1: Spoilers vs. drivers
Talladega Superspeedway rightfully gets attention for its tendency to cause the Big One. But this particular trip to Alabama the weekend of April 24-25 managed to avoid the kind of multi-car mayhem that knocks a third of the field out in one fell swoop — in both the NASCAR Xfinity and Cup series races, in fact. Yet the 2021 GEICO 500 still caused a scary accident that sent Joey Logano upside down, then through the air into oncoming traffic.
You’ve undoubtedly seen it by now, but the in-car footage from Bubba Wallace is absolutely harrowing and worth another look.
Bubba Wallace's view of the Joey Logano flip is incredible. pic.twitter.com/P9RY4ho8OM
— FOX: NASCAR (@NASCARONFOX) April 25, 2021
Logano managed to walk away relatively unharmed, but he correctly pointed out how close he was to being in the same kind of crash that injured Ryan Newman at the Daytona 500 a year ago. The 2018 NASCAR Cup champion ended his comments by stating, “I just don’t feel like that’s acceptable.”
In the aftermath, many observers (including Logano) pointed the finger at the large spoiler that is part of the current superspeedway package as the cause. But to quote The Flash in Justice League, “that feels like an oversimplification.”
As fellow Frontstretch writer Zach Sturniolo laid out earlier this week, NASCAR has tried various rules changes at superspeedways over the years, all aimed at reducing speeds and theoretically making the racing safer. Nothing ever seems to stick for long, and inevitably, someone ends up with all four wheels off the ground.
A man who has won at superspeedways (and only there in the Cup Series) had another take:
The drivers are causing the wrecks!!! https://t.co/0e26VkOwyC
— David Ragan (@DavidRagan) April 25, 2021
So is it spoilers or drivers here? The truth is that it’s both, plus more besides.
Start with the idea superspeedway racing at speeds approaching or exceeding 200 mph on large, high-banked tracks is inherently dangerous, and there’s only so much engineers to do to win the battle against physics under those conditions. Add in the actions of the drivers, who need to take some responsibility as well — as does NASCAR, which has essentially incentivized drivers with stage and playoff points to run like mad several times a race instead of only on the final lap.
(As a fun testament to this point, I submit a drinking game where you took a shot every time the FOX or NBC announcers expressed their astonishment at how this “looks like the last lap” at the end of stages. It would leave you a little tipsy during every Daytona or Talladega event.)
And then… there’s fans. If they voted with their wallets and eyeballs, staying away from superspeedway racing, the rules around those events would change more drastically. Perhaps not right away, because those kinds of changes come slowly in stock car racing, but it would.
Problem is, fans choosing to boycott this type of racing is a pipe dream. The racing at Daytona and Talladega is often thrilling, and there’s nothing else quite like it; the packed stands this weekend proved how much fans do approve.
So I’m not sure what the answer is to this uniquely NASCAR quandary. But I do know it’s a more complicated debate than simply spoilers vs. drivers.
2. Does Toyota need more cars to win at Talladega (and Daytona)?
It’s fun to think of the battle between NASCAR manufacturers as an evenly-waged battle between three brands, each with their own loyal followers. Over the course of a full season, it sometimes plays out that way on the track as well. No manufacturer has dominated in total wins year after year over the last decade-plus, and it hasn’t seemed to matter how many cars are running under which banner.
But Toyota is putting that trend to the test at the superspeedways this year, and not in a good way. Denny Hamlin was the only Toyota driver to muster a top-10 result in the 2021 Daytona 500, and it was even more grim at Talladega, where the top finisher repping the brand was Christopher Bell in 17th.
The issue mostly comes down to numbers, or a lack thereof. Only six Toyotas were in the field at Talladega, so while it’s nice to talk about manufacturer cooperation in the draft, it’s fairly difficult to find someone to back your moves when only one in about seven cars has the same symbol on the grill.
Want to pit under green with cars of the same make? Chevrolets and Fords have plenty of options (and it’s not disastrous when one makes a bad call on tires, a la the Ryan Blaney team). By comparison, the Joe Gibbs Racing guys have to hope none of their teammates crash out early or they might be toast in the final stage, sitting there with no one to draft with.
Hamlin or Martin Truex Jr. could make me look silly by winning the final two superspeedway races in 2021, but right now, it sure seems these drivers enter every race at Daytona or Talladega at a serious disadvantage. If I was Coach Gibbs, I’d be bugging Toyota to throw some money toward a few more teams for 2022 and beyond to see if it can find some defectors. It might be the only fix.
