Who… gets my shoutout of the race?
Johnson spun early and recovered to seventh, while Menard had a couple of issues, losing two laps before coming back to finish ninth. Some will argue that they only got their laps back because of the free pass. That’s not incorrect, but by the same token, the days of putting drivers’ lives in danger by allowing them to race back to the yellow are over. And this is better than trapping cars a lap down who may well have gotten them back under the old rule. It’s silly to put a driver down for playing by the rules he’s given and making the most of them. Hate the game, not the players.
If you don’t like the fact that Johnson and Menard had a good run because you don’t like the rules, how about a part-time team making the race the old-fashioned way, on speed, and then had a strong finish?
Owner Mark Beard’s little team has only raced four times this season but has finished in the top 12 in the last two, with Brendan Gaughan finishing 12th this week as well as at Daytona in July. The sport needs to see small teams have success, and this self-sponsored little organization has found some in the unlikeliest of circumstances. And they’ll be back for some races next year, with Gaughan at the wheel.
— Beard Oil Motorsports (@beardoil75) October 14, 2018
What… is the takeaway from this race?
In this column last week, there was a discussion of the lack of unpredictability in many NASCAR races, and the need to find ways to return that sense of anything could happen. But does Talladega provide that anyway?
No. Talladega (and Daytona) might seem like they’ll be a wild-west change from the ordinary, providing underdogs a chance to win. To an extent, that is true, and you usually see a different face or two in the top 10. But that different face rarely wins, and the big crashes are the most predictable thing in NASCAR. At least one is going to happen, and the only real mystery is on which lap. This race didn’t feature a pileup of a dozen or more cars, but the late-race carnage that did happen was all too familiar and totally expected.
What the predictability of crashes at superspeedways illustrates is that they have no place in a title format where someone else’s mistake can ruin even the best driver’s title hopes in a flash.
While restrictor-plate (or whatever it’s going to be next year) racing is a skill that some drivers have more of than others, it’s too much of a crapshoot in its current form to decide who’s a deserving champion.
On the other hand, it would be the perfect setup race as the last race of the regular season.
No, really. By race 26, the majority of the playoff field has long since been determined, and the drivers truly deserving of a title have long been locked in. A surprise winner at Talladega could knock out the last guy in on points if he hasn’t got a win, but at that point, is that driver really a deserving champion, hanging on in 15th or 16th in points? Not really.
And while a winner from outside the top 16 isn’t either, reality says that driver isn’t going to contend anyway, and likely neither was the one hanging on in points. But it would provide a story that’s different from the same old, same old.
That’s if it happens. Again, history shows the underdogs can run with the big boys at the superspeedways but rarely go all the way for the win. Still, the illusion that Talladega lends some unpredictability to the mix might make it the best candidate for that last-chance cutoff race, without taking away the title hopes of the real contenders. Sounds like an all-around better situation.
Where… did Aric Almirola come from?
Almirola did everything right on Sunday. He worked with his Stewart-Haas Racing teammates all day and on the final restart was aggressive enough to be in position to steam past teammate Kurt Busch when he ran out of gas. From there, nobody was going to get past the hungry Almirola.
Almirola is an excellent restrictor-plate racer and was able to save enough fuel to finish and then hold off the pack behind him coming to the checkers.
The four SHR cars were in a class of their own all day, and it was apparent early that if they were able to execute their plan from start to finish, it would be settled among them. Busch and Kevin Harvick lost the fuel gamble, but Almirola and Clint Bowyer took the top two spots and made the team the only four-car organization to put every car in Victory Lane this season.
Almirola’s 2018 season is the kind of story everyone wants to see. It’s been a long time coming as Almirola has struggled with underfunded teams until joining SHR this season and immediately hinting that in a top car, he was a whole different driver. A driver who worked hard, got a better ride and worked his way to a win and title contention: isn’t that exactly what this sport was built on?
When… was the moment of truth?
