Sunday’s Hellman’s 500 at Talladega Superspeedway didn’t need “The Big One” or Dale Earnhardt, Jr., in the field to put on its third-straight thrilling finale for the Chase’s Round of 12.
Yet sadly, it’ll be the last time the race will get that distinction after a planned one-week date swap with Kansas Speedway beginning in 2017.
The move, made by NASCAR in conjunction with the teams and tracks, is a fair one for the competitors. Beginning next season, teams that roll through Alabama in October won’t do so with the potential of gaining or losing everything. Drivers that fall victim to Talladega’s typical high attrition rate won’t find themselves without a chance to rally at a track where they can control their own destiny.
Unfortunately, the fairness will come at the loss of excitement both for Talladega and the Chase’s second round.
In this year and seasons past, the Round of 12 (formerly known as the Contender Round) consisted of two sections — an opening group of 1.5-mile ovals in Charlotte Motor Speedway and Kansas in the first, and the 2.5-mile Talladega in the second.
Coming at NASCAR’s standard cookie-cutter fair, the first two races at Charlotte and Kansas proposed the ultimate risk versus reward scenario for the 12 teams still alive in NASCAR’s playoffs. Drivers that were able to pull into victory lane in one of the opening two races could rest easy going into the round-ending wild card race.
The rest of the field, however, would go through Talladega’s 500 miles on pins and needles. Run well and avoid issue in the opening two rounds? All you had to do was survive ‘Dega to keep chasing. Crash or otherwise struggle, however, and Talladega suddenly became a must-win race.
Thanks in large part to teams not wanting to enter Talladega in a must-win scenario, the opening two races of the Round of 12 were often among the most exciting in the entire 10-race Chase, a surprise considering 1.5-mile tracks are often among the least favorites in the minds of many NASCAR fans.
Think about it – a lot of memories have come from those two weekends in the last three years. Jimmie Johnson, Brad Keselowski and Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s crashes at Kansas in 2014. Matt Kenseth and Keselowski’s 2014 brawl in the Charlotte garage. Kenseth’s spin at the hands of Joey Logano in 2015.
With everything on the line ahead of Talladega, the two races ahead of the circuit proved more critical for each of the playoff teams hoping to control their own destiny.
Then came the main event.
Talladega’s fall race has proven to be one of the most exciting stops on the year for each of the last three seasons.
It all began in 2014, when Keselowski overcame strong runs by both Johnson and Earnhardt in must-win scenarios and used a push from Kenseth, who he had just feuded with weeks earlier, to earn a Chase-advancing win.
2015 followed with similar drama. Finding himself in a must-win situation for the second year, Earnhardt proved to be the dominant car, and overcame a speeding penalty to find himself alongside leader Logano on the race’s final restart. Unfortunately for Earnhardt, a quick (and controversial) caution off the bumper of Kevin Harvick brought the race — and Earnhardt’s Chase — to a sudden halt.
2016 didn’t see any drivers in a must-win situation, but it did see plenty of drama.
First, there was the obvious story of Logano winning from the Chase bubble. Then came the surprising exits of Chase favorites Keselowski and Martin Truex, Jr., at the hands of engine failures. Then, as if that wasn’t enough, there was the advancement of Denny Hamlin over Austin Dillon by a few feet and a tiebreaker.
0.006 at the stripe! https://t.co/gaKsWBxPaH
— NASCAR (@NASCAR) October 23, 2016
While it’ll still be important, a battle like Hamlin’s and Busch’s won’t even be on the radar for most media and fans next season.
Talladega will fall in the middle of the Round of 12 in 2017, and presumably for the years that follow. Because of that, the Chase bubble will be only a side story. Drivers that will face issue at Kansas won’t know they find themselves in a must-win scenario, and any crashes or surprising late drops won’t hit quite as hard as they have for the last three years.
Is that more fair to the teams? Certainly. However, in the midst of a playoff format that is in large part unfair by design, the move just doesn’t seem to make much sense.
Now, the finale of the Round of 12 will just be another standard cutoff race.
Will it be exciting? Certainly. As we’ve seen at both Dover International Speedway and Phoenix International Raceway, cutoff races don’t need to be at a restrictor-plate track to put on a thrilling show.
However, neither the finale at Kansas nor the mid-round race at Talladega will pack quite the same punch that they have for the past three years.
At the end of 500 miles of racing, Hamlin held, lost and ultimately regained a spot in the Chase’s Round of 8 in the span of 15 seconds. That sort of drama doesn’t often come at any other track or time in the Chase than Talladega in a round finale.
Those stories, and the drama and emotion that comes with them, will surely be missed in 2017 and beyond.