Who… should you be talking about after the race?
Ryan Blaney earned his way into the playoffs with his win at Charlotte Motor Speedway in May, but he had not won since. Until Sunday, that is. Blaney led just eight laps in the YellaWood 500 at Talladega Superspeedway, but he led the one that counted, taking the checkered flag by .0012 over Kevin Harvick (who was later disqualified for a windshield violation).
This has been a tough year for Team Penske. The Fords in general have struggled, and the Penske gang had just two wins heading into the weekend. Blaney’s teammate Joey Logano, the defending Cup champion, has already been eliminated from the playoffs. Logano led a race-high 49 laps Sunday, and Austin Cindric also scored a top five, so it’s the best weekend Team Penske has had in a while.
And don’t forget Justin Haley. Haley finished solid sixth and led once without controversy. He finished seventh in the first stage and was in the thick of it at the end.He’s a very good superspeedway driver, and while he’s moving on from Kaulig Racing at the end of the year, he gave them a very good finish this week.
What… is the big question leaving this race in the rearview?
Denny Hamlin finished third when all was said and done on Sunday. Cindric also scored a top five. Both drivers did all they could on the final lap to take those top-five finishes. But did they really deserve them?
Their great runs, particularly Hamlin’s as he’s a playoff driver, also highlighted a question that’s been circulating for years: Should a driver who loses a lap because of a penalty get it back via the free pass? Hamlin, Cindric and Erik Jones all benefitted from the free pass Sunday despite having been penalized for pit road infractions.
Maybe it’s time to close that loophole tight.
If a penalized driver races his way back to the lead lap or uses the wave around successfully, he’s earned his way back. But the free pass seems like it should go to a driver who didn’t break the rules to need it in the first place.
Where… did the other key players wind up?
Pole Winner Aric Almirola had a decent enough day. He led four times for seven laps, the most he’s led in a race since Atlanta Motor Speedway in July when he led a total of 46. Amid a dismal season overall for Stewart-Haas Racing, Almirola hasn’t really driven badly. He finished 18th in Sunday’s final-lap melee.
Kyle Larson entered the week as the driver on the playoff bubble, just two points to the good, and was looking for a strong finish. He scored some stage points, finishing third and seventh in the first two stages, and was in the thick of things coming to the checkers until he was caught up in the biggest Big One of the day, winding up 16th. He entered the day just a couple of points to the good in the playoffs, but gained enough to have a more comfortable 15-point gap over ninth-place Tyler Reddick.
Defending race winner Chase Elliott led four times for eight laps, making it three out of the last four races where he has led laps and the second time he’s led in three of four this season. Unfortunately for Elliott, a chance at a win was erased in the last-lap mayhem, though Elliott did cross the finish line in ninth.
Active Talladega win leader Brad Keselowski looked strong in the first half, winning stage two and looking every bit like the driver with six Talladega wins under his belt. Unfortunately for Keselowski, he was mounting a charge on the outside lane when Carson Hocevar made a move to jump in front of the line. Keselowski was able to push Hocevar coming to the tri-oval but not smoothly through it, triggering an eight-car incident that ended Keselowski’s (and several others’) day and led to a red flag to repair the SAFER barrier.
When… was the moment of truth?
Some drivers are in their element on road courses, others on short tracks. Superspeedways might be a roll of the dice these days, but racing on these tracks is still a skill that some drivers have in spades while others struggle to run in the draft.
Blaney made a bold move to get to the inside of Harvick in the final laps, the move that ultimately won the race for Blaney.
As Blaney and Harvick raced for the win, a huge crash (predictably) broke out behind them. It appeared that it was triggered by Corey LaJoie and Riley Herbst, both of whom showed throughout the race that they had some chops, but Herbst is inexperienced in a Cup car and LaJoie at running with the leaders, and it didn’t take more than a bad push to trigger a multi-car crash.
The reality of superspeedway racing has become the inevitability of huge pileups, and as we saw Sunday, the best speedway drivers can get caught in someone else’s mistake. The best can also make the mistake in dirty air, as six-time Talladega winner Keselowski pushed Hocevar just over the brink. The truth is, speedway races have become as memorable for the crashes as they are for moves like Blaney’s.
Why… should you be paying attention this week?
It’s the second cut-down race of the playoffs, and here’s where things get serious. By the time the playoff field is trimmed to just eight, they’re all legit contenders for the championship.
It’s also the only road course race in the playoffs, on Charlotte Motor Speedway’s infield course (ROVAL isn’t a real word, kids), a tight course that’s seen plenty of crazy action in its short time on the circuit. It’s a good chance for a driver to pull off a surprise win, but it can also spell the end of someone’s title hopes.
There’s been some speculation swirling that this year could be the last time the Cup Series visits the infield course, with the possibility of returning to Charlotte’s oval for the playoff race next fall. If that is indeed the case, the winner will also have a little historical significance to go with the trophy.
How… come the Damaged Vehicle Policy is a thing?
It seemed like a good idea at the time, but it has hurt more than it has helped when it comes to the playoffs. When drivers are eliminated by one point, they should be allowed to race for every point they can get. There have been situations where, if teams had been allowed to make repairs behind the wall and return, they could have gained a few positions and a few points. When that can be the difference between elimination and a title run, they need to be allowed to do it.
The DVP was an extreme reaction to a problem: Cars were getting back on track who had no business doing so and causing problems for the leaders with either slow cars or shedding parts.
What should happen is that cars should be able to make repairs behind the wall, with an official observing, and when both the team and official agree it’s safe to return, it can return to the race with five laps to make minimum speed. At that point, if it can’t make speed, or if any piece falls off on the racing surface, the day is done. Not letting them make repairs affects the championship, and that seems counterproductive to the point of the rule.
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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