Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway, just two of the remaining 12 playoff drivers — winner Brad Keselowski and Denny Hamlin — and 14 of the 40-car field finished the race, with just four cars not listed as involved in an on-track incident. Does this race belong in the playoffs?
Amy Henderson: It doesn’t belong on the schedule, let alone in the playoffs. I’m all for all types of tracks being represented, and plate racing is a skill that not all drivers have, but unless and until NASCAR can do something about the plate package, all this brand of racing is one big crapshoot, and that has no place determining a champion. If they went back to the package from a couple years ago when tandems could move around and get out of trouble, maybe, but the current package takes out more deserving drivers than it showcases talent. You want excitement? Swap it with Richmond Raceway and make it the last regular season race. Anyone who really deserves to be in the playoffs is locked in at that point anyway, and it could make for a last-minute inclusion of someone interesting.
Christian Koelle: Talladega has every reason to be in the playoffs. Talladega is a superspeedway, so it’s one of the diverse tracks that a driver has to conquer or at least perform well at. Sunday’s race was a demolition derby, but it takes a championship effort to rise above all of the trials that are thrown at you, whether it’s a penalty on pit road or the Big One at Talladega. It’s all about how drivers approach the race. Look at last year, for example; 37 cars finished the race running. That means Sunday was just something special.
Bryan Gable: Absolutely. It is important to have a variety of tracks in the postseason that represent a relatively accurate cross-section of the kinds of places at which NASCAR races. That includes restrictor plate tracks. There may be a lot of variables outside of a driver’s control at Talladega, but that should not count as a strike against the Alabama track. This is the highest level of professional stock car racing in the United States. Winning a championship is supposed to be difficult.
Michael Massie: It absolutely belongs. The playoffs are supposed to be the most exciting time of the season. The first two playoff races at Chicagoland Speedway and New Hampshire Motor Speedway were only good for catching up on sleep. That is what you call being not worthy of the playoffs. The restrictor plate package is the best thing NASCAR has to offer right now. If NASCAR decided to lessen the clean air advantage at other tracks then that would not be the case, but they love the clean air advantage for some reason, so plate racing will remain the best. Besides, only having 14 cars finish is about as throwback as a race today can get. NASCAR is about endurance, and in the early days, it took skill and a whole lot of luck to finish a race, let alone win it.
As the season winds down, there are still a lot of unanswered Silly Season questions. Which remaining driver and open seat would be the best match for 2018?
Koelle: Darrell Wallace, Jr. to Richard Petty Motorsports would be best for business. Richard Petty Motorsports needs a reset, and Wallace would be the perfect fresh face for the series and team. Just don’t expect a lot out of the combination in its first season.
Gable: The best possible combination, hands down, would be Matt Kenseth going to the No. 10 car at Stewart-Haas Racing. Do not let Kenseth’s age fool you. He remains one of the best drivers in NASCAR and can still compete for wins with the right organization. Perhaps more importantly, Kenseth is a veteran racer who knows how to elevate the performance of the people around him. Joe Gibbs Racing’s run of dominance in the last few years probably would not have happened, or would not have been so successful, without Kenseth. He could do the same thing with Stewart-Haas, if only for a year or two. Unfortunately, SHR likely has other plans for the No. 10 car.
Massie: It would be interesting to see Aric Almirola get in the No. 10. His current sponsor Smithfield Foods is heading to that car, so it would make sense for him to follow. It would be intriguing because Stewart-Haas Racing has great equipment; we would find out if the struggles of the No. 43 are Almirola’s or Richard Petty Motorsports’ fault. Almirola almost made the playoffs two years ago, but this year, with the exception of the restrictor plate races, he was outperformed by Wallace. Since his return, Almirola has seemed to lack aggression. We will find out what type of talent he really has if he gets in the No. 10.
Henderson: What I’d really like to see is either Landon Cassill or Michael McDowell in the No. 10. Kenseth is in a position where his veteran presence would help a team like Front Row Motorsports more than it would a bigger team, and assuming Kurt Busch stays put, these two are the most talented drivers still available, and either one would contend for wins in a top ride. I know it’s unlikely to happen, but it would be really cool to see pure talent and not backing as the decider on a top ride or two.
Despite a nice cushion of playoff points, Kyle Busch is one of the drivers in danger of missing the next round after a couple of rough races at Charlotte Motor Speedway and Talladega. Will Busch rebound at Kansas Speedway to make the cut, and if so, at whose expense?
Gable: Kyle Busch is in a tight spot, but the No. 18 team should still have confidence going into Kansas. Busch has been one of the drivers to beat on the intermediate tracks for the last several weeks. As long as he has not lost any speed, he will find a way to advance. On the other hand, Ryan Blaney is the most likely driver to fall below the cut line if Busch avoids elimination. The No. 21 team was fantastic at Kansas earlier this year, but its strength has faded quite a bit since then. Blaney has not scored a top five since winning at Pocono Raceway back in June. He and the Wood Brothers have had a great run, but their championship hopes could very well end on Sunday.
Massie: Barring a fluke, Busch and Martin Truex, Jr. are the only two with any shot at winning Kansas. Busch will do what it takes to win and move one while Truex will be overly cautious one week after wrecking half the field. Busch will advance at the expense of Kenseth, who really has not showed winning speed all year despite the Toyota advantage.
Henderson: Face it, this race is for Busch or Truex to lose. Sure, you could have someone like Denny Hamlin in that mix, and Kevin Harvick might make a little noise, but does anyone really expect this race to play out any differently than any other intermediate race has lately? The one wild card is Jimmie Johnson. He has run better since the playoffs started (shocker, I know), but he hasn’t really looked like a winner. He needs to score a top five to solidify his own spot, and it’s hard to count him out of that, especially since he’s the active win leader at Kansas. How Johnson runs determines Busch’s fate if Busch can’t seal his own destiny with the win, and it will be Johnson going home if Busch does pull it off.
Koelle: It all depends on if Truex dominates on Sunday or not. Those two have been the class of the field, so it would be in Truex’s best interest to work to eliminate the No. 18, really one of the only drivers that could go and steal the championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
It’s likely NASCAR will mandate a standard air gun on pit road after several teams have made modifications to their tools. Good move for competition, or is it a step in the wrong direction when every area is so tightly controlled?
Massie: As a fan of innovation and creativity, I hate this move. Let these crew chiefs and engineers do what they are best at.
Henderson: I have mixed feelings here. I really think a lot of areas need to be opened up for teams to work in rather than tightened down further, but those should be mechanical areas on the cars, like gears and shocks. The small teams don’t have time or manpower to spend souping up impact wrenches, so a standard gun would make pit stops about the best crewmen and not the best tools, and I’m OK with it from that standpoint.
Koelle: This should level the playing field, and it’s a good move if it does that. It’s still going to be in the hands of the pit crews no matter what.
Gable: Mandating a standard air gun does not bother me. In theory, if everyone is using the same equipment on pit road, the difference in pit stop times will come down to the skill of the crews. NASCAR should not go crazy with regulation, but this is a small change in the long run.