Race Weekend Central

5 Points to Ponder: Rooting for Underdogs to Win at Talladega is Kind of Futile

1. Talladega is a Tease for Underdogs

Everyone who has followed NASCAR for even a few years knows the narrative about races at Talladega Superspeedway. The Big One is going to strike at some point (sometimes more than once) and a bunch of top cars will be eliminated. Drivers from underfunded teams will be in position to win as the laps wind down. Anything can happen!

It sure looked like that again on Sunday (Oct. 4) during the final, extremely lengthy concluding chapter of the YellaWood 500. A big wreck did indeed wipe out a bunch of big names, and more wrecks during the first two overtime attempts winnowed down the field even more. If you’re a dreamer, you could see well beyond Matt DiBenedetto capturing a very popular victory to something really far out there. Could Ty Dillon win? What about Brennan Poole or Timmy Hill?

The mad scramble to the finish, with cars wrecking behind them, only reinforced the idyllic mental image of Talladega evening things out so that anyone could win. But in the end, it was Denny Hamlin capturing the checkered flag, the exact opposite of a plucky underdog.

Recent history also tells us this is the norm. The last 20 Talladega races have given us exactly one unexpected winner, and that was way back in the spring of 2013 when David Ragan captured one of his two career Cup Series victories, this time with underfunded Front Row Motorsports. What actually ends up happening is a handful of unusual names in the top 10 and perhaps a career-best finish or two.

So while it’s fun to romanticize the idea of someone making a charge out of nowhere once half the garage is junked, it simply doesn’t happen all that often at ‘Dega. It’s one of those cases where reality simply isn’t as fun as the myth.

2. The ROVAL Probably Won’t Be The Wild Card It’s Made Out to Be, Unless…

As long as we’re raining on parades, let’s make this one a little soggy as well. The Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL has been a welcome addition to the NASCAR Cup Series schedule since its first appearance in 2018, highly preferable to another 500 miles on the Charlotte oval every fall. (Apologies to everyone who counts the oval as their favorite shape.)

It’s also given us a fair share of chaos, including a wild finish to the inaugural ROVAL race when the two drivers racing for the lead took each other out so the third-place car could scoot past for the win. But is it likely to give us the racing version of an October surprise and shake up the playoff picture?

Probably not. Martin Truex Jr. was one of the men who got tangled up at the end of the 2018 event, but he’s likely to advance to the Round of 8 win or lose this weekend. Same goes for Chase Elliott, the 2019 winner. At the other end of the spectrum, Aric Almirola and Austin Dillon, who essentially need to win to advance, have been mediocre in their ROVAL experiences while Kyle Busch has had luck almost as rotten as he’s faced this season writ large.

If there’s any hope for an upset, it’s probably in the hands of Clint Bowyer. He’s got a pair of top fives in the two ROVAL races, and he knows he’s likely out of the playoffs without a win. He also won’t hesitate to take some chances, so Bowyer is your guy if you desire something to spice up the cutoff race.

3. The Lost Season for Kyle Busch is Almost Over

This weekend’s race was so symbolic of Busch’s 2020 season as a whole that if someone had offered to write it into a script, an editor would probably reject it for being too on the nose. Rowdy ran into trouble before the race’s first stage was even complete, ran around with a damaged Toyota and then ended up getting finished off by an even bigger incident later on. It wouldn’t have been fun for anyone, much less someone accustomed to winning on a regular basis.

Not that Busch has been doing that recently. As title defenses go, this one has been absolutely miserable, with the No. 18 team winless since the 2019 season finale and the victim of six finishes of 30th or worse. Even a very respectable 12 top fives – including four runner-up results – probably rates as salt in the wound for a pilot of Busch’s caliber.

A lot has been said and written about how Busch and his crew have been affected by the lack of practice and qualifying in this uniquely trying campaign, but the truth is that all the other Cup Series teams had to evolve to deal with those same conditions, and nearly all of them at the top of the sport did so with more success. The only silver lining is that unless Busch wins at the ROVAL, his chances at a repeat are almost a lock to be over, leaving everyone in his orbit free to start thinking about 2021. The No. 18 team enters the race with a 21-point deficit.

4. Someone is Going to Give Kyle Larson His Second Chance Soon

There can be no debate that what Larson did to get suspended indefinitely from NASCAR competition was deserving of the punishment. What is less certain is whether he would do the soul-searching necessary to earn himself a return to the sport’s biggest stage.

Happily, the answer to that question appears to be “yes.” Larson posted an extraordinarily honest assessment of what he’d done and the steps he’d taken to learn from his high profile mistake on his personal website this past Sunday. While he still comes off a little naïve for not knowing the racial slur he used was unacceptable regardless of the context or circumstances, everything else about his apology and the actions he admits he still needs to take rings true.

People around stock car racing expect that an announcement about Larson’s reinstatement and his next ride could come as soon as this week, and momentum appears to be swinging heavily toward his return. Sports, and society in general, love a redemptions story, and Larson is young enough that his could be an earnest one.

This being NASCAR, of course, it’ll depend on having a company who will sponsor him if he ends up at Hendrick Motorpsorts, as is heavily rumored, or wherever. The hunch here is that there are three types of businesses out there: those that would not consider him at all, those that are OK with him returning but would rather someone else put themselves out there and partner with him, and the group that will actually fund his comeback. All it’s going to take is a few from that last group to make it a reality.

5. The Most Impressive Stat of Kevin Harvick‘s Season is…

… not his nine wins, but his zero DNFs. Consider that only two other Cup Series regulars, Hamlin and DiBenedetto, have managed to make it to this point in the season with a single DNF. The Round of 8 could have three drivers in it with four DNFs each.

We’ve probably jinxed him now, particularly with the ROVAL on deck, but it takes a special blend of skill, teamwork, and yes, luck, to get through 31 races and be running at the end of them all.

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