Who… should you be talking about after the race?
The YellaWood 500 wasn’t won on attrition from numerous multi-car crashes. It wasn’t won because one driver dominated and it wasn’t won on crazy blocking. Instead, Chase Elliott saw a hole in the final laps at Talladega Superspeedway and he took the opportunity to go through it, passing Erik Jones, who was leading the outside line, then using the top line’s momentum to power past Ryan Blaney.
— NASCAR on NBC (@NASCARonNBC) October 2, 2022
From there, Elliott hung on for the win, holding off both Blaney and a charging Michael McDowell to take the win in the cleanest Talladega race in recent memory.
And don’t forget… Front Row Motorsports. FRM is often written off as an underfunded backmarker, but that’s not the case on superspeedways. The team scored two top 10s on Sunday, with McDowell finishing third and rookie Todd Gilliland coming in a respectable seventh.
— Front Row Motorsports (@Team_FRM) October 2, 2022
The team has been a factor at Daytona International Speedway and Talladega consistently over the years. But for McDowell, it’s another highlight in what’s become a career year. While McDowell won the Daytona 500 and secured a playoff berth in 2021, this year, despite the lack of a win, he has career highs in top 10s, laps led and average finish.
What… is the buzz about?
At this point, it would be refreshing to hear NASCAR fans talking about anything but safety. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what’s still front and center in discussions and on social media. Fueling the fire is Alex Bowman, the second driver to be missing this race due to a concussion. Like Kurt Busch, who’s been out for 10 weeks now, Bowman backed into the wall in what looked to be a very minor incident only to be sidelined by the injury.
Concussion symptoms are no joke; they can range from very slight changes in reaction time (which a racecar driver cannot afford) to headaches and memory loss. It can be evident in speech patterns or imperceptible to an observer who doesn’t know. It can mean forgetting words or directions midstream, or just overall feeling ill.
For Busch and Bowman, it means a season’s potential unrealized as their championship hopes were dashed due to their injuries (Bowman still has a chance on paper if he can race — and win — next week).
More and more drivers spoke out about the Next Gen and its apparent safety problems this week.
Pretty disappointing that our sanctioning body refuses to acknowledge or accept any responsibility for drivers getting hurt. It’s the same THEY said. WE knew better. It’s wrong these drivers continue to get taken advantage of by the system.
— Denny Hamlin (@dennyhamlin) September 30, 2022
Completely unacceptable that those in charge have let things get to this point. I remember it like it was yesterday @dennyhamlin in the presentation of the new car to the drivers pleading that the car was to stiff. Data didn’t agree. TIME TO LISTEN TO THE DRIVERS CRASHING THEM! https://t.co/Q9urnlbaWa
— Kevin Harvick (@KevinHarvick) September 30, 2022
NASCAR has finally admitted they knew there was an issue on the rear of the Next Gen car as early as June. To their credit, it has led to changes to the rear clip, research and development which will be crash tested this week but regardless of results would not appear in competition until next year. While it’s a step in the right direction, NASCAR would have saved face with fans if they’d admitted sooner there was a problem — and a solution in the works.
Where… did the other key players wind up?
Pole winner Christopher Bell had an up-and-down day. Bell lost a lap in the first stage after a spin trying to get to pit road under green, but got it back at the stage break and from there, he had just an OK day. Bell worked his way up to 17th at the end, but it’s nowhere near enough. He now finds himself in a must-win situation with playoff eliminations looming after entering the weekend already in a hole, facing a 25-point deficit.
Points leader Joey Logano had early speed only to get caught up in the day’s lone multi-car incident. The No. 22 team got the damage repaired, but Logano finished the day as the last car on the lead lap in 27th place. As a result, he leaves Talladega fifth in points, but still in good position barring disaster next weekend.
Spring Talladega winner Ross Chastain was a contender all day, running in the top five often and leading laps before finishing a respectable fourth with his No. 1 Chevrolet. Chastain curbed his trademark aggression enough to put himself in excellent position to move ahead in the playoffs. If Chastain makes it to the title race, his solid, clean run at Talladega will be a big part of the reason why.
When… was the moment of truth?
For the first time in recent memory, there was no Big One at Talladega to speak of. There was just one real multi-car incident, triggered by a spinning Harrison Burton, but many of those involved were able to continue.
There was plenty of decent racing to be had, including a clean three-wide finish. There will be fans who’ll claim it was “boring,” of course, because of the lack of crashes. It was definitely not what most have come to expect from the superspeedway in recent years as pack racing has almost guaranteed multi-car crashes aplenty.
So, were the drivers holding back? Many indicated before the race that high speeds and huge packs, together with recent safety concerns, had them thinking twice about racing at one hundred percent all day long knowing what the results could be.
If they were? It made for a better race. There were comers and goers, and while it’s much more difficult to move through the pack in the Next Gen chassis, there was passing, including a late move for the win. In short, it was everything fans ask for on a weekly basis. But without the crashes, was it what they really want from Talladega?
Why… should you be paying attention this week?
It’s elimination week and the playoff field will be cut from 12 to eight following Sunday’s race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway infield road course (ROVAL still isn’t a real word).
That’s when it could get interesting.
Charlotte is the tightest road course the Cup Series visits and it also features the high-banked oval turns on each end of the track, so it will pose some unique challenges for teams. The first turn, from the frontstretch into the infield, is notoriously difficult, and the two chicanes are often where push comes to shove among drivers.
Even road course specialists have had their share of troubles — AJ Allmendinger has an average finish of 22.5 after a couple of Cup starts — and he’s one of the playoff outsiders who’s still going to be looking to steal the show. Through the first five races, playoff contenders have won just one, breaking through for the first time at Talladega.
Elliott has a pair of wins on the road layout, along with Kyle Larson and Blaney with a victory apiece. Another driver who’s been outstanding is Bowman, with four top 10s and a sixth-place average, but missing Talladega puts him in a must-win situation if he’s cleared to race. Still, Bowman’s been good enough to do that and it would certainly make for quite a story.
Contenders who have struggled on the Charlotte road course include Chase Briscoe, Daniel Suarez and Chastain, all road course winners this season. Owners’ title contender Bubba Wallace also has had his share of lumps. Bottom line: like most of the playoff tracks we’ve seen in 2022, it’ll be worth watching because anything could happen.
How… far below the cut line can a driver be and still make the cut?
Theoretically, a driver could finish last for two weeks in a row and make the cut with a win. Bowman’s record at the Charlotte road course means even he can’t be completely discounted if he’s able to race. Bell is in a must-win situation, too, but has also shown he’s handy on a road course.
When it comes to points, just a few seem easy to overcome. And in the first two races of a round, we’ve seen it happen plenty as the drivers around the cut move in and out of the bottom four.
However, by the elimination race, it’s more difficult. While a few points may not seem like many to make up in terms of positions on the track, depending on where a driver is in the standings, they can be insurmountable.
It gets tricky because the number of drivers ahead of the one in question play a big role in his fate. A driver could be five points below the cut line, but if there are also three drivers ahead of him, he has to not only gain five points on his rival but also pass everyone ahead of him to get over the hump.
In theory, a driver can be five points back and miss the next round or be 50 back and still make it with a win. In practice, though, it’s also about who else is below the cut line and how crowded it is around the bubble. A win makes it simple, but any other way comes down to the last lap and a lot of prayers, probably some swearing and constant math.
About the author
Amy is an 18-year veteran NASCAR writer and a five-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found filling in from time to time on The Frontstretch 5 (Wednesdays) and her monthly commentary Holding A Pretty Wheel (Thursdays). A New Hampshire native living in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.