NASCAR: Talladega Turmoil Produces Playoff Perfection

TALLADEGA, AL - OCTOBER 15: Brad Keselowski, driver of the #2 Miller Lite Ford, celebrates in victory lane after winning the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Alabama 500 at Talladega Superspeedway on October 15, 2017 in Talladega, Alabama. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

TALLADEGA, AL: Brad Keselowski, driver of the #2 Miller Lite Ford, celebrates in victory lane after winning the Alabama 500 (Photo: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

If high speed racing in clustered three-wide packs is truly an acquired taste, then I’m craving more.  Sunday’s racing at Talladega Superspeedway was nothing short of the finest that such super long ovals with high-banked corners can deliver in NASCAR.

The Alabama 500 was certainly inspiring, with a packed house and the best TV ratings for a Talladega race in five years.

Fans were loud and boisterous, although devotees of Dale Earnhardt Jr. likely left frustrated that he couldn’t snag a checkered flag in his final appearance at the track, despite starting from the pole.

If there was any solace, Earnhardt Jr was running for the prize at the end, and that passionate energy was apparent as he survived multiple near misses, like a cat with nine lives.

Even more promising, a rising star named Chase Elliott garnered significant cheers when he drove the Hendrick Motorsports #24 Chevrolet to the front, and the dash to the finish line with Penske driver Brad Keselowski sweeping to the bottom in front of Ryan Newman to steal the victory on the final lap propelled fans into a frenzy as well.

Inevitably, the last restrictor-plate race of the season was a wreckfest that featured multiple red flags and the elimination of more than one-half of the cars prior to the conclusion of the race.  Such chaos ensures there will always be cynics who demand that Talladega “bulldoze the banks” and bring back normalcy to racing.

Yet, crashes serve to remind us of the fundamental risk in motorsports, with drivers on the edge of the competitive scalpel.  As the adage goes, we don’t want to see drivers injured, but we can’t look away from a spectacular pileup.

Oct 15, 2017; Talladega, AL, USA; A pack of 17 drivers wreck in turn three during the Alabama 500 at Talladega Superspeedway. Mandatory Credit: John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

A pack of drivers wreck in turn 3 during the Alabama 500. (Photo: John David Mercer/USA TODAY)

So what qualities make these superspeedway races so appealing?

First, driver skill was evident throughout the race.  No doubt there is randomness to such racing, but all forms of competitive sport feature a certain amount of luck.  However, superspeedway races require a mental toughness and spatial awareness that taxes the drivers’ focus.  Situational awareness is critical in knowing when to make the right move and at what time.

Hard racing, side by side and in close quarters, was on display throughout the day.  Drivers could not afford to hang back with three stages of playoff points in play.  The tension in the pack was evident, and required a fine balance of patience and aggressiveness, like a game of high stakes poker.

More prominently, playoff stress escalated tremendously.  At the halfway point of the ten race NASCAR playoffs, Talladega injected sorely needed buzz into a championship chase that seemed on autopilot, with an inexorable march of four Toyota teammates originally anointed to reach the Championship final at Homestead-Miami in November.

With Brad Keselowski’s win, Ford broke up the Toyota juggernaut that had won the all the playoff races to this point.

Crucially, for the Kansas Speedway elimination next weekend, former Champions Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch, and Jimmie Johnson are on the brink of elimination unless they deliver the goods.

With two victories in the 1st playoff round, Busch looked primed to punch his ticket to the Championship.  Now, two poor back-to-back finishes has jeopardized his quest.  Nothing wrong with that.  Being on the brink of elimination often showcases the true mettle of Champion contenders in overcoming adversity and proving their pedigree.

Superspeedway races resemble a marathon sprint, challenging both the driver’s and team’s mental stamina and physical endurance.  Sunday’s race featured almost four hours of racing, as well as compression on pit crews to repair damage quickly and get back on the field of play.  Many drivers, including Jimmie Johnson and Joey Logano, soldiered on despite damage to their vehicles early in the race, with Logano netting a 4th place finish for his efforts.

Conversely, risk and reward are on full display.  Jamie McMurray, driver of the Chip Ganassi #1 Chevy, made an ill-advised dart for pit road to refuel, eerily like being on the interstate while crossing three lanes of traffic without a turn signal, and paid the price.  Now, the Chip Ganassi playoff contender sits at the bottom of the standings, desperately needing a win at Kansas Speedway to avoid elimination.

TALLADEGA, AL - OCTOBER 15: Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the #88 Mountain Dew Chevrolet, waves to the crowd on his driver introduction lap prior to the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Alabama 500 at Talladega Superspeedway on October 15, 2017 in Talladega, Alabama. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the #88 Mountain Dew Chevrolet, bids farewell to his legion of fans at Talladega Superspeedway prior to the race. (Photo: Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Most satisfying, in the post-race conversation, the sport’s fan base is not griping about aero push, the leader running away from the field, or the advantage of the Toyota powerplant.  Instead, fans are chattering about the actual competition on the track, the drama of the playoffs, and the final lap sequence to the checkered flag.

