Every driver and team in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series knows the term “wild card.” Ever since NASCAR formed what was basically a 10-race playoff in 2004, Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway’s October race has always been one of them.
And every October, any car can win at Talladega, which adds a bit of pressure to the 12 drivers still alive in the NASCAR playoff once again this weekend – well, save for Kyle Larson, who advanced to the Round of 8 with his victory last week at Dover (Del.) International Speedway.
For the other 11 drivers, this is the race that is circled on the calendar. Win and you are in the Round of 8. But if a playoff driver gets caught up in the seemingly inevitable “Big One” – multicar accidents common at Talladega – he might be forced to win the following week’s race at Kansas Speedway in Kansas City.
Thus, the term, wild card.
For Kevin Harvick, driver of the No. 4 Busch Light Ford Mustang for Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR), he is aware of the wild-card factor. He’s 42 points ahead of the Round of 8 cutoff but knows that a poor finish at Talladega will make for an interesting final Round of 12 race at Kansas.
‘You just show up and see how it develops,” Harvick said of racing this weekend at Talladega. “All you can do is show up for a weekend at Talladega and see how it develops and go from there.”
Talladega is one that anyone can win and from anywhere. Look back at 2000 when, with four laps to go, the late Dale Earnhardt was in 18th place. By the 188th and final lap, Earnhardt had vaulted to the front and beat Kenny Wallace by .119 of a second for his 76th and final NASCAR victory.
It’ll be an interesting weekend for Harvick as he will make is 677th career NASCAR start, which is one more than Earnhardt, who Harvick replaced in February 2001. Harvick is second among active drivers in career starts as Talladega will be Kurt Busch’s 679th.
Harvick will make his 38th NASCAR Cup Series Talladega start Sunday. He has one win, two poles, seven top-five finishes, 15 top-10s and has led 260 laps. He scored his lone win at the 2.66-mile superspeedway in April 2010, when he started fourth, led two of 200 laps and beat runner-up Jamie McMurray by .011 of a second.
Harvick earned his first Cup Series pole at Talladega in May 2005 with a speed of 189.804 mph. He won his second Cup Series pole there in April 2018, when he recorded a lap of 49.247 seconds at 194.448 mph.Harvick has three career Cup Series runner-up finishes at Talladega, most recently in October 2010, when he started 14th, led 12 laps and finished runner-up to Clint Bowyer.
In the NASCAR Xfinity Series, Harvick has competed in eight races at Talladega with a best finish of second in April 2006. He has led 95 laps and finished in the top-five twice.
Harvick knows that Talladega is the wild card, but he’s hoping to avoid the jokers and find victory lane.
“Talladega is a lot bigger,” Harvick said of the difference between that and Daytona. “It’s a lot wider. The track itself is bigger. The shape of Talladega is different than Daytona because of the track being wider and the way the tri-oval is shaped. The start-finish line is almost all the way down into turn one, which seems to change some of the outcomes of the finishes, because you have to go all the way down the front straightaway before you get to the finish line. Talladega’s tri-oval is a little bit different than Daytona’s. That bottom groove has a little less banking than the rest of the racetrack, so it’s almost like you’re dipping down into a hole. Sometimes you see guys get loose down into the tri-oval and spin out, so it ends up being where some of the wrecks are caused. It’s really hard to push through that tri-oval, especially as you are heading down into that bottom lane. It’s tough to know exactly where you need to be at the end of the race but, for me, I’ve only won one of them there. In that particular race, we were tandem racing and I was second coming into the tri-oval and was able to get past Jamie McMurray. But I would still rather be leading and in control. If I’ve made it to the white flag, then I’ve made it a lot farther than I’ve made it lately, so it’s a chess match all day. You have to have a little bit of luck on your side, but you can also put yourself in a good position by making the right moves, having a good day on pit road and not making any mistakes.”