Did You Notice? …. Talladega is truly the Russian Roulette of the NASCAR playoffs? This race has now had a green-white-checkered finish three years running. Last fall, two top title contenders (Brad Keselowski and Martin Truex Jr.) failed to finish in surprising fashion (engine failure). Later in that race, a driver who would soon announce his retirement (Brian Scott) came out of nowhere to run second.
You can argue whether NASCAR should plate race at Talladega but you can’t argue the results are largely unpredictable. Just how crazy are they? I took a look at the 12 NASCAR playoff contenders and their last five races on the 2.66-mile oval. Not one of those dozen drivers had an average finish better than 11.4.
LAST 5 TALLADEGA CUP STARTS
Martin Truex Jr.: 5th, 7th, 13th, 40th, 35th
Kyle Larson: 42nd, 24th, 29th, 6th, 12th
Kevin Harvick: 8th, 15th, 15th, 7th, 23rd
Chase Elliott: 5th, 12th, 30th
Denny Hamlin: 9th, 37th, 31st, 3rd, 11th
Kyle Busch: 40th, 11th, 2nd, 30th, 3rd
Jimmie Johnson: 2nd, 18th, 22nd, 23rd, 8th
Jamie McMurray: 11th, 39th, 4th, 19th, 2nd
Matt Kenseth: 25th, 26th, 23rd, 28th, 24th
Brad Keselowski: 22nd, 4th, 1st, 38th, 7th
Ryan Blaney: 4th, 43rd, 9th, 11th, 39th
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.: 26th, 9th, 16th, 5th, 1st
Only two drivers, Keselowski and Stenhouse, had back-to-back top-10 finishes. They’re also the only two to win during this stretch but they drive for a manufacturer, Ford, that hasn’t won a race since Daytona.
Maybe it’s another plate race then that knocks them out of their funk? Problem is, both drivers had top-10 finishes last time out at ‘Dega (Stenhouse won). That means history tells us they won’t come anywhere close this time around.
The unpredictability of this race also minimizes the impact of playoff points. Since Truex is already qualified for the next round and Kyle Busch had his mishap at Charlotte, everyone from positions 2-12 is scrunched together. Larson has just a 29-point edge over Kenseth for ninth in the standings, a gap that could be virtually wiped out by stage wins alone.
It’s that tightness and the drama of stage bonuses which might give this race a little extra dose of crazy. Unlike last season, when Joe Gibbs Racing made a mockery of running at the back of the draft stroking it could cost you up to 20 points. That’s a loss anyone gunning for the Round of 8 simply can’t afford to take.
Does that mean we’re headed for a wreckfest? Not necessarily. But it creates three green-white-checkered finish type endings for the three different stages. The extra dose of adrenaline has led to an average of fifteen DNFs in three plate races this season, mostly for wrecks.
Sprinkle in a dose of Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s last plate race and it all adds up to the most unpredictable ‘Dega in ages. No one besides Truex among the playoff contenders is getting much sleep this week.
Did You Notice? …. Landon Cassill’s narrow list of options for 2018? One of NASCAR’s great young talents was given the pink slip by Front Row Motorsports Monday. Cassill now enters the free agent world with a limited number of NASCAR Silly Season musical chairs remaining.
Among those names he’ll fall behind on the list? Darrell Wallace Jr., Danica Patrick, and Matt Kenseth. Even Michael McDowell might eke ahead in a head-to-head battle by virtue of this year’s career high average finish of 22.2.
It’s true Cassill has struggled through underfunded rides after once being a development driver for Hendrick Motorsports. Despite 253 career starts at the Cup level not one of them was with a team that has top-tier resources. His lone top-five finish, at Talladega in the fall of 2014 for Joe Falk was with a team who spent the majority of the year running patchwork sponsorship.
Unfortunately, that word underdog doesn’t give you credit on a written resume. Cassill’s career average finish of 29.4 struggles to stand out from fellow lower-tier 20-somethings like Matt DiBenedetto (29.6) and Cole Whitt (29.7). They’re all in the same boat of “if only” and that argument holds less water when a fellow lower-tier team releases you.
Cassill’s best potential option may be a reunion with Falk if Jeffrey Earnhardt doesn’t pan out. Can you imagine him and a dedicated social media following hawking Hulu? The duo worked well together before and Cassill’s tendency to finish races would help a Falk team with 12 DNFs in 30 starts.
But any type of top-tier opportunity? Unless someone in XFINITY or Trucks comes knocking Cassill is a longshot at best.
Did You Notice? …. Quick hits before taking off….
- Danica Patrick may be racing in 2018 after all. I’m hearing sponsorship momentum has increased in the last few days, potential backing that could land her with a full-time MENCS opportunity with a team that placed cars in the playoffs this season. For what it’s worth, she’s auditioned well, pulling off four straight top-15 finishes this summer for the first time in her Cup career. NASCAR CEO Brian France admitted last week the sport is willing to help Patrick and diversity darling Darrell Wallace Jr. find sponsorship for next season. “We get involved all the time with sponsorship arrangements with individual teams,” he said. “That’s not inconsistent with what we do.”
- Among the drivers making a MENCS attempt at Talladega this weekend are Mark Thompson and Justin Marks. The duo have a total of three Cup starts between them and, in Thompson’s case, have not run in the series since 1992. It’s just two more wild cards that could make the Big One that much more unpredictable in Sunday’s closing laps.