Genuinely, I ‘m now a superspeedway convert, captivated by the lore of these tracks’  legacy in NASCAR.  Liking such races may be heretical for racing purist.  The action is pure mayhem at times.  Yet, Talladega is a great equalizer, putting the emphasis more on the driver and the choices made with the wheel, rather than the mechanics of the car.  For drivers, somebody will surely be mad at you at the end of the race, and that’s ok.

Next year, NASCAR’s playoffs will be spicier with a mile long concrete monster (Dover International Speedway), Talladega Superspeedway, and Kansas Speedway comprising the 2nd Round elimination segment, along with the twist of the newfangled Charlotte road course concluding the 1st round playoff eliminator.  For enthusiasts desiring a shift away from the dominance of tedious 1.5-mile ovals, such an assortment will surely ramp the drama meter in 2018.  Count me in!

By Ron Bottano (@rbottano)

Share your take: Does Talladega deserve a place in the Playoffs? Take our Twitter poll at @racingunplugged

Richmond: Thoughts On Busch, Montoya, Newman And A Bit More

A few random thoughts after the Crown Royal 400 at Richmond International Raceway:

** The 2011 Sprint Cup season is one-quarter over and, while it’s still too early to draw any real conclusions, some drivers whom we thought would be in the championship hunt, and aren’t, now have more pressure on them.

Denny Hamlin, Kasey Kahne, Jeff Burton, Joey Logano, Greg Biffle and Jamie McMurray are some of the drivers who figured to rank among the top 10 by now, and thus Chase eligible, in many pre-season reports.

However, at present, Biffle ranks 14th in points and the others are 17th and beyond. It’s especially surprising to see Hamlin at 17th, given that he was considered the man who could potentially bring Jimmie Johnson’s string of five consecutive championships to an end.

A couple of tasks face these drivers. First, they have to start piling up decent finishes, and somewhat quickly. That, obviously, could lead to a rise in the point standings.

It can be done. Clint Bowyer provides ample proof of that. At Richmond, where he finished sixth, the Richard Childress Racing driver posted his fifth consecutive top-10 of the season. He has gained 17 positions in points in the last five races. He’s presently seventh in the standings.

But, while it can be done, what Bowyer has achieved isn’t routine in NASCAR. It’s the exception, not the rule.

Consequently, the aforementioned drivers, who will certainly do their utmost to match or better what Bowyer has done, can’t rely it alone.

That brings up an alternate strategy – which is to win.

With its revamped requirements for the Chase this year, the top 10 in points are eligible after 26 races. Also in the field are “wildcard” entries consisting of the two drivers ranked among the top 20 who have won the most races.

So if the mentioned drivers, not all of whom currently rank in the top 20, by the way, and several others not in the top 10 can win a race, that adds a measure of insurance.

Jeff Gordon, who is 16th in points, is the only driver outside the top 10 in points who has a victory (yes, Trevor Bayne is another but he is not eligible for the Cup championship). So at the moment, Gordon has an advantage.

Several others would, at the least, like to match it.

But if putting together a series of high finishes is an exception and not the norm in NASCAR, what do you think winning is?

As said, it’s early in the year and there’s time for any number of scenarios to play out.

What could prove to be a very exciting one for fans is for a few drivers, desperate to make the Chase as its start looms, throw strategy and caution to the wind and make an all-out lunge for victory.

It could happen. No, make that it will happen.

 

** Love him or hate him, Kyle Busch demands respect as a race driver.

His Richmond victory was the 21st of his young Cup career. He ranks third in NASCAR to achieve that many wins by the age of 26, behind Jeff Gordon (26) and Richard Petty (22).

That Busch won should not have been all that surprising. He now has won Richmond’s spring race three consecutive times, which ties him with Petty. Hamlin has won the other two races at RIR in the last three years, which gives Joe Gibbs Racing five straight victories at the 0.75-mile track – and eight overall.

Hamlin, incidentally, was the runnerup in the Crown Royal 400 and he dominated the Nationwide Series race on the previous night.

It’s not likely that Busch will ever be NASCAR’s most popular driver – but you never know. Wiseguy Darrell Waltrip was once, like Busch, called a jerk. But he was the fans’ choice twice in his career.

You don’t have to like Busch. But I think his talent should always be recognized, even if grudgingly.

** The incidents between Juan Pablo Montoya and Ryan Newman were not atypical of short-track racing.

First, Newman rubbed Montoya and sent him into the wall. Then, later in the race, Montoya did the same thing. Happens all the time.

