NASCAR playoff drivers face daunting challenge at wild, volatile Talladega

Brad Keselowski knows how to win at Talladega Superspeedway — one of NASCAR’s most chaotic and unpredictable tracks — even though he can’t pinpoint exactly what makes him so good.

The No. 2 Ford driver has five career wins at the 2.66-mile Alabama track, and he and Team Penske teammate Joey Logano have combined to win six of the last eight races there. Most recently, Keselowski took the checkered flag at the 2017 fall race one year ago, while Logano won in April.

But going into Sunday’s 1000Bulbs.com 500 (2 p.m. ET, NBC) — the second of three playoff races in the Round of 12 — Keselowski couldn’t explain why he and Logano have been so dominant in recent years.

“You’re always learning,” Keselowski told USA TODAY Sports on Wednesday. “There’s always a new move, a new technique that develops. Racing is so very dynamic, and you just try to soak it up like a sponge and apply it when it’s time.”

But that strategy doesn’t always work out.

“You can study, you can research, you can have the fastest car, you can do all the right things but if you don’t survive — if you find yourself in the wrong place at the wrong time — none of that matters,” added Keselowski, who’s seventh in the playoff standings and 21 points ahead of the cutoff mark.

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The use of restrictor plates at Talladega — as well as at the two annual stops at Daytona International Speedway — is the biggest contributor to its volatility. They limit the speeds of the cars in the name of safety, but that addition also means it’s harder for cars to pull away from each other.

Drivers are forced to race in packs, so the tiniest mistake by one car can lead to a disaster for several — and it usually does.

Known as “The Big One,” a multi-car wreck is all but guaranteed at Talladega, and teams outlast the chaos with fast reactions and the best split-second decisions. It’s why playoff driver Clint Bowyer described it as “500 miles of mind games.”

But there’s no right way to avoid an accident.

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