Who … should you be talking about after the race?
Ryan Blaney led three different times at Talladega Superspeedway for a total of 35 laps, but the third time was the charm as he took the checkered flag inches ahead of Ryan Newman thanks to a timely shove from superspeedway specialist Aric Almirola on the final trip down the frontstretch. Blaney took the Dent Wizard Ford to the winner’s circle — certainly an appropriate sponsor in a race at Talladega that saw a total of 27 cars involved in at least one incident.
Blaney’s win saves his 2019 season. Entering the race, Blaney was 22 points below the cut line for the next round of the playoffs. With elimination looming next week at Kansas Speedway, the win ensures that Blaney will move on, joining Kyle Larson in enjoying locked-in status.
It was a good day for drivers named Ryan as the top non-playoff finisher this week was runner-up Newman, who had a great restart with two laps to go, challenging leader Blaney all the way to the wire. While he never officially led a lap in that exchange, Newman, who was eliminated from playoff contention at Charlotte, looked like he might have an advantage on the white-flag lap as a couple of cars spun behind him and the field, but Blaney was able to take advantage of Almirola’s help coming to the checkered flag. Still, it’s his best finish of 2019.
What … is the takeaway from this race?
It appears as though manufacturer’s orders have supplanted team orders at superspeedways. From a racing standpoint, it’s hard to police that for NASCAR. And in reality, it’ll sort out when it needs to in terms of the outcome of the race because drivers will make the decisions leading to their own best finish when push comes to shove. Had Blaney been in a Chevrolet or Toyota, it’s pretty likely he’d still have gotten the shove from Almirola simply because Almirola was in it for himself and his best finish was going to come from pushing Blaney.
The problem is that the orders are being made behind closed doors, and as was evidenced after a Chevrolet meeting during Sunday’s rain delay, they’re top secret. Still not really an issue in the grand scheme of things as far as being told to help each other. But if they were told to follow a specific driver (likely a playoff driver) to the point of sacrificing their own race, it does become wrong in a hurry.
In any case, it didn’t work out for the Chevys in the end as their strategy may have cost them. Twice, several were decimated in big multi-car crashes because they were running in a tight group. Some of the teams whose days were ended are teams who have in the past employed the strategy of hanging back. Had they been able to do that, they might have finished at worst and won at best. The best hope is that this issue will continue to police itself in the future.
Where … were the other key players at the end?
Spring Talladega winner and polesitter Chase Elliott had a strong car, leading 19 laps, but suffered damage in the first multi-car incident of the day. While the No. 9 team was able to keep him on track, Elliott didn’t lead again after the crash and finished ninth, leaving him in danger of playoff elimination next week.
Active Talladega wins leader Brad Keselowski just might be the most skilled superspeedway racer in the Cup Series right now, but even that didn’t allow him to escape the mayhem. Keselowski got collected in a lap 183 incident and took home a 25th-place finish to show for his efforts.
This is starting to sound like a bad rerun, but last week’s winner Larson was also collected in the lap 108 melee that Elliott was involved in. But unlike Elliott, Larson was done for the day with heavy damage to the No. 42. He ended the day scored 39th.
Martin Truex Jr. entered the weekend with the points lead, but surrendered it to teammate Denny Hamlin after suffering damage on the lap 108 tangle. Truex finished 26th and leaves Talladega trailing Hamlin by eight points.
When … was the moment of truth?
Watching superspeedway races is like watching horror movies. You know it’s coming, there’s nothing you can do to stop it, so all you can do is wait for it and hope it’s not your favorite character who buys it. What speedway racing too often boils down to in recent years is who survives the multi-car wrecks. While getting to the finish is always a part of the game and should be, at Talladega and Daytona, that’s based a whole lot more on luck than skill (and even moreso if manufacturers continue to force race strategy on teams, not allowing anyone to run at the back). Luck should be part of the game in racing, but not the majority of it.
And most of the time anymore, the crashes aren’t even due to mistakes so much as aerodynamics — when cars don’t have to touch for one to be pulled around, that’s not fun to watch. The racing is side by side and that’s exciting, but it’s hard to enjoy a race because it’s only a matter of waiting for the other shoe to drop. Speedway racing is a skill, and a good speedway driver is brilliant to watch … but that brilliance should have a reward in it, and even being the leader doesn’t make a driver safe from the roulette wheel.
Why … should you be paying attention this week?
It’s elimination week for the playoff drivers as the Cup Series heads to Kansas. Facing the cut right now are Alex Bowman, Elliott, Clint Bowyer and William Byron, and they’re all in fairly deep trouble. Bowman sits 18 points behind Joey Logano for the last spot, with 12th-place Byron 27 back. If Logano has a terrible day at Kansas, Bowman could capitalize with a top five, or one of the four could erase any doubt with a win (and Elliott is the defending race winner). But it’s most likely going to be the end of the line for at least three of these drivers. That could include all three of the Hendrick Motorsports entries, leaving Larson as Chevrolet’s only hope.
How … come NASCAR doesn’t give up on the yellow line rule?
The rule seemed like a good idea at the time. The purpose was to stop drivers from using the apron on the straightaways and then trying to blend back into traffic entering the corners, a practice that wasn’t uncommon and didn’t always end well. But the problems started almost immediately: NASCAR has penalized some drivers, but not others, for violations, rarely calls a driver for forcing another down below the line, and has penalized drivers whose wheels dipped below the line but who did not gain any positions doing so. For a rule that sounds fairly black-and-white on paper, it has been anything but in practice.
In Saturday’s Truck Series race, Johnny Sauter was penalized, and correctly so per the rule, for forcing a charging Riley Herbst below the line en route to the checkered flag. But on Monday, it certainly looked as though Newman was the cause of Blaney dropping his left-side wheels below the line for a time coming to the finish.
Why wasn’t Newman penalized when Sauter was? In one breath, NASCAR cleared Blaney as the winner because he was forced — a good call, but if he was forced,then by definition, someone had to force him. That was Newman, but NASCAR ruled that it was “less egregious” than Sauter’s move on Saturday. While that is true, the rule simply addresses forcing a car below the line, not levels of that. By their rule book and based on the call in the Truck race, Newman should have been penalized. But that doesn’t really feel right either. Frankly, neither did Sauter’s penalty by racing standards.
The problem is, can you really lift a rule only from turn 4 to the finish line only on the final lap? On one hand, the reason for the rule is more or less erased by the situation — they aren’t going to be racing into turn 1 at full throttle. But does that make it okay to have one rule for 187.75 laps and a different one for just a quarter of a lap?
The best thing to do is to either allow the situation to work itself out over time — drivers can find ways to send a strong message about bad driving and trying to blend into traffic in the corners is bad driving — or find another way to discourage it. I’d be willing to bet if drivers knew they would be black-flagged and parked for trying to blend in the corners, they’d stop doing it. Heck, slap on a $25,000 fine for every car that gets damaged if they do. The rule as it stands is a pre-emptive strike that penalizes everyone the ability to race for wins for the actions of a few. Time to change that.