks.”

Series leader Kyle Larson is 57 points clear of the current cutline, but in 13 starts at Talladega, he has no top fives, only two top 10s and an average finish of 23.5. 

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