TALLADEGA, Ala. — Ryan Blaney beat Kevin Harvick in a drag race across the Talladega Superspeedway finish line to win his second NASCAR Cup Series victory of 2023 on Sunday (Oct. 1) with William Byron in tow.
After the race, however, Harvick was disqualified in post-race inspection. As a result, Austin Cindric earned his first top-five finish of 2023.
The victory is Blaney’s third at Talladega and solidifies his entry into the playoff Round of 8.
But What Really Happened?
We’ve seen the return of the third lane repeatedly in 2023, which has made superspeedway racing a bit better.
But it isn’t always a good thing.
In 2022, the Next Gen car brought upon the ear of two-and-a-half lane racing, which included the dominance of the bottom two lanes and multiple failed attempts at creating a top third lane. The result? A collection of superspeedway racing that saw drag racing lanes for hours. However, we also saw fewer cautions and fewer torn up racecars.
Last year’s fall Talladega race saw only four cars in the garage during the end of the 500-mile event. One of them was even an electrical failure. In the spring, the entire final stage went green flag the entire distance with no incidents.
It was also one of the tamest Talladega races we have seen in recent memory. A tame superspeedway race that saw double-file runs and still a decent amount of lead changes.
That said, there was less passing in the mid pack. And that was mostly the pattern for Next Gen racing last year.
This year, pack racing at Talladega, Daytona International Speedway and Atlanta Motor Speedway has produced three- and even four-wide racing contrary to what we saw in 2022.
Then comes the double-edged sword.
Sunday’s 500-mile race saw seven cars be scored as out of the race, and that doesn’t include the unfortunate teams that were caught up in the last-lap incident and crashed across the line.
So, which one would you rather have? Do you want safe, yet less exciting, superspeedway racing that sees double-file racing the whole time? Or do you want more exciting racing that sees three-wide packs at the cost of more cars getting torn up as a result?
This is the nature of superspeedway racing, and while seeing four-wide cars on the high banks is great for the highlight reel or for next year’s ticket advertising, it usually precedes a spectacular crash that also makes the highlight reel.
And it’s only a matter of time until we’ll see a crash big enough to wish for that vanilla pack racing back, and then we’ll get bored of that, and the cycle will continue.
If you remember Ryan Preece‘s crash at Daytona in August, maybe we already have.
Who Stood Out?
Blaney earned the stage 1 victory and the eventual race win, but Team Penske as a whole had a lot to be celebrating at the end of the day.
For example, the other yellow car at the helm for much of the day was Joey Logano. In fact, he was up front for most of the day. The No. 22 Ford led the pack for 48 laps, which was the race high.
Unfortunately, Logano would only end up 22nd when it was all said and done after fading to the end of the field.
The good news for the organization, however, is he was the only horse in the stable to finish outside of the top five. Therin lies Austin Cindric.
Cindric’s last top-10 result came from the Chicago Street Course three whole months ago, so while the Cup Series sophomore is not in the playoffs this year, a Team Penske driver not at least scoring top 10s is sure to turn some eyes.
But Cindric kept his critics at bay for a bit longer after a decent showing on the Alabama circuit. The No. 2 ran up front for a decent showing and led 15 laps — just three short of the total amount he’s led all year prior to Sunday.
It almost didn’t end well for him. Cindric found himself a lap down after a speeding penalty and fighting the likes of Hamlin for the free pass. For a moment, it looked as if those 15 laps led would amount to nothing again for the No. 2.
But late in the going, the 25-year-old was able to regain his lap and found himself in the hunt for the win. Cindric would cross the line sixth and earn another top-10 result.
Cindric’s sixth-place finish was upgraded to a fifth-place result after Harvick was disqualified for failing post-race inspection. The result was his first top-five finish since Las Vegas Motor Speedway in the fall of 2022.
Who Fell Flat?
Next week at the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL doesn’t have any must-win situations, but it does have one in a steeper hole to dig out of than all the other drivers outside of the playoffs.
Kyle Busch was one of the favorites entering the Alabama weekend after winning the spring race earlier this year, but his day would turn south early on.
At the end of the first stage, Busch was racing hard for those precious stage points at the front of the pack and was in contention to get a playoff point in the process.
However, his plan to run up front backfired.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was running competitively as well. On the final lap of stage 1, the Mississippi native was running in front of the No. 8 of Busch, and the two were forming a top lane for a run to the front.
Then Stenhouse ran out of fuel right in front of him.
Despite the fact that Ross Chastain received the brunt of the damage from the incident, Busch felt the bigger impact where it hurts the most — the points.
Chastain, ironically, is only 10 points below the cut line as a result in 11th place. It’s not great, but far from being in a must-win scenario.
Busch on the other hand, is now last in the playoff standings and a whole 26 points behind Brad Keselowski in eighth after finishing 26th at the end of the day.
Better Than Last Time?
Sunday was already a different showing from what we saw in 2022, but it was also vastly different from what we’ve seen at Talladega in the past 12 years.
Why? It was the most competitive race we have seen since fall 2011, not only at Talladega, but in every Cup Series race.
Sunday’s 500-miler had 70 lead changes. That’s only two less than how many there were in October 2011 at Talladega during the controversial superspeedway tandem racing era.
It supports the idea that the Next Gen era of Talladega racing has created more competition in the idea of lead changes. That’s certainly without a doubt because of the three-wide racing we saw all year.
Race winner Blaney agreed.
Paint Scheme of the Race
Shake and bake.
Stewart-Haas Racing drivers Preece and Chase Briscoe were swapped with Talladega Nights stars Ricky Bobby and Cal Naughton Jr. this past weekend as the two friends made their triumphant return to the high banks of Talladega Superspeedway.
The liveries feature some special one-off (for now) sponsors of Wonder Bread and Old Spice, which brings an additional level of special for the occasion.
But what really seals the deal is some of the amazing social content that has stemmed from it featuring the two drivers in some of their most iconic and funniest moments.
From awkward and funny sponsor ad reads.
To Preece not knowing what to do with his hands.
It was a fun week of social media content coming out of the SHR camp, and it brilliantly put on display something NASCAR fans have been missing for years from many of their favorite drivers.
The Cup Series makes its annual trip to the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL for its final road course race of 2023. Qualifying for the Bank of America ROVAL 400 will be live on Saturday, Oct. 7, at 1 p.m. ET with the race being televised live on Sunday, Oct. 8, at 2 p.m. ET on NBC.
About the author
Dalton Hopkins began writing for Frontstretch in April 2021. Currently, he is the lead writer for the weekly Thinkin' Out Loud column and one of our lead reporters. Beforehand, he wrote for IMSA shortly after graduating from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in 2019. Simultaneously, he also serves as a First Lieutenant in the US Army.
Follow Dalton on Twitter @PitLaneLT
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