It’s no surprise that Dale Earnhardt Jr. is leading this column this week. Yes, he won the race, but it was about so much more than winning for Junior. First, there was a question of whether crew chief Greg Ives might have to go home when finding out his daughter broke her arm. She told him it was fine to stay and it’s a good thing he did, getting his first win as a crew chief. So, kudos to 8-year-old Payton Ives for stepping up there. Second, there were Junior’s post-race words, where he openly and emotionally talked about his dad. He’s talked plenty about his father since his death in the Daytona 500 in 2001, but rarely, if ever, has he talked about him with such emotion in public. It was great to see that because it should be an emotional moment and not just another day at the track.
When Martin Truex Jr. had his streak of consecutive top-10 finishes to start the season end at seven, it wasn’t too far of a reach to think, well, that was a nice run for the single-car team, but now reality will set in and the No. 78 will tumble in the standings. Well, that hasn’t happened. Truex Jr. has finished in the top 10 in the next two races, including a fifth Sunday, and now sits second in the points standings with nine top-10 finishes in 10 races. So, if you are thinking that Truex and his Furniture Row team were just going to be also-rans and gradually fade from the Chase picture, the last two races have been a pretty major statement that they are in this for the long haul. Sure, they would love to get that first win of the season to be guaranteed a spot in the Chase, but if they continue to check off the top-10 finishes, they’ll almost be assured of making it in anyway.
You know what else was hot at one point in Sunday’s race? That would have been the fueling area on Ryan Newman’s car. So, if you ever wonder why crewman need to wear fire suits, that was exhibit A. Then also, give some credit to the Talladega fire crew that was immediately on the scene and extinguished what could have been a very dangerous situation. And yes, Newman went on to finish seventh, so not bad for a car that almost caught fire.
Tire Rubs (Warm)
One thing restrictor-plate races do is serve as an equalizer for the lesser-funded teams. That was certainly evident Sunday. Some names you don’t normally see, even in the top 20, but were this time were Josh Wise in 10th, Cole Whitt in 13th, JJ Yeley in 14th, Alex Bowman in 16th, Matt DiBenedetto in 18th and David Gilliland in 20th. Gilliland is the only one of those drivers to be in the top 30 in points at 26th. Wise is now the only one of those drivers to record a top-10 result this season. So, probably the next best chance for someone in this group to reach the top 10 will be the next restrictor-plate race in Daytona in July.
And speaking of drivers who have not finished in the top 10 but still remain somewhat competitive, there is Aric Almirola. He has yet to record a top-10 finish in the first 10 races but does still sit 12th in the points standings. So, Almirola keeps avoiding trouble, but at the same time he can’t get near the front in at least the final laps of these races. Nonetheless, there are a lot of other drivers who would love to be in his spot in the points standings, no matter how they get there. So give him and the No. 43 team a little credit for hanging around and not messing up, at least not too much.
In the Cooler (Cool)
OK, so you know, if the Chase started today, Danica Patrick would be in as she sits 16th in points. That’s one of my favorite lines to use for both Danica lovers and Danica haters. But here’s the bottom line for Patrick and the No. 10 team. If they do in fact want to have a realistic chance at making the Chase, the tracks that they must do well on are the restrictor-plate tracks. Patrick has shown the ability to run at or near the front in these races. And while, yes, good plate-race finishes involve a good amount of luck, it’s important for Patrick to finish in the top 10 at them. She did an incredible job of missing the Big One Sunday after being spun herself, so kudos to her on that one. But finishing 21st in a race where she is easily capable of being in the top 10 doesn’t bode well for her slim Chase chances.
Not that this a huge deal for him as he is locked into the Chase with the win at Daytona, but Joey Logano has a 40th and 33rd in two of the last three races (sandwiched around a fifth). While it’s not necessarily a reason to wave the red flag on Logano’s championship hopes by any stretch, gathering up those 30th or worse finishes is not a habit that any team likes to get into. Logano could bounce back and win at any track, like this Saturday night at Kansas. But if a couple of more of these poor finishes, for whatever reason, sneak into his results, it might not be a good sign for the Chase.
Parked in the Pits (Cold)
If you asked any NASCAR people (fans, drivers, etc.) who a top candidate for a breakout year would be this season, it would not have been unusual to hear the name Kyle Larson. But so far, it’s been more of broken type of season for what was expected to be a super sophomore year. Larson’s poor luck continued when he got caught up in an accident Sunday and couldn’t finish the race and ended up 41st. One would have to think things will get better for Larson, but then again the way it’s been going for him, there’s no guarantee they will.
First, let’s be clear here. This is no knock on Earnhardt Jr. He won the race fair and square. He had one of the best cars all day and that he was up front at the end was no fluke. And if my favorite driver was leading and won I’d be happy, too. But let’s face it, when your 12-year-old, who is a big NASCAR fan, is watching the race with you and then comments immediately afterward that the finish was boring, then well, you can’t really argue with that. The fact that no drivers in the top group not named Jimmie Johnson (he gets a break because he is Junior’s teammate and he’s almost expected to help push Junior to the win there) didn’t pull out and try to work together to make a pass on Junior in the final laps was really disappointing. The whole idea of this is to try and win the race, not finish say fifth, sixth or wherever. Tony Stewart tried to make a line several times in those final laps, but no one would pull out with him. So, it was sad ending at Talladega Sunday, not because of who won, but because of large group of drivers who didn’t appear to want to win.