Who … should you be talking about after the race?
Kyle Busch led just three laps during Sunday’s GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway (April 23) and never led more than one lap in a row. But he led the last one, ignoring his crew chief’s call to pit for fuel and surviving two overtime restarts to win for the 62nd time in his career.
Talladega is a track where patience is as important as anything, and Lady Luck often plays a hand in the final rundown. Busch clearly had her favor on Sunday, staying on track despite being so low on fuel that his car shut off before he had the chance to do a celebratory burnout. He played the long game well, positioning himself near the front but not doing anything to get himself involved in any of the late incidents that, one by one, took other drivers with strong cars out of contention.
And don’t forget RFK Racing. Brad Keselowski and Chris Buescher were among the favorites to win Sunday after a strong season debut at Daytona, but both struggled early on Sunday, dropping to the back of the pack and staying there for most of the day. It appeared that they were playing the strategy game of laying back to avoid trouble, but neither seemed to be able to move up as the laps wound down.
But then, as the race entered overtime, there they were. Keselowski made a bid for the win on the final restart before falling back to fifth. Meanwhile, Buescher saw a window as mayhem erupted coming to the checkered flag and drove his way to a third-place finish that looked out of the question earlier in the day.
What … is the big question leaving this race weekend in the rearview?
Sunday’s race started off relatively tame, but the weekend at Talladega was far from tame as Saturday’s action featured a number of scary-looking incidents including two cars getting airborne during the Xfinity Series race. As of race time Sunday, NXS driver Blaine Perkins was still in the hospital for observation following his car getting sent into the air and then flipping several times.
A separate incident left Daniel Hemric’s car on its roof until safety crews could set it upright so that Hemric could climb out. Riley Herbst sounded confused and foggy in an interview after being released from infield care.
The Cup drivers saved their chaos until the closing laps, but when it happened, the hits were big. Ryan Preece’s collision with Kyle Larson on the first overtime attempt was brutal; Preece called it the hardest hit of his career and the passenger-side rollcage in Larson’s machine was mangled.
Have the drivers, particularly at lower levels, become complacent about safety? Today’s cars are so safe that serious injuries are relatively rare and there hasn’t been a fatality in a national division in more than 20 years. That’s the best possible scenario for NASCAR and its teams and fans, but has it led to drivers — particularly those who are young, inexperienced and who may not have lost their youngster’s sense of invincibility yet — making rash moves?
Racecars are so unstable in the air at a superspeedway that it doesn’t take much to send one around; the smallest mistake can cause a multi-car crash. That makes the give-and-take that’s a part of superspeedway racing even more vital. That got forgotten a few times on Saturday, and inexperience coupled with aggression caused plenty of chaos.
Drivers have to learn somewhere, but maybe it’s time for a re-evaluation of who’s eligible to race at superspeedways in some divisions. Many young drivers don’t have experience with the personal cost of racing … and hopefully they won’t have to learn it the hard way.
Where … did the other key players wind up?
Pole winner Denny Hamlin led seven laps in stage two and then spent much of the third stage of the race locked to the bumper of Bubba Wallace in the No. 23, a car he owns, and it put him in good position as the race wound down. Unfortunately for Hamlin, overtime meant he’d have to pit for fuel under caution. That may have saved him from getting caught in the final wreck, so while Hamlin did avoid the crash, he finished 15th.
Fall race winner Chase Elliott won the first stage and had a strong car. He avoided the late trouble and finished 12th. Avoiding major incident was exactly what Elliott needed to do once he fell out of contention for the win, as he continues to heal from a broken leg, so while he didn’t have the win he hoped for, it was a good day for Elliott overall.
Defending race winner Ross Chastain was in the mix, like several others, right up until chaos took over. On the first overtime restart, Chastain was following leader Noah Gragson on the outside line when Gragson got loose trying to block. With Larson on his own tail, Chastain had nowhere to go when Gragson overcorrected, and that set off the crash that brought out the second overtime of the day. Chastain finished 22nd.
When … was the moment of truth?
They came so close. The field was within a dozen laps of the finish without a major incident marring the racing when Joey Logano made a move to the outside lane, only to have any momentum stripped by a side draft at the worst possible time; Logano spun off the nose of Corey LaJoie and collected a handful of others. It wasn’t a huge pileup by Talladega standards, but it changed the game.
It all illustrates the problem with superspeedway racing. Had the race gone green to the end, fans would probably have been treated to a great finish. Instead, it was double overtime and a pair of ugly restarts that fans will take away from this race.
All three late incidents have nobody to blame. Logano made a smart move that got derailed and the final two were blocks that came a fraction of a second too late. Nobody did anything egregious, it was just the nature of the race.
And that nature took it from a potentially great finish to just another superspeedway clunker as two more incidents spawned from the Logano crash. With no throttle response, drivers can’t back out more than a fraction to avoid something in front of them, because they’ll get run over from behind instead. This isn’t driver error at play; even bad blocks turn worse than they should be because of the closing rate. Maybe it’s time to break up the singular big pack.
Why … should you be paying attention this week?
After a trio of short tracks and the wildcard at Talladega, the Cup Series will see action on three very different intermediate tracks before the All-Star break. Next weekend’s event at Dover Motor Speedway is the only race on the banked 1-mile track of the season.
Dover once produced some chaos of its own, but recent years have seen a tamer kind of racing. Passing will be at a premium, so look for some teams to try some strategy moves to stay in the game.
Given the nature of racing at Dover, is its drop to earlier on the schedule (the race was traditionally held the first weekend in June, following the Coca-Cola 600, for many years before being dropped to May and, now, late April) more than just an unfortunate coincidence?
It wouldn’t be the first time a race got moved to a date with questionable weather as a setup move to remove it from the schedule altogether when attendance predictably drops. Dover’s not dead yet, but the Monster Mile could end up on life support if turnout suffers from the April chill that can still be in the air.
How … is the title race shaping up at the 10-race mark?
At this point in 2022, there were already nine drivers with wins who would go on to make the playoffs. This year isn’t off to as exciting a start, as Busch is the third driver in 10 races to post his second win of the season and Busch, Larson and William Byron are locked in on wins.
It doesn’t look as likely as a year ago that the trend of more winners will be the factor it was last year, when only Ryan Blaney made the postseason on points, and then only because the injured Kurt Busch took himself out of the running.
So who has looked like the win they need is coming? Chastain has had plenty of speed. Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. have struggled with consistency at times but are certainly capable. Elliott just needs to find his rhythm, and his teammate Alex Bowman has been up front consistently.
While 2023 has lacked the unpredictability of 2022, there’s still plenty of opportunity for different drivers to win; those wins just seem safer than a year ago and that should be a relief to the winners so far.
About the author
Amy is an 20-year veteran NASCAR writer and a six-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 working on her bi-weekly columns Holding A Pretty Wheel (Tuesdays) and Only Yesterday (Wednesdays). A New Hampshire native whose heart is 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.
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