Who… gets my shoutout of the race?
During most race broadcasts, you don’t hear much about about half the field, and during the Chase? Forget it. Unless a driver is in the Chase or spoiling the Chase for a driver in the playoffs, you’ll be hard pressed to see hide or hair of them.
That was true Sunday even as the field was in the closing laps. Brian Scott was mentioned only in passing even as he was racing the leaders en route to his career-best Sprint Cup finish of second Sunday. Scott, who has some respectable runs in the past in the XFINITY Series, though without any wins, has been all but invisible this year unless he was involved in a crash. But he made everyone take notice this week.
What… is the takeaway from this race?
The only reason to keep Talladega in the Chase at all is that restrictor-plate racing is a skill that separates some drivers from others. (Though that same argument could be made about including a road course race, which many feel NASCAR should do.) It’s a good thing, though, that next year’s edition won’t be an elimination race.
The current plate package doesn’t put the race in the drivers’ hands enough, it causes too many giant pile-ups, and it’s not any kind of racing that should determine a title. NASCAR made a good call to move the race so that it will not be an elimination race next year, though if it must be a Chase race, the perfect spot for it would be the lead-off race, where teams still have time to recover if they’re collected in something. Too often at Talladega, the championship is in everyone’s hands but the contenders’.
Where… did the pole-sitter and the defending race winner wind up?
Martin Truex, Jr. started first on Sunday…and finished last after his engine detonated after just 41 laps. At a track known for carnage, there were just three DNFs this time around, and only one of those was for a crash. For Truex, it was the first engine failure he suffered in more than two years, and the timing could not have been worse because the 40th-place run ended his title hopes after a season in which he made himself a true contender.
Joey Logano won this race under caution a year ago and he won it again this year, under the green flag this time. Logano overcame a penalty early on when he dragged his jack for an entire lap after a pit stop, leading the final 45 laps to the checkers.
When… did it all go sideways?
It’s a rare thing when the “Big One” at Talladega involves all of three cars. Unfortunately, for the drivers of those three cars, a bad day could not have come at a worse time. The rumor mill has swirled this week, mainly around Greg Biffle, who touched off the crash with Jeffrey Earnhardt and Casey Mears, who was in the wrong place at the wrong time and got the worst of the incident.
It’s been speculated that Biffle will move on from Roush Fenway Racing at season’s end, and Mears’ departure from Germain Racing appears carved in stone to make room for Ty Dillon (the team has an alliance with Richard Childress Racing and Dillon is Childress’ grandson after all), with Mears possibly moving to the woefully underfunded Circle Sport ride next year. Earnhardt, a rookie, also hasn’t announced plans for 2017. While it was a small crash in terms on numbers, it was huge in impact for three drivers with a lot to prove.
Why… did Joey Logano win the race?
Remember the days when the lead was the last place anyone wanted to be during a restrictor-plate race coming to the white flag? Those days are long gone, and it’s become rare that the leader taking the white isn’t also the leader taking the checkers. Logano was no exception; even with a late restart, once he got to the front, he was able to control the field handily to the finish. Logano did a good job of protecting his lead in the closing laps; he threw good, clean blocks in a situation where many get sloppy and try to block one time too many and end up causing a melee.
The win also buys Logano a chance at redemption after he had a dominant season in 2015 only to let his brash, aggressive driving be his downfall when Matt Kenseth took exception to it and dumped him at Martinsville. Has he learned his lesson…and will it be enough to put him in contention this year?
How… is the championship picture developing?
Sunday saw the field whittled to eight…but engine failures for Brad Keselowski and Martin Truex, Jr. meant that the two best drivers for most of the season will go unrewarded as they, along with Austin Dillon and Chase Elliott, bowed out with four races remaining. While their departure makes the remaining championship battle seem a little hollow, Dillon’s reminds everyone that every point and every position matters. Had he finished just one position higher in any of the last three races, he’d have sent Denny Hamlin packing. Elliott ran a decent race Sunday, but incidents in the two previous events proved too much to overcome for the rookie—and that should in no way taint what was an outstanding first season for the youngster.
Fully half of the final eight hail from the Joe Gibbs Racing stable, and while they haven’t looked as strong recently as they were earlier this year, it’s entirely possible that they could comprise the entire title fight at Homestead…but don’t count on it. Jimmie Johnson is a heavy favorite at both Martinsville and Texas, and he’s sniffing a seventh title, making him dangerous. Kevin Harvick has been nearly unstoppable at Phoenix, so he could have something to say about the title as well. Kurt Busch is the dark horse at this point, simply because he hasn’t set the world on fire lately.
Right now, I think the final four will be Johnson, Harvick, Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch, though Denny Hamlin could slide by one of his teammates. But ask again in a couple of weeks, because this year, things change that much, that fast.