TALLADEGA, Ala. (AP) — The first loser at Talladega Superspeedway better not have been hung out to dry in the closing laps by a teammate.
And in the case of Sunday's race, teammates will have a far wider definition.
Manufacturers have taken steps to mandate their drivers work together to ensure their brand gets to victory lane at both Daytona and Talladega, the two tracks on the NASCAR circuit in which drivers need drafting partners to race through the field. It was Toyota years ago that first got all its teams to align for an entire weekend as it tried to win the Daytona 500, and Ford and finally Chevrolet followed suit.
Chevrolet was the last manufacturer to strenuously urge its teams to play as one at Talladega in April, and it worked with a Chase Elliott victory that ended a streak of seven consecutive wins by Ford drivers at the Alabama superspeedway. The stakes Sunday are much higher because Talladega is the middle race of the second round of NASCAR's playoffs, with drivers trying to avoid dropping below the cut line headed into next week's elimination race at Kansas, but the manufacturer alignments remain unchanged.
"The playoff picture is obviously important to some of the guys in each respective group, I suppose," Elliott said. "The manufacturers are going to see it as they want the manufacturer to do well and they see that being better than anything else. I think you're going to see more of those games being played this weekend."
Elliott won the pole for Sunday's race as his Hendrick Motorsports dominated qualifying again. Elliott led the four Hendrick cars to a sweep of the front two rows in Saturday's session. He bested title challengers Alex Bowman and William Byron, followed by Jimmie Johnson.
Aric Almirola, last year's winner, then led Ford drivers in the next six positions, with Erik Jones the highest Toyota at 11th.
Denny Hamlin blew his engine and did not complete a qualifying lap, so he will start last Sunday. He was grateful the engine expired on his qualifying lap and not in the opening laps of the race.
Kyle Larson is the only driver locked into the round of eight after his victory last weekend at Dover, where he snapped a losing streak that spanned nearly two years and made him the only driver at ease before Talladega. The magnitude of not needing a decent finish was so important to Larson that it was one of the first things he noted when he climbed from his winning car last week.
"Just awesome to get a win and not have to worry about Talladega ... I don't like that place," he said, noting that he crashed in April's race and "I was on my lid and I could still end up on my lid next week, but it doesn't matter after this win."
He still will be required to be a strong team player for Chevrolet, which was embarrassed in February when Toyota, with the smallest fleet of entrants in the field, worked a side deal to align with Hendrick Motorsports in the Daytona 500 because the Hendrick cars were fast and didn't have a lot of equal Chevrolets to work with that day.
Hamlin led a 1-2-3 sweep for Toyota and Joe Gibbs Racing, while Ford and Chevy were left speechless. Ford actually had its own internal dustup when Joey Logano confronted fellow Ford driver Michael McDowell for not pushing him to the win, and McDowell maintained he was under no obligation to a rival Blue Oval driver.
Hamlin said the manufacturer mandate will be strong Sunday, even though seven drivers are racing for their championship chances. Elliott had an engine failure last week to drop below the cut line, and Joey Logano, Clint Bowyer and Ryan Blaney are all trying to avoid elimination next week. Logano, Bowyer and Blaney are all Ford drivers, with Logano and Blaney direct teammates at Team Penske.
"It's really morphed itself into that, especially the fall Talladega race has become more of a manufacturer get-together type of racing," he said. "When you look at it, there's guys that are above the cut and then below the cut that are with the same team, so I don't know that some are going to be OK with the others, pushing the others to get more points. I think that there's going to be a lot of selfishness when it comes down to the end of this thing."
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