NASCAR Race Weekend Central

The Big 6: Questions Answered After the 2021 Yellawood 500

Who…should you be talking about after the race?

Say all you want about rain-shortened races, but here’s what went down in ‘Dega: teams knew the rain was imminent, and there were racing like it was the closing laps, because at a track without lights that takes hours to dry and autumn shortening the days dramatically, it very likely was. Bubba Wallace just happened to race his way to the front and hold off all comers until the rains came to end the YellaWood 500 at Talladega Superspeedway. There was nothing cheap about his first NASCAR Cup Series win; not that a strategy call would have been cheap, but there was no staying out while everyone pitted to take this one. It was earned on the track.

And what a story it is: a driver winning his first Cup race with a brand-new crew chief in veteran Bootie Barker, who also won his first Cup race in just the pair’s third race together. Oh, and it was McDonalds’ first win as a Cup sponsor since 1994, too. But wait, there’s more: it’s the first playoff race since the current points system was established to be won by a non-playoff driver.

See also
Bubba Wallace Scores 1st Win in Rain-Shortened Talladega Playoff Race

Superspeedway racing is a funny animal, because it’s a definite skill — you see many of the same drivers near the front in most of these races (Wallace included), but there is also so much luck involved, because it doesn’t matter where a driver is if a crash happens; he can still be swept up. But Wallace raced the final laps like a master, knowing when to block an advancing lane and when not to make a move. Oh, and he raced his way through mayhem as cars spun around him, too. He raced like a veteran and it paid off.

And don’t forget: Anthony Alfredo. Alfredo has struggled in the Cup Series (and without a full season in any national series before this year and a small team to boot, it’s not a surprise), but he put together a solid day Monday, racing his way into the top 10 when it counted and taking home a career-best 10th-place finish.

A closer look at Alfredo’s abbreviated 2020 Xfinity season shows some promise for the 22-year-old. Making just 19 starts and sharing a ride, Alfredo posted a couple of top fives and a fairly impressive 12.6 average finish. Had he had time to develop in a good ride, he might have had a better shot at making a splash.

What…is the buzz about?

Rain and NASCAR don’t mix, at least when it comes to ovals. Sunday was a complete wash, with NASCAR calling the race early. Talladega doesn’t have lights, and that made the call simple. NASCAR won’t start a race they don’t think they can finish the entire distance on, and with a couple of hours to dry the mammoth Talladega, there simply would not have been enough daylight to go the distance.

So that meant doing it all over again on Monday, and the forecast wasn’t promising, though it wasn’t terrible, either. But again the math prevailed. As the rain persisted, darkness crept closer, until there wasn’t enough of a window to go back racing. NASCAR made the right call at the right time—they made every attempt to race as much of the YellaWood 500 as possible, but in the end, called it just past halfway.

If Talladega had lights, it’s likely that a Sunday night race would have happened. Only five ovals with Cup dates don’t have them: Talladega, Michigan, Loudon, Dover and Pocono. A simple solution is tantalizingly close in NASCAR requiring lights for a Cup date, but it’s much more complicated than that.

Talladega is probably the best candidate, but it’s a dauntingly expensive project, even for a track with two Cup dates. The rest have just one. Pocono is as big as Talladega, and Michigan’s not far behind in terms of sheer size. Daytona has lights, but Daytona is the sport’s marquee venue. In terms of logistics, Dover and Loudon would be easier…except neither could take on the project. Dover’s proximity to Dover Air Force base makes lights a no-go, and Loudon’s agreement with the town of Canterbury, which is literally across the street, specifically precludes night racing.

Even if NASCAR bit the bullet on Talladega and Michigan, which it owns, such a requirement would take NASCAR out of the Northeast market completely. Richmond would be the northernmost track with lights (and even if MIS had them, it leaves a huge portion of the US high and dry. Yes, there are other dead zones for NASCAR, but taking three tracks from an established fan base is risky.

So, Mother Nature has a say in racing. And sometimes, she’s a real witch.

Where…did the other key players wind up?

Polesitter Denny Hamlin went to victory lane for the first time as a car owner, but he had a solid day on track as well. Not only did he help Wallace race his way to the win, but he ran near the front and finished seventh, walking away with the points lead intact and zero worries on his plate heading to Charlotte, as his win at Las Vegas already guarantees him a spot in the round of eight in the playoffs.