The only difference was that while few chose to call Newman’s actions deliberate, there was little doubt about Montoya’s.

NASCAR warned both drivers about bad behavior and even told Montoya that if he got near Newman, his car would be ordered to its hauler.

Many media members felt the issue would spill over into the garage area, especially since the haulers of Montoya and Newman were parked almost alongside each other.

After the race there could be some good chin-to-chin action – or more. Hey, it’s happened.

Instead Montoya left the track without comment – a good move on his part. Newman went to the NASCAR hauler. He told the media he was going to ask the sanctioning body what it was going to do about all that happened.

In my opinion, that was another good move. If he did what he said he was going to do, Newman effectively put the ball into NASCAR’s court; for it to tell him, and all of us, how it is going to rule on the issue.

Had Newman and Montoya gotten into a scrap in the garage, NASCAR would have come down hard on both of them.

Had their entanglements on the track involved other cars, believe me, NASCAR would have acted swiftly.

As it is, it appears Newman stated his case to NASCAR and asked for a ruling. Smart move.

What will NASCAR do? If it hands out any punishment beyond probation I’d be surprised.

But NASCAR has surprised me many times.

 

Title Contenders? Call All This One Man’s Folly

This isn’t exactly the usual “here are some drivers who could win the Sprint Cup championship in 2011” piece. Reckon you have seen – or will see – plenty of those.
But allow me to get a bit personal and list some drivers I’d like to see earn a title for reasons logical, sentimental, or, perhaps in your opinion, downright far-fetched.
Most of these drivers won’t be on anyone’s A-list of contenders but racing being what it is – which is to say the only correct prediction made about it is that it’s unpredictable – who knows?
Anyway, this is just one man’s folly. Hey, you might even agree with some of this.

Mark Martin – Probably nearly everyone’s sentimental choice. He’s nearly 52 years old, has been racing all his life, over two decades in NASCAR, and has yet to win a Sprint Cup championship. He’s finished second in points four times and third on four more occasions. He had a stellar season with Hendrick Motorsports in 2009 with five victories – but he wound up second again.
Many thought he would contend for a title in 2010 but he had an off-season in which he didn’t win and slumped to 13th in points.
Obviously, he would love to rebound in his last season with Hendrick. Plenty of fans would love to see him do at least that and perhaps more. It would suit me.
I’m sure Martin doesn’t want to retire – whenever that happens – to be known as NASCAR’s best driver to have never won a championship.
I’m also sure that if I ever write that again Martin will express his displeasure one way or another.

Jeff Burton – The driver considered as NASCAR’s most able spokesman and statesman is also one of its best drivers. The shame is that when it comes to the Chase, he climbs the mountain but has never reached the summit. Something always gets in his way.
All three Richard Childress Racing drivers made the Chase last year but Burton wound up 12th in points and, for him, that had to be disappointing.
Although he can be feisty – we’ve seen evidence of that – Burton is considered a very nice guy. Nice guys are supposed to finish last. Would be great to see a nice guy finish first.

Kyle Busch – He’s proven that he can win in anything he drives. Problem is he hasn’t been able to put it all together in the Chase. You gotta figure that’s got to change sooner or later.
Besides, he’s perhaps the closest thing we have to the image of the opinionated, cocky, no-quarter driver of the past. He’s the poster figure for “Boys, have at it.” It would be fun – maybe even appropriate – to see the principle proponent of NASCAR’s new philosophy claim the title.
Yeah, while it would be good to see a nice guy finish first, it would be a hoot to see a bad boy do the same.

Matt Kenseth – He claimed a championship in 2003 and it’s likely he’s already been considered a title threat by many. But here’s a thought:
After Kenseth won the championship, the Chase came into existence the next season and changed the NASCAR environment. Some liked it, many did not. But it’s not going anywhere.
One of many reasons the Chase came to be is the concept that the champion should never be a driver who wins only one race in a season, which Kenseth did in ’03, while other competitors gained many more victories. Don’t know about you but I heard that a lot.
Bet Kenseth did, too.
If he could win a championship in the Chase format he’d obviously be very happy – and maybe imagine himself thumbing his nose at a lot of folks.

Kasey Kahne – He didn’t win last year and finished 20th in points, his worst showing since 2005, in a final turbulent season with Richard Petty Motorsports. He departed RPM late in the season to join Red Bull Motorsports, for which he’ll race this year. Then he moves on to Hendrick in 2012. Got all that?
Kahne is certainly a much better driver than his 2010 numbers showed. That’s so widely accepted that it hardly bears mentioning. And he’s eager to prove it.
A championship would certainly do more than that. I’m guessing many female fans would heartily approve.

