Did You Notice? … The way NASCAR’s damaged vehicle policy has affected drivers running at the end of races? Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway set an all-time high for DNFs in the sport’s playoff era (2004-present) as 26 drivers failed to finish. Only a dozen cars wound up on the lead lap.
The rate of carnage also was unprecedented since restrictor plates began full-time at Daytona International Speedway and Talladega in 1988.
MOST RESTRICTOR PLATE RACING DNFs (1988-Present)
2017 Fall Talladega: 26
2001 Daytona 500: 19
2012 Spring Talladega: 19
2010 July Daytona: 18
1989 July Daytona: 17
2012 Fall Talladega: 17
2007 Fall Talladega: 17
2017 July Daytona: 16
1991 Daytona 500: 16
2008 Fall Talladega: 16
It’s made for an expensive week at the shop as fabricators are busy working overtime. (The only benefit, really, is that the next restrictor plate race isn’t until next year. It’s not like these cars were going to get used at Martinsville Speedway, right?)
The bigger question is whether the demolition derby had an effect on fans watching the race. On the surface, the answer appears to be no. A 2.75 Nielsen rating for Talladega was the best for the sport in several years; it’s one of the few races in 2017 to sport a year-to-year increase. The raucous crowd roaring during multiple red flags was the loudest we’ve seen in Cup racing all year.
That said, there were a few mitigating factors. Dale Earnhardt Jr., in his final plate race ever, avoided most wrecks and was running at the finish. The specter of a possible victory certainly kept fans hanging around. Young stars like Ryan Blaney and Chase Elliott were also in contention until the final few wrecks. Their crashes happened during the final 10 laps.
Overall, NASCAR’s crash clock, plus its officiating rules, played a factor in shrinking the field. Jimmie Johnson and Matt DiBenedetto got kicked out for working under red flag conditions. Both drivers’ teams claim officials gave a green-light signal only to turn around and take it back. Justin Marks and DJ Kennington got sent home for too many people working on their cars. (That’s right. There’s a rule that states you can only have so many people fixing a crashed car.)
It all adds up to an extreme push to make sure damaged cars are out of the race, not leaving debris strewn all over the tri-oval upon their return. NASCAR believes this practice has worked well at races like Daytona and Talladega where multi-car crashes are the norm, not the exception. It would say today, “Why complain? The ratings were up, and there still were cars running at the finish.”
But Sunday just showed the potential downside of these rules. There comes a point where you have so few cars on the track it doesn’t really feel like a race, right? In the final laps of Sunday, we hit that tipping point. So could you imagine if those wrecks all happened in the first 94 laps? We’d have a dozen cars running for the next two hours without any lapped traffic. Would fans have stayed?
We could also have a situation where drivers miss the next round of the playoffs simply because of where their car landed at the end of that multi-car wreck. Kyle Busch couldn’t restart his car, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. could at least roll his straight to the garage. It’s possible that two-point swing could mean the difference in Busch moving on.
There will be more multi-car wrecks in the future where 10 cars are immediately knocked out under these rules. It could mean stopping on the backstretch instead of Turn 3 wipes your championship bid off the table.
Is that fair? That speaks to the randomness of Talladega being in the playoffs to begin with. It’s the trickiness of balancing the excitement of plate racing with the reality of its haphazard outcome.
At the very least, the sport could give a little leeway on this crash clock in the future. Maybe at Daytona and Talladega, you extend the clock to 10 minutes. Give a few more people more of a chance to get back in the race. Allow teams like Johnson or Busch to flex their muscle and prove they’re championship teams by making the gargantuan effort to get their cars back on track.
The alternative could mean a race ending with five, six or seven cars running. No matter what you think of plate racing, we can all agree 30 DNFs isn’t good for the sport.
Did You Notice? … The rookie of the year battle is still anybody’s race? Erik Jones and Daniel Suarez continue to wage a quiet slugfest for the award. Suarez, who was in contention late in Talladega, has closed to within six points, 256-250, after Jones had a sizzling summer.
In fact, Jones could have put this award away if he’d closed the deal on a dominating performance at Bristol Motor Speedway. But a second-place run left the door open, and Suarez has used the playoffs to close the gap. The driver of the No. 19 Toyota has earned five straight top-15 finishes, including that Talladega near-win, to steadily chip away at his deficit.
The tracks ahead appear to favor Suarez, too. He had seventh-place finishes at Kansas Speedway and Phoenix International Raceway earlier this year while excelling at Homestead-Miami Speedway in the XFINITY Series. Jones, by comparison, was 22nd at Kansas and Texas Motor Speedway while losing last year’s Homestead title battle to Suarez.
This one will clearly come down to the wire. The difference could be how focused Jones’ No. 77 team remains at Furniture Row Racing. The team is on the verge of its first title with Martin Truex Jr. while its second car is preparing to suspend operations. Will Jones keep getting the resources he needs to hold off Suarez down the stretch?
Did You Notice? … Quick hits before taking off.
- Lost in the shuffle this week is a court decision where former driver Justin Boston was ordered to pay Kyle Busch Motorsports nearly $500,000. The 28-year-old’s breach of contract occurred when his father’s company, Zloop, stopped paying KBM money for Boston to keep driving. It’s a notable case study for NASCAR owners in an era where rich families have increasing influence. Relying on parents is another downside to money trumping talent when it comes to picking who’s driving your car.
- Everyone seems to be writing off Kansas as a boring racetrack for Sunday’s Cup Series elimination. I don’t think we’re giving this 1.5-mile oval enough credit. The track has had its share of quirky finishes in recent years; think back to Carl Edwards tagging the wall in 2008 or Greg Biffle’s win despite crossing the line second. Add in the ugly spring wreck we saw there sidelining Aric Almirola, and there’s still potential for an unpredictable Sunday.