Spring Talladega winner Brad Keselowski has six Talladega wins, more than any active driver, but fell short Monday. He was in the hunt when the final caution flew, but Ryan Preece’s spin and the subsequent rain ended his chances for the win. Keselowski finished second, and that gives him a little more breathing room heading to Charlotte as he moves from the cutoff bubble to fourth in points. It’s not a big cushion, just six points, but it puts more drivers between him and elimination.

Regular season champion Kyle Larson has one thing on his side after Talladega: the huge pool of playoff points he amassed this season. Other than that, it wasn’t a red-letter day for Larson, who went for a spin early on and then blew a tire, leaving him multiple laps down to the leaders. He finished 37th, his second-worst result of the year, right after…Talladega in the spring. It’s a safe bet Larson’s glad the series won’t return until spring.

When…was the moment of truth?

History was made at Talladega this weekend. Not only is Wallace the first African-American driver to win at this level in NASCAR’s modern era, but it marks the first time every national NASCAR Series had a first-time winner at the same track on the same weekend.

Saturday kicked off the first-time sweep with Tate Fogleman’s upset win in Trucks and, just hours later, it was fellow underdog Brandon Brown taking the Xfinity victory. Monday saw Wallace take the trifecta with the bonus of Barker’s maiden win as well.

From the small, family-owned teams winning in Trucks and NXS to Hamlin’s first win and first glimpse of what might be down the road for his still-new team, we see once again what really makes NASCAR special as more threads are woven into the complex tapestry that is the sport’s history. It’s not all beautiful; some places are tattered and stained, but it’s ever-changing.

What makes NASCAR special is the human element, and the stories to be told. This weekend’s may not the greatest story to be told, but it’s one that will resonate for years to come because it was the week of the underdog doing everything right when it was all on the line.

Why…should you be paying attention this week?

NASCAR heads to Charlotte and it’s technically tricky infield road course this week. Oh, yeah, and it’s an elimination race. With a few years to get used to it, the track’s not quite the unknown recipe for disaster it once was, and it puts on a pretty good race.

As the only road course in the playoffs, it’s important, and more so now that there are more road courses on the regular season docket, making those skills a recognized necessity for getting into the playoffs.

Chase Elliott might be the favorite—he’s NASCAR’s resident road course ace, after, all, and has won two of the three races on Charlotte’s road configuration. But another driver to keep an eye on is the other Chase — Chase Briscoe. Briscoe won the first Xfinity race at the track and came tantalizingly close to his first Cup win at the Indianapolis Grand Prix circuit this summer. He’s come a long way since the beginning of the season and is one to watch this weekend.

How…much did the race shake up the playoff picture?

It didn’t change much, but the biggest change is significant: a solid day could have clinched Kyle Larson’s spot in the round of 8. But he didn’t have that day. Larson is certainly in good position to move on with a 22-point cushion over ninth-place Kevin Harvick. But it’s no sure thing—a bad day for Larson could mean a great one for Harvick.

Remember, a year ago, Harvick was in Larson’s position, entering the playoffs with 52 playoff points, which made him seem like a lock for the championship race. But a mediocre round of eight left him on the outside looking in. Larson entered this year’s playoffs with…52 playoff points. Yup, exactly the number Harvick had last year. So there is no guarantee he’ll race for a title, and this week could be telling.

As for the drivers likeliest to have their title bids come to an end? Alex Bowman needs to win to have a shot. William Byron and Christopher Bell do, too. Of the three, Bowman appears to be the best positioned with two top fives in three races and an average finish of 4.7 on the right-handers at CMS. He’s never finished worse than eighth, so a win isn’t a crazy notion. Byron is just okay on the ROVAL, and Bell struggled in his lone Cup appearance.

Harvick is currently the driver on the wrong edge of the cut line, but he’s only nine points behind both Kyle Busch and Elliott, and he only has to pass one of them in the standings to move on. A bad day could also put Ryan Blaney’s hopes in jeopardy, and even Martin Truex Jr. and Keselowski in fourth and fifth will sweat it out a little Sunday.

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Carl D.

It was a good race for Penske drivers Logano and Keselowski. All three Penske drivers have a good chance of make the round of eight.

DoninAjax

Pocono is the same length as Daytona, two and a half miles.

Rg72

Maybe I’m in the minority but it doesn’t upset me that all tracks do not have lights. Yes, this weekend was the anomaly with a generally rainy forecast for a few days. That said lights tend to act as cover for the (usually) dumb start times that TV forces on tracks.

DoninAjax

And you get events ending at 1 or 2 in the morning.

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