NASCAR Race Weekend Central

5 Points to Ponder: Number 27

ONE: Talladega

Here we go again: 500 miles on the treacherous high banks of Alabama’s Talladega Superspeedway. This time round, I’m happy to say, Talladega will not be the elimination race in the three-race playoff segment as it has been for the last two seasons. After the debacle with Kevin Harvick at the end of the ‘Dega playoff two years ago, drivers in the hunt for a championship deserve the opportunity to get in on their own merit not miss out thanks to the demerits (or sputtering engines) of others. Either way, though, this race is the very definition of a lottery with your fate often decided by actions not of your own making; anything can, will and does, happen with the restrictor plates keeping the snarling pack of 40 cars bunched inches apart.

Now I know there are those (quite a few, in fact) who say it’s not real racing, and Kyle Busch has made no secret of his negative opinion of this particular format, but the fact remains Talladega is the sort of race that remains absolutely appointment viewing. Compared to the relative tedium of the mile-and-a-half tracks, there is a can’t-tear-your-eyes-away mesmeric quality to every corner and every lap of a plate race. And if there’s one driver to put into your fantasy lineups that wheelman might be Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who won the middle two of the four plate races in 2017. The victories were the first and second wins of Stenhouse’s Cup career and a third win could really shake up the standings, given Stenhouse sits last out of the 12 playoff drivers some 10 points below safety. Could he make it three in a row this Sunday? Quite possibly.

TWO: Number 27

In a baseball context, since we’re in the October MLB playoff season, 27 is a significant number, representing the championships won by the much loved (and much reviled) New York Yankees. And 27 is a number that Dale Earnhardt Jr., would love to see this weekend as it would denote his new number of Cup wins if he took the checkered flag at Talladega ahead of the field. 48 races have passed since Junior last visited Victory Lane in the penultimate race of the 2015 season at Phoenix International Raceway, and for the majority of this his final season, he hasn’t often threatened for the win or a top five for that matter.

But if ever there’s a venue where Junior can get the breakthrough he and his fans crave, Talladega would be that very track. 10 of his 26 wins have come at restrictor plate tracks: four at Daytona International Speedway and six at the 2.66-mile circuit. In his final season, few in the sport or in the stands would have been sad to see Earnhardt go deep into the playoffs just as his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon did in his final full year of 2015. So in lieu of that, a win this weekend would be at least some scant consolation for Junior Nation.

THREE: Another week, another win for Truex

Win number six in the 30th race at Charlotte Motor Speedway this past weekend means the season’s dominant driver Martin Truex Jr. has now won 20 percent of the races this year. But unlike other, more routine, wins in 2017, in so far as a win is ever routine, Truex had to work extremely hard to hold off a plethora of challengers – not least Kevin Harvick, the winner of both stages. Truex was emotional in Victory Lane, and while it’s easy for us on the outside to label him the prohibitive favorite, it’s also easy to forget that Truex, very much on the inside, has to go out there and execute.

“Unbelievable win,” said Truex post-race. “Just a total team effort. Every single guy – every guy on this team just did a perfect job today, and I can’t be more proud of them—and this time of the year is just when you want it to happen.”

Given Truex’s regular season playoff point accumulation, a berth in the third round seemed something of a formality but as Kyle Busch showed with a poor finish at Charlotte, a healthy points advantage can evaporate quick. There’s still a long way to go but for now, Truex can breath a sigh of relief and head to Talladega without the intense pressure the other 11 playoff drivers will face.

FOUR: United States Grand Prix

Just four races remain in the 2017 Formula One calendar, and a week from Sunday, the next stop will be the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas for the United States Grand Prix. Heading into the race feeling very positive will be three time champion Lewis Hamilton, who won the Japanese Grand Prix last Sunday, holding off Red Bull’s hard charging Max Verstappen to pick up a crucial victory in the quest for a championship. The win, coupled with misfortune for Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel once again, saw Hamilton establish a healthy 59-point lead over his illustrious rival. And with a maximum of 100 points available over the last four races, there’s no question Hamilton is absolutely in the driving seat.

For much of the year the German and British champions have battled it out in close quarters; but a first lap, first corner wreck for Vettel in Singapore three races ago and then a 19th place effort this Sunday, running just four laps clearly underpowered. I wouldn’t count out Vettel just yet but at this point, he needs something of a miracle to get back into contention.

FIVE: And finally

Four races into the playoffs – and whisper it quietly – but Chase Elliott now has three second-place finishes and a worst run of 11th. If he can keep it going at a similar cadence he might just find himself in with a shot to win it all at Homestead-Miami Speedway. That’s a long way off, not to mention a trip to Talladega to navigate, but we’ve seen winless drivers point their way into the Championship 4 under this three-stage format; Ryan Newman in 2014, for example.

Putting the crushing disappointment of Dover aside, Elliott has come alive in the playoffs, and if he can get out of Alabama with a solid finish, he will be well set to make the last eight. Sunday’s second-place was the sixth such finish in Elliott’s 71 Cup races but it’s interesting to note his Hall of Fame father had eight such finishes before he finally broke through. That’s some good company for Elliott right there. The win will come and it might just be sooner rather than later.

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