Two teams blowing everyone else away in NASCAR Cup. Can the others catch up at Talladega?


TALLADEGA, Ala. — The Rick Hendrick Express rolls into Talladega Superspeedway, with Joe Gibbs Racing nipping at their bumpers.

Good luck to everyone else in the NASCAR Cup series.

Even at this high-banked madhouse in rural Alabama, which is usually as much of a crapshoot as any track on the circuit, there’s already a sense that 2024 is shaking out as a two-team sprint to the championship.

Through nine races, the top six spots in the standings are split evenly between the Hendrick and Gibbs powerhouses. They’ve hoarded nearly all the wins, too, with Daniel Suarez’s pulsating Atlanta victory being the only race that prevented a clean sweep.

William Byron already has three wins for Hendrick Motorsports, while teammate Chase Elliott took the checkered flag a week ago at Texas Motor Speedway. A third Hendrick driver, Kyle Larson, leads the standings and had won three straight poles until he was booted from qualifying Saturday because of an unauthorized change to his car.

Denny Hamlin, who has two wins for JGR and sits third in the points, doesn’t see anyone rising up to challenge the front-runners.

“Teams just can’t make in-year adjustments like they used to be able to,” he said. “What you’ve got is what you’ve got.”

Brad Keselowski, among the multitudes who are lagging behind, shrugged his shoulders when asked if Hamlin’s assessment was on point.

“I would say the way the formats are for NASCAR right now, with no testing and no practice, it lends itself to when someone gets an advantage, they’re hard to overtake for sure,” Keselowski said.

The 2.66-mile Talladega trioval does provide a better opportunity for the also-rans to make their mark — especially the struggling Ford teams that have yet to win a race.

The Mustang showed impressive speed at both Daytona and Atlanta, which require similar setups to Talladega, and Michael McDowell of Front Row Motorsports added to that optimism by earning the pole position for the race Sunday at 182.022 mph.

He was followed by two more Ford drivers, Team Penske’s Austin Cindric (181.739) and McDowell’s Front Row teammate, Todd Gilliland (181.401).

“This is a good week for us to get a win,” McDowell said. “There’s a lot of great Mustangs starting up there with us.”

Talladega is known for its huge wrecks and chaotic finishes, but McDowell said the Next Gen car has taken away some of the randomness at this place. The idea that one can take the checkered flag merely by avoiding the big crash no longer applies.

“There’s a balance,” McDowell said. “You don’t want to be the guy making big, bold moves and putting everyone in compromising positions. But you have to fight hard for track position, because you may not get it back.”

No matter what happens Sunday, it already seems clear the champion at the end of the season will come from one of two teams.

“It’s heavily on my shoulders to perform every week,” Hamlin said, “because I know I’ve got a team that’s capable of winning every week.”

Larson’s pole-winning streak was snapped without him cranking up his No. 5 car after NASCAR inspectors discovered an unapproved adjustment to the roof rails.

The car passed through the inspection line without any issues, but officials said the rails were altered while the car was being pushed to the track to make its qualifying attempt.

The rails are designed to disrupt the air flow over the roof if a car spins sideways, preventing it from lifting off the track.

Larson will have to start from the back of the 38-car field.

One of the most prominent features at the racetrack is slowly fading away.

Talladega has become the latest NASCAR facility to remove the tall, narrow scoring pylon that listed the position of the nearly every driver in the field.

With modern scoreboards, several tracks have decided that the traditional pylon is no longer needed. But many drivers are upset by the change, including Hamlin, who said he relied on the simplistic scoreboards to keep track of everyone else in the field.

Not to mention the tradition.

“That’s what a racetrack is,” Hamlin said. “By taking those down, it’s just not as good. Maybe it’s just me, but I know every time I go through a tunnel, the first thing I do is look at the scoring pylon.”

Ford’s winless streak has become a major storyline in the first quarter of the Cup season.

Sure, there’s still a long way to go, but Keselowski said it’s not unfair for fans and media to focus on the struggles of the historic brand.

“I don’t think you’re making a bigger deal of it that it is,” the Ford driver said. “I mean, outside of Daytona and Atlanta, I’m not particularly certain there’s been a track where I would say Ford has been the fastest car.”

That makes Talladega almost a must-win situation for the Ford contingent.

“It’s definitely a better opportunity for us,” Keselowski said. “We need to capitalize on that.”

Harrison Burton will start from the 16th position as he takes another crack at claiming the 100th Cup victory for Woods Brothers Racing. The long-time team hasn’t won since Ryan Blaney’s victory at Pocono in 2017. … Anthony Alfredo will make his second appearance of the season for Beard Motorsports, looking to improve on a 27th-place finish at Daytona. … New Zealand’s Shane van Gisbergen is getting his first Cup start on an oval after racing on road and street circuits in his three previous appearances. That included a surprising victory at Chicago in his debut last year. …. Blaney and Keselowski are listed as co-favorites in the Geico 500, according to BetMGM.

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AP NASCAR: https://apnews.com/hub/nascar-racing



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