TALLADEGA — Alex Bowman has been a quick learner. Two full seasons, two playoff spots — and too many butterflies in the stomach.
“It’s a very stressful time of the year,” said Bowman, who’ll sit on the front row in an all-Hendrick Motorsports top four in Sunday's 1000bulbs.com 500 at Talladega Superspeedway. “Each and every stage and every point matters. Especially going to a place like Talladega that’s such a wild card for something that will happen early or late that you might not have a part of, but you get collected.”
NASCAR has alleviated some of the stress by reconfiguring its playoff schedule. No longer is Talladega the “cut-off race” that eliminates four drivers from advancing to the next tier. It’s factored in a mulligan of sorts, next week at Kansas.
“I guess the good news is that at least you have another race after this one to determine the rest of your time if you have a bad day here,” said Chase Elliott, who won the spring race here and earned the pole Saturday with a speed of 192.707 mph.
Bowman will be on the outside front, with William Byron and Jimmie Johnson in row two.
It was a tougher day for Joe Gibbs Racing, which has 15 wins this year. Martin Truex will start 18th, Kyle Busch 26th and Denny Hamlin failed to qualify because of a blown motor.
However, each of the three JGR entries should be in position to advance to the Round of 8. Truex is the best current driver to never win at Talladega — he’s failed to finish 13 times — but could afford a start-and-park because of his 3,095 playoff points. Hamlin and Busch both have 3,080 points.
Kevin Harvick, with 3,074 points, is another contender who doesn’t need to fret, and Kyle Larson (3,063 points) clinched a spot in the next round when he ended a 75-race winless streak last week at Dover.
Brad Keselowski, the most successful active driver at Talladega, with five wins, needs a good finish to pad his 3,052 points while seventh-place Alex Bowman (3,049) will looking in his rearview mirror a lot, with a skinny 17-point gap between him and eighth place.
William Byron (3,032) may feel like the sitting duck, with only three 'Dega starts in his career and three former winners behind him in the standings in Joey Logano (3,032), Clint Bowyer (3,028) and Elliott (3,025). Elliott and Bowyer are both in “must-win” territory today or next week at Kansas, as is 12th-place Ryan Blaney, with 3,010 points. If there is a reason for optimism, Ford has won 10 of the last 14 Talladega races, and six of those by his Penske Racing team.