ONE: A Cautionary Tale
It’s hard to explain NASCAR’s model for how they throw a caution on the final lap of a race. Perhaps this GIF will help.
Sunday (Oct. 14), NASCAR felt the wreck was clear enough the cars could race back to the start/finish line. That’s consistent with their call in February’s Daytona 500 when Austin Dillon and Aric Almirola tangled on the last lap. The push behind the scenes appears to be to give what NASCAR feels the fans want, finishing the race under green except in extraordinary circumstances.
But it’s also 180 degrees different from what they did literally the day before. Talladega’s NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race finished its last half-lap under caution once Noah Gragson wrecked at the front of the field. The incident was literally around the same point on the white-flag lap where Almirola was turned sideways back at Daytona.
What’s the difference? NASCAR Vice President Steve O’Donnell tried to explain on SIRIUS XM’s The Morning Drive.
“Two different races and every race is different,” he explained. “Every call is a judgment call. The (incident) on Saturday was in front of the field, you saw a couple of wheels get off the ground. Any time you’re going to have more and more of the field driving into that caution, we felt the need in that case to throw the caution. We always want to try to end under green, but in that case we just felt like we couldn’t.”
That’s weird, because Almirola’s wreck in February was also in front of the field. Perhaps the difference was not as many cars got involved? In each case, the big pack would not go past the incident a second time at full speed. Safety crews could jump right into action without fear of getting hit.
But as O’Donnell said, it’s a judgment call by NASCAR officials. That’s part of the problem.
How did Sunday’s wreck factor in?
“Very similar in terms of a car hitting the wall,” O’Donnell added. “But where it happened was different and in terms of where the field was. The No. 32 car (Matt DiBenedetto) then kept rolling, which is certainly a sign for us that we’re OK to keep going. The No. 9 car (Chase Elliott) where it stopped (on the grass inside the turn) was right in front of our safety vehicles and had communication from the tower that car was in good shape, so we elected to not throw the caution and finish under green.
“You could say in this case that could have gone either way and could have. Our first job is to always make sure everybody is safe, and we felt we did that in this case. Certainly go back and review it as we do but stand by the call and thought it was the right one.”
Here’s the problem for NASCAR, one we’ve seen ever since Mark Martin hesitated just that little bit coming off Turn 4 of the 2007 Daytona 500. Officials making the call means drivers have no idea what scenario they’re faced with each time. Should they slow down the second a crash happens? Or should they gun the accelerator, safety be damned, like their life depends on it? There’s no hard and fast rule which drives winners turned victims (in this case, Kurt Busch) downright crazy.
“Consistency in the officiating is all I can ask for,” he tweeted Sunday night, referencing the Truck race as an example. “At the end, when there’s a wreck and the ambulance needs to be dispatched, I’ve been on the other side of that where I was racing, coming back to win the race and they said, ‘Well, we need to dispatch an ambulance.’
“There were two cars dead in the water there. Chase Elliott’s safety was of my concern and so was the No. 32 car. It’s a human call. But there’s rules that need to be stricter at the end of these races.”
All that controversy and we haven’t even discussed the bizarre five-lap caution period that set up NASCAR Overtime in the first place. Cleanup for a minimal, five-car wreck off Turn 4 took just as long as the 14-car Big One which happened here back in the spring. It’s yet another human element which has a disproportionate effect on the outcome of races.
But the last-lap stuff? That’s all preventable. NASCAR needs to make a choice. They either go with, last lap, anything goes and deal with the potential safety risks or create a hard and fast rule. The gray officiating area in between isn’t fair to both competitors or fans.
TWO: Ford’s Phenomenal Plate Racing Success
It wasn’t just Stewart-Haas Racing who had a record-setting day at Talladega. Fords ran inside the top seven spots almost all afternoon, eventually sweeping the podium with Almirola, Clint Bowyer and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. It was their seventh straight MENCS win here and 10th victory overall in the last 13 restrictor plate races.
What’s got the Blue Ovals running circles around the competition? Simple: teamwork. The ability for their drivers to stick together, sparked by Team Penske and perfected by Stewart-Haas Racing this weekend has been second to none. It’s much harder to pass four cars in the draft instead of one and that freight train speed was on full display most of the race.
But I’d also argue Ford has the best plate racers sitting on their roster. Brad Keselowski leads all active drivers with five Talladega wins. Stenhouse won at both Daytona and Talladega last year; that Roush Yates horsepower built in house really comes in handy here. Their roster also includes Daytona 500 winners Kevin Harvick, Joey Logano and Trevor Bayne along with underfunded sleeper David Ragan.
The number of Ford drivers mentioned in that paragraph alone equaled Toyota’s entire roster Sunday (six cars). It limits the Camry’s ability to create such a bulletproof, conga line draft on track. And Chevrolet, despite having the most drivers has also lost its plate race experts in recent years. Both Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon won multiple Daytona 500s; Earnhardt always entered Talladega the man to beat. The Bowtie Brigade badly misses their veteran presence.
At least 2019 will even the playing field with new rules and a tapered spacer following the Daytona 500. For all of Ford’s main rivals, the adjustment can’t come fast enough.
THREE: As The Keselowski Crumbles
There’s clear championship separation after Talladega with 18 points between reigning NASCAR champ Martin Truex Jr., and the playoff cutline. One of the four drivers below it, Alex Bowman, is so far back he needs to win to have a chance.
