Five thoughts after Sunday’s playoff race at Talladega Superspeedway…
1. Actually, it wasn’t a bad race
Talladega was a restrictor-plate demolition derby unlike anything we’d seen in a long time.
— Only 14 cars were still running at the finish — 14! — and only eight of those were still held together enough to actually race for the win.
— The 11 cautions tied a race record! Yep, none of the 96 other races run at Talladega have ever had more cautions than Sunday.
— Kyle Larson was a lap down — and finished 13th! Trevor Bayne, whose car appears on the crash report twice, finished third!
Given all that, it’s understandable if people look at the results and go, “Ugh, what a joke.” Not to go all #WellActually on you, but it really was a good race up until the point the carnage broke out.
Think about it: The first Big One didn’t take place until there were 17 laps to go. Prior to that, the field was two-, three- and even four-wide in a brilliant display of how good plate racing can be. There were lead changes and strategy and dicey moves, and no one spent time hanging at the back trying to avoid the wreck.
They actually raced.
Only at the end, when it was Go Time, did it really get crazy and kind of ridiculous. But that’s not really a surprise; after all, it’s Talladega.
As long as cars aren’t flipping or flying — which they didn’t on Sunday — the rest of it is just side effect of what was a pretty thrilling show.
2. Master Kes
For a last-lap pass, there didn’t seem to be too much excitement from the crowd at Talladega. The fans seemed deflated after Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished seventh, so even Brad Keselowski’s thrilling move didn’t save the day for them.
But it was fitting that Keselowski won Earnhardt’s final plate race, because it was a symbolic passing of the torch from the best plate racer of this generation to the next.
Keselowski has now won at Talladega five times and six wins overall in restrictor-plate points races. Earnhardt finished his career with six Talladega wins and had 10 plate wins in points races.
Though Talladega unquestionably contains a lot of randomness in surviving long enough to be there at the end, the actual winning moves often require a very specific skill. And Keselowski might be the best at it.
We often see the race leader be able to block a late run. But Ryan Newman couldn’t do it — granted, he had some degree of nose damage — and Keselowski ended up playing the finish perfectly. He deserves a ton of credit for the execution.
“You’d love to be able to pat yourself on the back and say it’s all skill, but there is some luck that’s involved in this,” Keselowski said. “… You know when you come here that probably three out of every four races you’re going to get caught up in a wreck or something like that happens.
“But the races where you have the good fortune, where you don’t get caught up in a wreck or you don’t have something break or any of those things, you have to take those races, run up front and win them. And I think that’s what we’ve been able to do.”
Junior Nation probably doesn’t give a crap about all this, given their disappointment, but it’s important to recognize we’re watching a rare and unique talent when Keselowski has the chance to win at Talladega.
3. Playoff race?
Fans still give Kyle Busch a hard time for saying Talladega and Daytona aren’t “real” racing. But seriously — is it? And does it belong in the playoffs?
Those questions are likely to pop up after a day when only two of the 12 playoff drivers finished on the lead lap.
“I’m sure there are a lot of competitors who say they wish (Talladega wasn’t in the playoffs), because you can’t control your own fate,” Denny Hamlin said after finishing sixth. “In no other sport does your competition make a mistake and it cost you. In our sport, it does.”
Hamlin suggested to NBC Sports last week that Talladega should be the regular season finale instead of a playoff race.
And indeed, that seems like a better solution. It doesn’t feel right in a lot of ways for the outcome of a championship to be impacted by an event with so much randomness. Because, let’s be honest: Kyle Busch was right.
Whether it’s “real racing” or not, though, it definitely won’t be changing anytime soon.
“I don’t know that there’s a desire to have a different product here at this type of racetrack,” said Ryan Newman, who was once one of the most outspoken drivers against plate racing.
4. Dale Jr.’s health
There were tens of thousands of people rooting for Earnhardt to win his final restrictor-plate race, which felt like his last, best shot at a victory before he retires.
Personally, I was just hoping he made it through the race without getting another concussion.
That sounds sort of dark, but it’s the truth. All season, I’ve thought in the back of my head: “I wonder if he can get through the plate races without suffering a huge hit.” And — luckily — he did. He had to make it through three close calls to do it, but he survived.
“This was one that I was worried about in the back of my mind,” Earnhardt said afterward. “I was a little concerned. But you can’t win the race if you race scared, and I’ve raced scared here before, and you don’t do well when that happens. So you have to block it out and just go out there and take the risks and hope that it’s just not your day to get in one of those accidents. And it wasn’t.”
Earnhardt fans didn’t get the win they wanted, but this was also a victory: Their driver competed for the win all day and left with his health intact, meaning he just has to make it five more races.
Wrecks can happen anywhere, but the chances sure are a lot lower at other tracks.
And along those lines, Earnhardt felt that by racing hard, he proved something to the critics who charged he has been too timid at times this season.
“Anyone who questions our desire to be here and compete this year and our desire to run hard and face can look at the risks that we took this afternoon, knowing that any of those crashes would have probably given me a bit of an injury that would have held me out of the rest of the season,” he said.
5. Pointed situation
Kyle Busch might not make it past Round 2 of the playoffs.
That’s crazy, isn’t it? All year long, it’s pretty much been a Martin Truex Jr./Busch/Kyle Larson show. Those three seemed to be the main title contenders going into the playoffs, and the conventional wisdom was Busch was at least a lock for Round 3 thanks to his 41 playoff points.
Busch is currently seven points behind Jimmie Johnson for the final playoff spot entering Kansas. And Matt Kenseth is just one point behind him, so it’s not like he can focus just on beating one or two drivers next week.
Yeah, he could go win there — Busch has five straight top-five finishes at Kansas, including a victory last year in the spring. But there’s a very real chance he could fail to make the cut.
On a similar note, Johnson could be out if he doesn’t have a good run — which is also hard to believe.
I doubt many of us would have predicted two of the elite Toyotas or the seven-time champion would be in danger of failing to make it past Round 2, but that’s the case. And it’s going to make Kansas a very interesting cutoff race.