The Top Five: Breaking down the Talladega playoff race

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.

43 Replies to “The Top Five: Breaking down the Talladega playoff race”

  1. I have to disagree with moving Dega. It shouldn’t have been moved from last year. Its a scary race yes but its the same for everyone. Everyone takes the same risk if you don’t like it then boycott the race like the drivers did in the inaugural race then and watch Nascar invite the younger drivers to take over. This race is here to stay and should stay.

    1. Don’t take our restrictor plate races away or out of Chase! But is more fair to have it not be last race in round

  2. I have been thinking along the same lines this evening. It was a good race and I was absolutely thrilled with the last lap. I like the way you describe the outcome as a hand off from one generation to another. Dale, Jr., ran a heck of a race and will always be a champion on and off the track. But I am familiar with severe head injuries and I will be thankful if he completes this season in good health. Brad is also champ on and off the track. I look forward to seeing him race the rest of the year. My thanks for so many wonderful articles throughout the season.

  3. Thrilling race, and although Jr. didn’t win, he had a heck of a day, and can walk away proud of his effort.

  4. Keep this race where it is. All we need is another 1 1/2-2 mile snoozer where everybody spreads out by 200 yards and there is little real racing except for restarts. Do wish NASCAR would change the cars aerodynamically to more like the trucks just for the plate races to influence the draft better. I enjoy the three, sometimes four, wide racing. But when everybody just gets stuck in line it gets a bit tedious.
    As far as Dale Jr., I love him as much as anybody. But if he has reservations floating around in the back of his head in that race car, he needs to go ahead and get out. Forget the retirement tour. Qualifying proved he had the fastest car there, yet he basically rode around mid pack all day and made few moves to try and move up like we have seen from him many times at the plate tracks. Think his reservations have made a huge difference in the performance of that team this year. Been the same story every week with the car not being quite right. Hard to figure that a Hendrick car wouldn’t be real competitive just by accident a few times a year.

  5. Great read Jeff, thanks. I say leave Talladega alone, let it be a Chase race and let these guys in the Chase work around the wrecks if possible, Isn’t luck part of racing anyway??

    1. Don’t take our restrictor plate races away or out of Chase! But is more fair to have it not be last race in round

  6. My ???? on Dale Jr. not winning.
    My reaction ???? to dip???? Joey Logano and his blocking.
    My feelings ????????????????????‍♀️ on Brad K winning.
    What I thought of the race overall ????????????????????????????????????????????????

    1. NITA, BLOCKING IS RACING. You are no race fan, as it was JR. and you wanted the field to roll over for him. No fan of racing, just Junebug!

      1. Anne, You don’t know what the heck you’re talking about. Just because “I” did want Dale to win doesn’t mean I’m not a racing fan. And what make you think I’m just a fan of his, my avatar? There are a lot of different driver’s I root for and would have said the same thing if it had happened to them. As a matter of fact I “used” to be a fan of Joey’s and Brad and even Kurt, things change. Just like when I first started watching NASCAR I didn’t like Dale Jr. or Jeff Gordon. But as I said over time my feelings have changed a lot towards various drivers, other than Matt Kenseth, I’ve always like #MyManMatt.

  7. Jeff, you were doing fine until number 4 where your anxiety showed up like it does 4 times a year at plate tracks.

    Leave it somewhere else. Please. It doesn’t make for good reading or tweeting.

  8. Generally think you do an awesome job but please don’t advocate taking restrictor plates away unless u can come up with more exciting races than Mike & half majority

  9. Technically this race didn’t tie the record for cautions. There were 9 cautions and two stage breaks.

  10. I think Talladega must stay in the Playoffs. Denny is wrong because there have been many times at other tracks when people get caught up in other people’s messes. Maybe the wrecks aren’t as glorious in magnitude, but they do happen at other tracks and the innocent are often caught up in it all. Kyle isn’t in trouble because of ‘dega. Truex had a worse day and he’s locked into the round of 8 (same with Harvick). Kyle has put together two poor performances so the ‘dega mess amplifies his two race ineptitude. Knowing Kyle, he’ll lap the field at Kansas or blow up on lap 10. Either way, he’s had the same opportunities as the other playoff drivers and he’s currently bungling his chances.

    1. Glad to hear someone else finds KB is not the driver praised by Rick Allen. I look forward every week to him blowing up. Serves him right.

      1. I cannot stand the WHEELMAN SLOBBER, they were saying that AGAIN this year before he won a race, when others had multiple and one wins ahead of him. The obsession by very few regarding this clown is amazing! Seems nobody else can wheel a race car but him, I swear Sammy has her own group of posters to spew that BS. Insulting to other drivers, imo.

  11. Denny’s comment about not being in charge of your own fate actually applies to every race, especially in the ‘playoff’. When you have people competing who are not in contention for the title, yet can affect the outcome of the race, then the outcome is basically random. That’s the fallacy with the entire concept.

    1. Sall – no, not at all. It isn’t like “every other race”, when everyone is racing for the same goal.

      Talladega does NOT have that, and it was clear, that Joey Logano was willing to wreck half the field to ensure Brad moved on to the next round.

      1. Wreck half the field? What the in the world are you talking about? He made a block on the final lap of a plate race. If you think Dale Jr. hasn’t done that throughout his career, you are delirious.

  12. Talladega was a great race, up through the big crash-a-thon, honestly. Lots of excitement, pit strategies, etc.

    I really like the idea of making Talladega the last regular season race, especially considering that it can really use some lifeblood when Junior leaves. Being a random, middling Chase track and the already existing destruction of viewership and attendance (partially owing to it’s location), this could be good for both the sport AND the drivers.