A winless Kyle Larson, in the midst of a disappointing year is also way back on the grid. Charlotte winner Ryan Blaney joins him there in what’s been an underwhelming performance the past two weeks. But Brad Keselowski? Sitting on the wrong side of the bubble just four races removed from three straight wins? Now that’s a bit of a surprise.
Turns out Keselowski was bitten by bad luck. There was the ROVAL wreck in which he went from race winner to chicken dinner with one inexplicable turn. Then came Dover’s late-race incident, involved in someone else’s mess before the confusing ‘Dega ending where he ran out of gas. Just like that, last year’s Championship 4 participant is on the verge of watching 2018’s Homestead-Miami festivities unfold without him.
“It’s certainly not ideal,” he said. “But it is what it is.”
Another title miss puts Keselowski six years removed from his only championship. He’s only made the final group once under the current format. During that span, he’s won 18 times and captured 11 poles, top-five numbers among active drivers. His pairing with Paul Wolfe will also become the longest tenured driver-crew chief marriage in 2019. All the pieces are there for the No. 2 team to get it done.
Sure, lady Luck hasn’t been playing nice. But this group still has not executed points-wise the way we might have expected after 2012.
FOUR: And Then There Were Six
Saturday’s Fr8 Auctions 250 marked the final race in the first round of the Camping World Truck Series playoffs. Entering Talladega Superspeedway, Justin Haley and Grant Enfinger had already locked themselves into the Round of 6 with victories at Canadian Tire Motorsports Park and Las Vegas Motor Speedway, respectively. But the rest of the playoff drivers were vulnerable to the unpredictability this 2.66-mile oval brings.
The race itself wound up ten times better than Cup. After a relatively calm first two stages that went green until the stage breaks, action started to heat up and intensity increased. With two laps remaining in stage two, Brett Moffitt and Tanner Thorson got together, heavily damaging the right side of the No. 16 Toyota. Despite the damage, Moffitt was able to continue competing, and a later spin by Thorson put him back on the lead lap.
Running inside the top five as the laps wound down, Moffitt looked like he would cruise to an easy berth in the Round of 6 until a flat tire sent him down pit road for an unscheduled pit stop that ultimately dropped him to a 17th-place finish. But thanks to the 27 playoff points he earned earlier in the season, Moffitt’s championship hopes remained alive as he ended the race eight points above the cutoff line.
Meanwhile, Stewart Friesen, who entered the race on the outside looking in, started from the rear and was unable to race his way into the top 10 in either stage. Once the final stage began, Friesen suffered motor problems that made it nearly impossible to keep up with the pack. The team was unable to diagnose the issues completely, and while he was able to continue to a sixth-place finish, Friesen’s playoffs ended with him five points below the cutoff line.
When the Big One hit on lap 60, it collected Haley, Johnny Sauter, Ben Rhodes and Matt Crafton, among others. Crafton was out on the spot and Sauter only completed 73 laps before calling it a day. Luckily, he had 42 playoff points that helped provide a cushion and keep him safe from Talladega uncertainty.
Crafton was left to sit out the rest of the race. He was waiting and wondering whether he had enough points to stay above the cutoff line. But Rhodes, who was still running despite a heavily damaged No. 41 Ford, was unable to get his lap back and finished 16th. That was low enough to keep him four points outside the top six. As it turned out, the 16 stage points Crafton gathered by finished fourth and second in the first two stages were just enough to help keep his championship hopes alive.
With just a handful of laps remaining, Enfinger spun off David Gilliland’s front bumper and was taken out of contention for the win. Even without his Las Vegas victory, though, he still had enough of a point cushion to move on.
When the white flag flew, Noah Gragson remained as the lone playoff driver who hadn’t faced some sort of issue on the day. But with about a half-lap remaining, he got turned in a tense battle for the lead with eventual winner Timothy Peters. The spin triggered a multi-truck wreck that ended the race under caution and sent Gragson’s truck home on a tow truck.
I had so much fun today racing at @TalladegaSuperS in my @safelite #Tundra! Leading and got turned with 1/2 a lap to go but it’s all good! Moving on to the next round of the playoffs! Thankful for the opportunity! pic.twitter.com/8NRS8dEqVx
— Noah Gragson (@NoahGragson) October 13, 2018
The Truck Series now takes a weekend off before heading to Martinsville Speedway to kick off the Round of 6. Thanks to a bank of 42 playoff points, Sauter remains the standings leader by 15 markers over Moffitt. Gragson sits third with Enfinger fourth. Haley and Crafton currently sit below the cutline for the Championship 4 by four and 15 points, respectively.
FIVE: Wendell Chavous Goes Out on Top
Last Monday, rookie driver Wendell Chavous put out a long letter on his social media outlets announcing the Truck Series’ race at Talladega Superspeedway would be his final one. The 33-year-old made the difficult decision to hang up his helmet in favor of living life away from the track after considering his young son’s budding go-kart racing career, business interests and family.
Chavous started his final race behind the wheel of the No. 49 Sobriety Nation Chevrolet 32nd after narrowly making the field thanks to owner points. After avoiding the Big One, Chavous hung on to the lead pack. He escaped the last-lap melee and even crossed the start/finish line first to take the yellow and checkered flags. But with the field frozen at the point of caution, Chavous had to settle with a career-best fifth.
“They always say it’s better that you leave when you’re on top instead of being in the back,” Chavous said. “It’s sad. I’ll miss these guys. But I’m not saying I won’t never be back again. I just have other more important things to take care of in my life right now.”
Going out on top is right. Whether Chavous returns to the sport or enjoys life away from the track enough to stay away, no one can take away the first and perhaps only top-five run of his NASCAR career.