Jamie McMurray – He’s a guy who wasn’t sure he had a ride as the 2009 season ended. Then he reunited with Earnhardt Ganassi Racing and won the Daytona 500, the Brickyard 400 and the Bank of America 500. It’s quite a Cinderella story.
Be interesting to see if the clock hasn’t struck midnight for McMurray and the story gets even better.

Juan Pablo Montoya – Think of it: A Colombian wins the championship in a sport that has its roots in the South with a bunch of good ol’ redneck boys. Ah, the irony.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. – I don’t really have to say anything, do I?

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Reunion Led To Improbable Year For McMurray

Unquestionably the driver who had the most improbable 2010 NASCAR Sprint Cup season was Jamie McMurray.

He didn’t make the Chase, but the driver for Earnhardt Ganassi Racing won three races, two of them among NASCAR’s most high-profile and financially rewarding.

Many eyebrows were raised when McMurray began his second tenure with Ganassi by winning the Daytona 500. Then, in July, he won the prestigious Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis.

Ganassi is the only team owner to win the Daytona 500, the Brickyard 400 and the Indianapolis 500 in a single season.
McMurray’s third and final victory came in the Bank of America 500 at Charlotte – another high-profile race, by the way.
That’s darn good for a guy who, at the end of 2009, wasn’t sure if he would even have a ride for the coming season.
McMurray suspected that his four-year tenure with Roush Fenway Racing was coming to an end. NASCAR had ruled that no organization could field more than four teams and since Roush had five, one had to go. That was, ultimately, McMurray’s.

Ironically, McMurray latched on with the team that gave him his start in Cup competition.
In 2002 Sterling Marlin was Ganassi’s driver. He was atop the point standings when, late in the season with six races remaining, he suffered what became a career-ending neck injury at Kansas.

Marlin was replaced by McMurray, who amazingly won in only his second start for the team at Charlotte in October.
That was to be his only high moment.

During the next three years with Ganassi, McMurray didn’t win a race and finished no higher than 11th in points.
Felix Sabates, the outspoken co-owner at Ganassi, said there was a reason for that.

“At the time Jamie drove for us we weren’t a very good team,” he said. “I had owned a team for years and when Chip came aboard he had to clean up the mess I’d left him. It had all gone to hell.

“We had gone through a lot of turmoil and turnover. Yet I thought were still better that we were showing.”
Sabates added that many changes were made after Ganassi essentially took over.

“We switched from Chevrolet to Dodge and it took us three years just to learn how to spell Dodge,” Sabates said. “We shut down our engine shop and turned to Ernie Elliott to build our engines.

“For the first couple of years Chip did everything he could to try to change things – and eventually he did.”
As Ganassi worked to alter the team’s fortunes McMurray left after the 2005 season to join Roush.
“I told Jamie that if Roush was going to pay him the kind of bucks I thought he would, then Jamie should take the money,” Sabates said. “We couldn’t pay him that money. And I thought he could do better with Roush than us.”

From 2006-2009 McMurray did win twice with Roush but never finished higher than16th in points. He wasn’t regarded as one of the five-car team’s high-profile drivers.

When the Roush down-sizing happened at the end of 2009, McMurray was cut loose.
McMurray felt all along he was going to be the odd man out and said so during a dinner with Sabates.
“Actually, Jamie and I met because he was looking for a house,” Sabates said. “But he did tell me that he thought he was going to be let go at Roush but didn’t know for sure because he hadn’t been told.”

McMurray indicated he would like to re-join Ganassi if possible. Sabates relayed the message to Ganassi, who said he liked the idea but couldn’t make a move until McMurray’s departure from Roush was official.

“After we knew Jamie was gone I called Chip a couple of times and then I guess Jamie’s agent called Chip,” Sabates said. “And that’s how we got together.”

McMurray did not return to the same team he had left after 2005. By 2009 Ganassi had merged with Dale Earnhardt Inc. to form Earnhardt Ganassi Racing.

“Chip had brought in a bunch of engineers who understood a Cup car rather than an Indy car,” Sabates said. “And the biggest thing we did was to get involved with Earnhardt-Childress Racing to build engines.

“It’s been the whole package. It’s been a complete team turnaround.”
McMurray has also experienced something of a turnaround. He has said that leaving Ganassi was good for him. He’s matured greatly and has learned some valuable lessons.

He provided plenty of evidence of both in 2010 – with considerable help from Earnhardt Ganassi.
Sabates has also learned a few lessons, like when to get out.

“When I’m 70 I’m not going to be doing this any longer,” he said. “I couldn’t even lean over to kiss the bricks when we won at Indianapolis.
“In the near future I’m going to go to Daytona and sit in the suite with Betty Jane France and that’s about it.”
Also, in the near future, things could get even better for McMurray – and no one will think that improbable.

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