    I think the only people who would advocate it stays in the Chase are ones who are gamblers. The type of fickle fans who want manufactured excitement. Drivers hate that it’s pressure to a crazy extent, at the least controlled track, where some drivers with less scruples are more than happy to send you flying into a wall, if it means they go on to the next stage of the Chase.

    And with all the hemming and hawing over NASCAR’s “judgment calls” lately, who – in their right mind – would want NASCAR getting a slew of judgment calls on tampering in the middle of a Chase round? I can *easily* say that Joey intentionally blocked with a poor car, to ensure Brad won, because Joey had nothing to gain…. Penske boys, after all. They can do what they want with impunity!

    You are right, Kyle caught a TON of flak (that he shouldn’t have because of the Fickle Fandom) for saying what every driver already believes. Why would anyone want to advocate keeping a race that drivers themselves hate in it’s current spot? And no, it’s not the same. The Cardinals don’t randomly come out of the tunnel to kick Brady in the backside on a 3rd and 2 at the goal line.

    It doesn’t have to be replaced with another boring cookie cutter, but at least racing in the cookie cutter takes some skill – you know, the thing we’re supposed to want to watch for?

    Sliding in a short track, shifting even Pocono in, dropping into Kentucky, or switch it with Richmond (or move it around to get Darlingtonin) entirely, ANYTHING would be better than a random slot pull, that drivers hate.

    FWIW, Junior would have won this race, if he hadn’t come back incredibly timid and hesitant – for whatever reason, but I’m beginning to think it’s about sponsor honors and loyalty because Junebug has NOT been there at all this year. He has laid off a LOT and it’s cost him oodles of spots.

    He had been hung out all day, didn’t get aggressive for it and when a half-wrecked Logano blocked his way, he hid behind him. He wouldn’t have let Logano block him in years gone by. It wasn’t a strong block, Logano was already well off-pace. Junior would get to him and just sort of wave around for a few corners, maybe eke it out and Logano would just slide up a bit. Jr. didn’t pull a crossover to cut that off. He finally took a chance in getting with…. Hamlin (?) I think it was, but then he just let Logano muscle back over.

    His Periscope was just terribly sad. He was dejected, and could hear the annoyance with Logano for sure, but I wonder how much of it was with himself. He just looked tired of racing, itself. He’s too good of a person, and I think his great, good heart has grown him into being too worried and scared consistently, to run races at nearly any track.

    I was hoping for a hooray into the sunset, but it appears it’ll be just a cloudy day fading away… just like a lovely gentleman who always knows when and how to leave a cotillion.

    1. OH good God Mary. Logano had the dominate car all day. 59 laps led. What did you want, you wanted drivers to roll over and sprinkle rose pedals for Jr. as he past them. Come on Mary…racing. Dega owes him nothing, the other drivers owe him nothing. This weekend was really over the top. Glad he is retiring. It does a disserve to other teams. IMO. Mary you wanted a freebie that was not going to happen. Junior is not owed a thing, he is not King or God. He is mortal and that is how RACING rolls. Move on, and be happy he had a good day.

  13. This spectacle was the worst race of the year. When most of the playoff drivers can get taken out by no fault of their own, it should be moved to one of the last 3 before the playoffs.

    1. I used to feel the same way when I had a driver that I cheered for. Now that my driver has retired and I do not pull for any one driver, these RP races have gotten easier to enjoy. The trick is, not to care.

    2. Truex Jr. caused the biggest wreck of the day. Truex, you know, the playoff leader and championship favorite?

      1. OH yes he did, TRUEX caused the big one…and SHHHHHHHH not a word, after all it is MARTY. As someone on another board said, criticize the truth of Truex and they trout out the girlfriend with a sob story of her health and her crying. So true, and no I am not the one who said it, but quoting many! Truex can do no wrong…EVER. Why it is beyond me, part of the WWE script!

        1. Anne, I hope you or no one you know ever gets cancer. It’s not a sob story. Sherry is in the fight of her life and sadly it may be one she is not able to win. This really makes me sad and “mad” that you would attack someone who has given so much for their Catwalk For A Cause kids who fight the life sapping disease everyday and then in a cruel twist of fate she’s fighting the same battle.

  14. I’m with you, Jeff, hoping and praying that Dale wouldn’t wreck and concuss again. But with only 7 cars to beat there at the end I wish he could have pulled out a better finish.

  15. I am very gald for JR for driving a heck of a race and not getting injured. I like all JR fans are sad to see him leave but wish him all the luck in the world in his retirement.

  16. NASCAR drivers keep saying they need all types of races in The Chase. Next year they get their road course (Roval) or whatever you want to call Charlotte. So they need to keep a restrictor plate race as well.

  17. I enjoyed the race and especially enjoyed listening to Dale and TJ on the scanner. They were joking and having fun again.

    Unlike Mary, I saw a man who was pleased with his own and his team’s performance in the race when I watched Dale’s video. He told us that the damage to his car made it impossible for him to make a run because the splitter hitting the track made him tight through the corners on the last run.

    I am happy he missed the wrecks; that was a big part of the fun, watching him slide past the carnage.

    I think the race is fine where it is in the “playoffs.” Drivers can have their race affected by the mistake of another during any race. The speed at Talladega just amplifies the possibilities.

    Thanks for the tweets during the race, Jeff.

  18. Talladega is by far my favorite race. There is simply no other track like it. I would be really sad if they pulled it out of the Chase. Plus, Alabama in the middle of the summer is NOT where I want to watch a day race.

    This was a particularly good race until the wrecks. Blaney impressed the heck out of me. His move to get out in front during stage 2 was a thing of beauty.

    I really wanted Jr. to get his win Sunday, but more than that I wanted to see him have a good race where he consistently competed. I think he had that for the most part.

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