ONE: Chase complications
So here we are. It’s 500 miles of white-knuckle riding on the biggest, baddest track in the sport. I always feel that sounds like something of a cliché, an easy writer tool to describe the terrors of Talladega Superspeedway but the fact is it’s true. And never more so when championship hopes are on the line. One little wiggle at the wrong time from one of the drivers and chaos can ensue in spectacular, metal bending fashion.
With Jimmie Johnson and now Kevin Harvick safely in the round of eight, not even Matt Kenseth, who is 29 markers to the good in third place, can feel safe. This is a race in which anything can happen. Just look at what happened during this race last year when Harvick, who had an expiring motor, stacked up the field on the green-white-checkers changing the playoff picture in an instance.
Simply put this should not be a cut off race, there are just too many variables, and I’m extremely glad it will be the middle race of this segment in 2017. That’s a decision that couldn’t have come sooner. This weekend will mark Cup race number 95 at Talladega, a streak that stretches all the way back to 1969. And while this is a week that Fantasy NASCAR participants hate, one name that might be worth considering is Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., who has the best average finish of active participants with 12.8 (3+ starts). Either way, this one is not a race to miss, even if you watch it between your fingers or behind a sofa.
TWO: 400 up for Martin Truex, Jr.
It was certainly an eventful weekend at Kansas Speedway for Martin Truex, Jr., who finished 11th in what was a milestone 400th Sprint Cup race for the Mayetta, NJ native. The truth is it could have been worse, so much worse, given the race-long refueling issues the team faced all race long at Kansas. And if the driver of the No. 78 Furniture Row Chevy makes it all the way to being in contention in Homestead-Miami, Kansas will be a race he will look back on as one where he and his team absolutely dodged a bullet.
“It’s a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately sport and to a huge extreme now in the Chase with this format,” Truex said post-race. “You gotta perform every single week. You have a bad week it could ruin your whole season.”
Truex now sits in seventh place, 13 points ahead of Austin Dillon, who is currently in ninth and out of the transfer spots. Given that Denny Hamlin was 18 points to the good this time last year (more on him below), second overall behind Joey Logano, who had won both races in the three-race segment, and didn’t make it to the net round, Truex can’t feel comfortable at all heading into the high banks in Alabama. But as ever, his outlook is optimistic.
“All in all it wasn’t a disaster, we did OK, we just gotta go to Talladega and hope that nothing crazy happens.”
Something tells me, though, that crazy will be the most apt word for next Sunday’s race. I’m not sure I even want to watch.
THREE: Denny Hamlin
Denny Hamlin started the season in the best possible fashion, winning the Daytona 500 and locking himself into the Chase early. It enabled his team to experiment in the early to middle part of the season, taking a long term approach to the playoffs. But Hamlin’s cushion has definitively evaporated as a sour engine while running second at Charlotte was compounded by all manner of issues at Kansas. Hamlin ended up 15th this past Sunday, which on some levels must have felt like a win. Now seven points below the cutoff, Hamlin needs a terrific day at Talladega (and others to have less stellar afternoons), but even after a horrible couple races he’s still has a good shot at making the final eight.
“Terrible,” said Hamlin of his afternoon in Kansas. “I mean, just everything went wrong. Stupid stuff. And then penalties when we shouldn’t have ‘em … just another year of the same stuff.”
As frustrating as it must be for the 29-win, 12-year veteran of some 393 races, the fact is he can still make it. Traditionally a strong plate racer, expect Hamlin to run up front as much as he possibly can. But with his season on a knife-edge, he can’t afford any mistakes. The trouble is the mistake might not be his own. Expect a nervous afternoon for the No. 11 team. But at least with the win up for grabs, his fate is still in his own hands. At the end of the day you can’t ask for much more than that at the sharp end of the season.
FOUR: Still no new title sponsor
Still no word on who will replace Sprint as the title sponsor. We’re about 130 days from the 2017 Daytona 500 so at this stage, a replacement company will have to go into overdrive the minute it signs on the dotted line as it formulates a plan for a new season. What does appear clear is that the 10 year, one billion dollar starting price will be significantly discounted, perhaps as low as 30-40 million over four to five years. NASCAR will want a long term partner to line up with the new FOX and NBC deals but as time slips away the likelihood of that seems less and less likely.
“It all has to be at the right level and the right price. It all has to be customized,” said Kim Meesters, general manager of the NASCAR Sprint Cup sponsorship, to the USA TODAY Sports team. “That’s why it takes so long to put this kind of deal together.”
And yes, on the one hand I totally get that point. It’s a complicated, multi-layered deal without question. But now, just over four months from the 2017 Daytona 500 you have to wonder at what stage this deal will get done.
FIVE: The offseason is approaching
Just five weeks and five races remain until the end of the season, and as the title of this point suggests, the off-season is approaching fast. For a sport with such a long season, it still surprises me how quickly the end of the schedule arrives. Some of that might just be that I’m getting older (aren’t we all?), but before we know it we’ll be looking at a 98-day NASCAR vacuum. For some of you this may come as something of a blessed relief, and certainly for me it takes away the weekly column writing pressure, but I also really miss the regular cadence of weekend racing. I’ll certainly be enjoying the final five races (well, maybe not Talladega) as we finish up what has been a good year of racing in 2016.
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