Any race at Talladega Superspeedway is fraught with nerve-racking drama. But a playoff elimination race where a driver’s championship fortunes quickly and frequently turn course multiple times only amplifies the action and raises the stakes.
That is the daunting prospect drivers in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Playoffs face in Saturday’s Round of 8 elimination race (1 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). Two drivers have clinched a spot in the Round of 6 already. Of the remaining six playoff drivers, two will be eliminated after Talladega.
Who absolutely needs a victory to avoid elimination?
Because of how tight the standings are between the driver provisionally on the bubble — Matt Crafton (+7 points) — and the two drivers below him on the outside of the cut line — Ben Rhodes (-7) and Stewart Friesen (-10) — there is no one in “must-win mode.” That can change Saturday after the accumulation of stage points and other factors, but at present both Rhodes and Friesen can realistically move forward without reaching Victory Lane.
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Who should be the most nervous entering the weekend?
With the exception of Justin Haley and Grant Enfinger, who have secured their spots in the next round via their wins in previous Round of 8 races, and current points leader Johnny Sauter, who has a comfortable 40-point margin above the cutoff line, the other five drivers all have reason to be apprehensive.
This even includes second-place Noah Gragson, who with a poor finish could conceivably fail to advance. If that were to occur, it only would magnify his missteps in the past two playoff races that cost himself several points — a last-lap spin while running second at Canadian Tire Motorsports Park and a pit-road penalty that curtailed a strong effort at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
How happy are Haley and Enfinger to come to Talladega and have a worry-free weekend?
Incredibly! Being in the playoffs is pressure packed, but that is magnified on NASCAR’s most foreboding track, where drivers often are at the mercy of things outside their control. But Haley and Enfinger don’t have to concern themselves with points or being swept into the “Big One.” This is a giant and well-earned relief.
Should anyone besides Haley, Enfinger and Sauter feel even remotely comfortable about their chances of advancing?
No. Absolutely not. This is Talladega, and as demonstrated numerous times since NASCAR went to an elimination-style playoff format, this is a race that can flip the points standings around and seemingly erase the biggest of deficits. There is no one else who should feel comfortable.
Are Rhodes and Friesen up to the challenge of racing their way out of the Round of 8 and avoiding playoff elimination?
Neither Rhodes nor Friesen have won a race on a restrictor-plate track — in fact, Friesen has never won a Truck Series race — but each is capable of finding a way to secure advancement to the next round. Rhodes and Friesen rank third and fifth, respectively, among series regulars in laps led this season and have consistently run near the front of the field. And depending on circumstances Saturday, neither may need a win to advance as accruing stage points with a solid finish may be enough.
What is one story line to watch for involving a non-playoff driver?
Having a good drafting partner is essential to success at Talladega, someone who will give you a push when you need it or not leave you out to dry in the middle of a pack. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a teammate, though it certainly helps. Working together, however, is something Kyle Busch Motorsports teammates Gragson and Todd Gilliland have had issues with this season, most notably when Gragson attempted an aggressive pass on Gilliland for the lead on the final lap at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park, but failed and spun both out.
Both drivers have said they have moved on, but it is fair to wonder just how much Gilliland, who is not in the playoffs, will go out of his way to assist the championship-eligible Gragson on Saturday.
WATCH: Gragson, Gilliland wreck