3. Where lappers become pushers
On a more pleasant, purely entertaining note, it occurred to me that Talladega is one of the few places where you don’t hear many complaints from drivers running near the front about lapped cars. Part of it is because it’s easy to blow by lappers when you’re in the draft as they’re all alone, and there’s plenty of room to do so. The other part is more fun: Lapped cars can actually be useful at ‘Dega.
Case in point: Kurt Busch, who had a race to forget this past Sunday after ending up 35th, six laps down with a mechanical issue. However, at times he was still inside the lead pack, drafting and pushing along with everyone else. He helped teammate Ross Chastain and other Chevy drivers gain positions throughout the course of the race’s second half.
Of course, it can be beneficial to stay out on the track at Talladega to pick up more spots in the running order if a big wreck wipes out a bunch of cars. So there’s value to remaining in the race if you have a problem like Busch. And their presence often increases the excitement of the race overall.
Laps-down cars that turn into pushers … we salute you.
4. Kaz Grala appreciation section
One of the more endearing and spirited themes among NASCAR fandom the past few years has been the rallies behind drivers who people are sure would do well if they just got a shot in some good equipment. Matt DiBenedetto is arguably the most high-profile example since he kind of, sort of, has his shot now with the Wood Brothers. Corey LaJoie, Timmy Hill and Landon Cassill are all on the list as well, and that’s just quickly off the top of my head.
(Chastain too, naturally, but he’s made the jump this season to Chip Ganassi Racing, where we know it’s possible to win races.)
A name I haven’t heard quite as often but has absolutely shown flashes, as they say in team sports, is Kaz Grala. Other than in 2017, when he had a full-time ride in the Camping World Truck Series and won a race, he’s had very limited opportunities across the three top NASCAR series. But Grala manages to make the most of them pretty darn often.
Consider that in 2020, Grala made just seven total Cup, Xfinity and Truck starts yet still managed a top-five finish (in the Xfinity race at Road America) and five top 10s. This past Sunday at Talladega was a career-best Cup Series result of sixth, but not by much since he’s already come home seventh at Daytona’s road course last summer.
While Grala’s record at short and intermediate tracks doesn’t jump out at you quite as much, you could certainly chalk that up to a lack of reps. Plus, while I’ve only spoken to him once, Grala seems like a legitimately good guy fans and sponsors could get behind.
If you’re a team in need of a fill-in at a superspeedway or road course, Grala should be on your short list. Beyond that, someone should seriously consider giving him a full-time ride in 2022 because the numbers suggest he’d make good on the chance you’d take on him.
5. Now or never for 16+ Cup winners in a season
Though we talk about it every year at Frontstretch, the stars appear to be aligning for the mythical NASCAR Cup Series season where 16 or more different drivers win a race and no one makes the playoffs on points. Michael McDowell and Bell got us off to a great start since both were first-time winners to start the campaign. Brad Keselowski made it nine different winners in 10 races at Talladega.
While I’m not daring enough to say 16+ is definitely happening, I do think that if it doesn’t in 2021, it most likely never will under the current format. We only need seven different drivers over the next 16 races to make it a reality, and there are enough possibilities left among the following three groups.
- Drivers who will almost definitely win – History suggests Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Chase Elliott and Kyle Busch will all find their way to victory lane over the next few months, though Rowdy didn’t do that during the 2020 regular season and Harvick is off to a horrendous-by-his-standards start. Still, all these drivers need to do is go 1-for-16 each and they’ve done more than half our work.
- Drivers who have won before and wouldn’t shock you if they won – This group includes Austin Dillon, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Chris Buescher, Kurt Busch, Newman, Cole Custer, Aric Almirola and Erik Jones. There are no sure things here, but let’s say two of these drivers (like Dillon and Kurt Busch) manage to win before the postseason. That gets us almost all the way there.
- The “it’s not impossible” bunch – Most likely, McDowell already represents this final group. That said, there are some drivers who have never won at the Cup level who could sneak into victory lane if everything goes right. I’m looking at DiBenedetto, Wallace, Tyler Reddick, Daniel Suarez and Chase Briscoe. Or, we could get an even more surprising winner from the rest of the field. Either way, it’s probably only going to take one first-timer to get to 16+.
You don’t even have to squint that hard to see the path now. I’m hoping it gets built.