Did You Notice? … How much of a crapshoot Talladega makes the next round of this Chase? No one has an advantage on paper entering this three-race sprint as all 12 drivers are tied for the point lead. That means it’s nearly impossible to create a 47-point cushion, locking yourself into the next round before the closest thing NASCAR has to Russian Roulette. No one, not even the red hot Kevin Harvick, was able to create such a cushion in the last round of the Chase, with everyone but winners Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski vulnerable to fall out of the top 12 entering Dover.
Looking at results from this spring and it’s clear how Talladega can jumble up the field. Here’s how the Contender round would shake out if everyone matched their finishes from Kansas, Charlotte, and Talladega in May…
Kevin Harvick – 3125
Kasey Kahne – 3108
Jimmie Johnson – 3106* (won Charlotte, would advance)
Kyle Busch – 3098
Denny Hamlin – 3095* (won Talladega, would advance)
Carl Edwards – 3095
Jeff Gordon – 3090* (won Kansas, would advance)
Ryan Newman – 3089
Joey Logano – 3086
Matt Kenseth – 3085
Dale Earnhardt, Jr. – 3085
Brad Keselowski – 3084
Note that Penske Racing’s duo, perhaps the most impressive during the first round of this Chase,would be sitting on the outside looking in. Both were involved in Talladega wrecks, and without a win, their top-13 finishes at Kansas and Charlotte just wouldn’t be enough to move on. Earnhardt, too, was doomed by a ‘Dega disaster, a 26th-place result leaving him four points behind the cutline in his final season with Steve Letarte.
Chances are, Penske will be stronger the second time around at Charlotte and Kansas, helping protect them from Talladega tragedy. But take a look at who’s second in points in this projection: Kasey Kahne. Now that he’s squeaked into the top 12, the next three races shape up well for a driver who excels on 1.5-mile ovals. And after he was seemingly hit with everything but the kitchen sink at plate races throughout all of 2013, Kahne is due for a little good luck at ‘Dega.
No one knows exactly how this next portion of the Chase will go, especially with the unpredictability of plate racing. But hey, at least NASCAR is guaranteed one race that won’t be as anticlimactic as last Sunday’s race at Dover. It’s important for them to have something to market after the first three events wound up below fan expectations.
Did You Notice? … 16 of 30 cautions, since the start of the regular season finale at Richmond, have been caused by “competition” reasons or debris? That’s an astounding 53.3 percent, a number that could have wound up far higher if not for a well-timed yellow that bunched up the field at New Hampshire. Remember, the wreckfest over the final 40 percent of the race would never have happened if the field remained spread out.
Is there really that much debris spread around the track these days? Probably not. It’s a subjective call officials can make virtually anytime. But to have such a high number of them during the Chase, when most fans and teams would prefer to have the race play out, is a little surprising. It’s to the point even Kahne was surprised there wasn’t a late yellow bunching up the field at Dover, relieved drivers were allowed to race for their spot in the top 12 instead of having their fate decided by a hot dog wrapper, then an awkward double-file restart.
But isn’t it weird we could have had two Chase races – heck, perhaps all three – go caution free without interference from the tower? Are the cars, despite carrying more speed, that stable that drivers can go 1,000 miles at three different ovals without wrecking? Or is there an element of conservatism involved with the racing now, survival more important than surging toward a win? Whatever the reasons, it’s pretty bothersome artificial yellows are needed in order to keep the field close. And even then… it’s no guarantee of success, as we saw at Dover on Sunday.
Did You Notice? … Quick hits before we take off…
– Rumors surround the future of GO FAS Racing’s No. 32 and Joe Falk’s No. 33 for 2015. Neither one has had a consistent driver all season, focusing on “pay to play” deals and needing significant financial support to survive. In the case of GO FAS, one of their main sponsors, C&J Energy Services will leave along with Terry Labonte after Talladega. Labonte is expected to retire for good following the final plate race of the year.
– Keep an eye on Danica Patrick this weekend in Kansas. Her seventh-place effort this spring was the best of her career at that point in time and she’s shown a
knack for adapting to 1.5-mile ovals as of late. With four top-20 runs in the last five races, the No. 10 car has hit a bit of a rhythm and could be a darkhorse to steal a top-5 finish straight under the nose of Chase rivals. Kyle Larson, along with Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. (who nearly won at this track in 2013) are also good picks to spoil the playoff party. There are other drivers racing too this time of year…
– Chase Elliott, over in the Nationwide Series, has 27 lead-lap finishes in 28 races, never failing to finish. For a rookie driver who never even ran in the series before this year, that is one impressive track record for an 18-year-old teenager on the rise. It would be a shock at this point with just five races left if Elliott lost his series point lead to teammate Regan Smith, Elliott Sadler, or any other challengers. This rookie is coming to a Sprint Cup race near you, by February 2016 at the absolute latest.
– Kyle Larson has been impressive, yes, in his rookie campaign on the Cup circuit. The problem? His three top-10 finishes during the Chase alone equal the amount all other rookies (we started with eight total) have accumulated all season long. NASCAR needed more than one driver to make an impact; Austin Dillon, while steady, has been virtually invisible since the Daytona 500 and no other first-year driver ever even popped up on the radar screen. New faces lead to new interest but unfortunately, in that department, the sport keeps falling short.
– A 2.3 Nielsen rating for NASCAR at Dover, announced Tuesday, made it one of the ten lowest-rated Chase races of all time. New format, same old problem…
– The NASCAR-themed Café at Universal Studios is closing at the end of the year. That means in the last five years, we’ve lost NASCAR Speedparks, Daytona USA, several independently-owned short tracks (Gresham Motorsports Park in Georgia is the latest on the list), SPEED network… what is going on with stock car racing in this country?