When Jamie McMurray’s car got squirrely and he threw a huge block on Paul Menard, forcing Menard’s No. 21 below the yellow line, NASCAR enforced the rule against that, penalizing McMurray. That’s a relatively rare move; while quick to nab drivers who drop down there to gain position (and often even if they don’t actually gain), NASCAR is generally slow to pull the trigger on the black flag for drivers who push others below the line.
It was a positive to see the rules enforced as written, but this rule is nearly impossible to do that too much of the time. McMurray’s move was blatant, but what of the driver who is subtler, pressing another low and preventing a pass. Sure, it’s a strategy move, but by the rule, it’s not any more acceptable than the one who does it blatantly. The problem is, NASCAR doesn’t make the call more often than they do, but they call the drivers who go below the line, forced or not, whether they actually gained position or not, at the least hint of a tire below the line.
And it’s not necessarily that they shouldn’t, but sometimes a bit more review would be called for. Notify the team that there is a review, but take time to analyze the video before making the final call because once a penalty is handed out, it most likely won’t be rescinded, even if it was incorrect. NASCAR owes it to the competitors to be absolutely sure the calls they make are the right ones.
Why… didn’t polesitter Kurt Busch pull it off?
As good as the SHR teams were, it was a bit of a surprise when they didn’t pit on a caution with 28 laps to go. All four were very close on fuel if the race came to its scheduled conclusion, and Talladega tends not to end at the scheduled distance. Plus, they had so much speed it’s hard to think they couldn’t get back to the front in that many laps. Yes, the caution laps gave a bit of mileage cushion, but overtime would still be a stretch. And sure enough, there was overtime. Busch was the strongest of the SHR group for most of the day, leading 108 laps. He was leading coming to the white flag and finished 14th because he ran out of gas on the last lap and it’s a long, long way back to the start-finish line at Talladega.
Busch was quick to place the blame on NASCAR’s shoulders, citing the decision to extend the final caution by one lap and then to not throw the caution and freeze the field when a couple of cars toward the back of the field crashed in Turn 1, which would have preserved the win for Busch.
Was that fair? Maybe. Extending the caution was likely a safety call for something Busch didn’t see or to make sure the track was clean. Not throwing the yellow to get an ambulance to those drivers is a valid concern, if indeed a yellow at that point in the race would have made a difference in the response time. The field was already ahead of the incident, and the next time around would be the cool-down lap with cars slowing anyway. It is a questionable call, but right or wrong, one NASCAR has made fairly consistently in recent restrictor-plate races. Had Busch hung on to win, it’s unlikely he’d have been as concerned with the situation.
How… likely is it that the final eight are set in the playoffs?
Last round, it was close, and with the uncertainty of the Charlotte infield road course, no done deal for at least two of the bottom four. But this time, with 1.5-mile cookie-cutter Kansas up next and 18 points separating Martin Truex Jr. in seventh and Brad Keselowski in ninth, it’ll take a win from someone below the cut line (or a disaster for someone above) to move on. Keselowski is just one point behind eighth-place Chase Elliott, but Elliott’s win at Dover gives him a ticket ahead.
With Kyle Larson and Keselowski both in danger of the cut, you’ll certainly see that group go all out and do everything they can to win. Unfortunately for them, though, even if one wins, the others are probably out of luck, because all the top eight need to do is ride around and have a decent, uneventful day. Not that they won’t try to win, but they won’t take risks to do it if they aren’t among the three already locked into the next round.
Two of this season’s heavy hitters, Kevin Harvick and Truex, are among the Kansas wins leaders. Harvick is tied with Johnson for most among active drivers with three, and Truex has won two of the last three at the track. Keselowski has one win at Kansas, but Larson, Ryan Blaney and Alex Bowman don’t have that experience. Keselowski is fourth among active drivers with his 13.2 average finish, with Blaney just behind him with a 13.9. Larson is 19th in that category with a 19.1; Bowman’s average is a miserable 27.7 though most of his races came in a backmarker car.
Keselowski probably has the best chance to make something happen. He’s had a recent hot streak with a win to open the playoffs, and he’s the best of the bottom four at Kansas. But he can only make his own luck, and that means anything short of a win may well not be good enough.