Who… gets my shoutout of the race?
While David Ragan was putting on a restrictor-plate driving clinic, he’s strong enough that it’s almost expected that he’ll run well. He finished sixth for a Front Row Motorsports team which rarely cracks the top 20.
Less expected was the strong run of another driver, who, while his car certainly has a reputation at Talladega, hasn’t had much experience in top equipment. But there was Alex Bowman, leading 26 laps, second-most of the day to race winner Joey Logano. The crowd on hand was behind Bowman and his No. 88 ride, and he backed up his 11th-place start with an eighth-place finish, his third top 10 so far in 2018.
What… is the takeaway from this race?
Calling a restrictor-plate race a crapshoot is, in one sense, accurate. After all, it doesn’t matter how good a plate driver one is if they get taken out by someone else, and that happens all too often. Drivers who might’ve made a charge and made for a great finish get wiped out before they have a chance to try.
But plate racing is a skill, and while some of the best plate racers in recent years have left the sport, there are still plenty of drivers who are fun to watch at superspeedways because they know how to work the field and make it look easy. These drivers, if they can survive the typical plate-track carnage, are the ones less experienced drivers want to follow, because they’ll pull them to the front. Ragan is a good example; he has an improbable win for Front Row Motorsports and grabbed another great finish Sunday.
Also, Talladega is crazy hard on drivers. One helmet cam showed how much the cars shake and bounce at speed, and it didn’t look like a whole lot of fun for the driver. It may look like they’re just riding, but I’d bet they’re all sore on Monday from the beating they take.
Where… did Joey Logano come from?
It’s been 36 long races since Logano last visited Victory Lane, stretching all the way back to last spring at Richmond, and that win was tainted by a violation. NASCAR took away the automatic playoff bid that should have come with it, the closest the sanctioning body will come to stripping the win completely. Logano started ninth, best of the three Team Penske cars, all of which were strong Sunday, though he was the only one who made it through unscathed for his fourth career restrictor-plate win and his third in the last six races at Talladega. Last year’s penalty seemed to take the wind out of Logano’s sails. Will this win put it back in and propel him on a winning streak?
When… was the moment of truth?
Restrictor-plate racing has long been known for its multi-car pileups. They’re almost inevitable, and many fans find them exciting, if not completely nerve-wracking. But in recent races, the Big Ones haven’t always been kicked off by one driver getting into another. Instead, what’s triggered many big crashes has been simple aerodynamics. A car gets loose trying to pass another and around it goes.
To be fair, it’s not entirely a superspeedway problem as cars get aero loose at intermediate tracks as well. But it’s certainly more magnified because at a plate track, it’s a lot more likely to take our cars numbering in the double digits, and it’s really not a lot of fun to watch a race determined by air. Yet that’s what happened in a late-race pileup that involved more than a dozen cars, set off when William Byron’s nose and Jimmie Johnson’s left rear quarter panel got a little too close. The cars never touched, but the result was the same as if they had.
Maybe none of them would have challenged Logano, but it’s hard to say for sure. It’s definitely something NASCAR should be working on with the plate package because drivers should be able to make clean passes without wiping out half of the field. It’s one thing if a driver slips up and spins someone, but it’s another when nobody makes a mistake.
Why… didn’t last year’s Talladega dominator, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. pull it off?
Stenhouse was in the thick of things all afternoon, showing that his two wins last year were the real deal. He looked to be in good position to make a charge in the closing laps, but as we’ve seen at Daytona and Talladega lately, the leader is no longer the sitting duck. Logano had the preferred bottom line, and nobody could mount a strong enough charge on the outside… and really, nobody tried. Until the final lap, drivers were unwilling to make a move to pass Logano, and by then it was too late to get organized. Just about everyone tried to pull out of line at once. Fortunately, they didn’t trigger a pileup, but there was no chance for anyone to make a pass, and Logano rolled to the win.
Had Stenhouse had help to make a move, he looked strong enough to charge to the front, so it’s a bit surprising that someone, or a few someones, didn’t back him up on a late move.
How… come NASCAR changed the restrictor plate at the 11th hour?
While it might seem that reducing the size of the restrictor plate at the last minute would throw a wrench in the works, it really doesn’t change much. We’re talking a difference of roughly 12-15 horsepower, good for a few miles an hour. Cars were turning laps of over 200 on Friday in practice, about 203 mph or so, and that’s flirting with problems. The faster the cars go, the less stability they have, and it’s already plenty easy for cars to get turned and get airborne.
That happened to Jamie McMurray on Friday and resulted in a scary-looking crash. McMurray explained afterward why those kinds of crashes are so scary, and his barrel-rolling car doesn’t look like a very fun ride.
McMurray was OK, but there is always a bit of an air of “this time” when a driver walks away, especially at a plate track. Obviously, the changes made didn’t affect the racing, or the Big One, much, but there’s long been a line in the sand at lap speeds of over 200, and NASCAR stood firm.