When it comes to restrictor place races at Talladega and Daytona, the big question is, when will the big one happen? As in, when will we see a big crash with at least seven or eight cars involved. If you were waiting on that to happen during Sunday’s Sprint Cup race at Talladega, then you came away disappointed. But despite a relatively clean elimination race, there were plenty of other big developments throughout the day.
As it turned out, Joey Logano was not in a must win situation Sunday, but the driver of the No. 22 certainly played his restrictor plate cards right in the second half of the race to take home the win. Logano has not been particularly impressive since the Chase started, but he has been good enough, and the win Sunday catapulted him into the Round of 8. While restrictor plate wins come with a bit of asterisk simply because the racing is so much different than at other tracks, there’s nothing better than going back to the race shop the week after a win knowing you’ve still got a shot at a title.
While Chase Elliott has shown maturity beyond his years, especially when it comes to his overall attitude, Sunday we might have seen a reminder that he is still just a 20-year-old rookie. One of the biggest learning curves in NASCAR is trying to figure out how to draft and side draft, find the right partners to help you along, and then figuring out how to stay out front once you get there. Elliott was faced with a win or get kicked out of the Chase scenario, so he had a lot more pressure than a lot of other drivers. The end result was that he couldn’t find the right line or right partner at the right time, so there will be no title this year for the rookie. But that doesn’t mean he can’t win one of these last four races, and when it comes to titles, I think he’ll figure that part out sooner rather than later, too.
I suspected Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s visit to the announcing booth Sunday would be fruitful and enjoyable and it certainly was. Junior was his chatty self, but he wasn’t just filling air time. His explanation of how side drafting works, and how when and when not to do it affects a car, was some of the best analysis we’ve heard all year. Even if they’re not a part of Junior Nation, any NASCAR fan wants to see him drive again next year when he’s fully recovered from concussion symptoms. But his seamless transition to the TV booth Sunday gave us all of glimpse of what could be in his long-term future if that’s what he decides to do.
It seems Brad Keselowski was fighting an uphill battle the last two races, and his chance at winning a second title ended with a blown engine Sunday. The thing is, Keselowski was winning that uphill climb before dropping out on lap 144. He had controlled much of the race, leading 90 laps, and had also shown that he had the ability to regain the lead on a couple of occasions after it had slipped away. As Earnhardt mentioned, Keselowski may be the next great restrictor plate racer and Keselowski did nothing to contradict that statement Sunday.
One of the great things about restrictor plate racing is that it is an equalizer in terms of giving almost any driver on the track a chance to win. It’s nice every now and then to see some different names in that top 10, such as Brian Scott in second, Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. in fifth and even Aric Almirola in ninth Sunday. While Scott was unsuccessful in trying to make the winning pass Sunday, it was good to see a different face at least challenge for the win.
HOT and NOT
One of the biggest Talladega post-race debates centered around the Joe Gibbs Racing cars of Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards spending much of the day at the back of the pack in order to avoid any potential mishaps, or the aforementioned “big one.” While none of them had wins in the second round of the Chase, they came into Talladega in good shape in the points standings to make it to the next round. So while it’s without question that points racing isn’t exciting, it was still the right move for these drivers. The bottom line is that now JGR has all four of its cars in the Round of 8 heading to Martinsville next week. So while the strategy was not in the best interest of exciting racing, it was definitely a big picture move.
Hopefully there won’t be a near-dark finish like there was last year at Martinsville, when Jeff Gordon won to punch his ticket into the championship round at Homestead. But regardless of how the daylight works out, I expect another Hendrick driver will take the checkered Sunday in Jimmie Johnson, putting him in position to go for a seventh title at Homestead. The deep sleeper underdog has got to be AJ Allmendinger, who has two top-10 finishes at Martinsville in his last five races there.
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