Ryan: Even without plates, Talladega still served up a spectacular show

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Better plate than never?

That was a major question entering this year’s Daytona 500 — and particularly after a pair of lackluster races at Talladega Superspeedway last season.

The 2019 season opener marked the last superspeedway race before horsepower-sapping restrictor plates permanently were removed and replaced by the (similarly shaped) tapered spacers used to choke down engines at the rest of the tracks on the circuit.

The plates defined some of the most indelible moments, both tragic and triumphant, in NASCAR over the past three decades

So what would the post-plate era look like in NASCAR?

The 26 Hours of Talladega provided a definitive answer: A lot like most of everything that transpired on the biggest, fastest tracks in NASCAR for the previous 31 years.

Incessant chaos, crushed sheet metal and costly errors.

In other words, insanity on four wheels (as Marcos Ambrose infamously dubbed it) for 500 miles at a time.

It’s the bedrock upon which superspeedway racing happily has rested for three decades in the interest of entertainment (and, ostensibly, safety in ensuring speeds are manageable enough to prevent cars from sailing over catchfences with disturbing regularity at Daytona and Talladega).

After an off-year in 2018, NASCAR found its sweet spot in Sweet Home Alabama this season.

The most arbitrary form of racing delivered by NASCAR’s premier series again felt as predictably unpredictable as it ever had since the restrictor-plate era began in 1988. There were colossal crashes, double-crossing duplicity and razor-tight finishes.

That was great for fans. It wasn’t necessarily good for Cup drivers.

Of course, it rarely is in the finicky and violent environs of Dega, which was unusually tame last year with only two wrecks of at least a half-dozen cars across 1,013 miles (this year, there were three times as many).

The knock on plate racing in 2018 was the lack of driveability. It’s hard to make passes when cars aren’t stable at 200 mph-plus in the draft.

That put the leader at a huge advantage of being able to tow lines at will and control the front of the pack in a decidedly un-Talladega-esque manner. It was most evident last October when Stewart-Haas Racing led 155 of 188 laps with cars that (stunningly) were built for handling instead of speed.

NASCAR addressed this by raising spoilers to 9 inches with the advent of the spacers. That didn’t do much for handling, but it did punch a bigger hole in the air that caused massive acceleration in the draft and eradicated the “aero bubble” barrier that drivers said made it difficult for trailing cars to pass last year.

So the ability to catch the leader improved … even though handling didn’t nearly as much (look no further than Joey Logano’s in-car camera, which was a furious blur of hands manhandling the steering wheel on every shot).

That was a recipe for the return of the huge wrecks that felt like Dega of yesteryear. Holes in the draft vanished much more quickly, and blocking became futile as drivers scrambled (and often failed) to adapt to the higher closing rates.

If there was a theme, it was that misjudgment on blocking and bumping made the racing much more treacherous – particularly in the rain-shortened July 7 wreckfest at Daytona and the extravaganza Sunday-Monday.

As analyst Dale Earnhardt Jr. noted in the NBC broadcast, though the bumpers don’t line up as well with the Gen 6 as in the previous iteration (which spawned the nefarious tandem drafting), the bump-drafting has become even more aggressive in the era of stage points and playoff berths tied to wins.

With bigger runs coming from every direction, an increased susceptibility to being passed and cars just as unstable when in a pack, the lead no longer was the place to be at Talladega.

There were more lead changes Sunday-Monday (46, up from 38 in the April 28 race) than the combined total (40) for both 2018 races. There were 22,214 green-flag passes (59 per lap) at Talladega in 2019, up from 13,294 last year (35 per lap).

A NASCAR without restrictor plates?

Talladega still served up the action for fans — on a silver platter strewn with twisted sheet metal, of course.


The situations weren’t entirely analogous, but NASCAR’s non-call on the final lap Monday was reminiscent of its controversial non-call on Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s winning pass of Matt Kenseth in the April 6, 2003 race at Talladega. In both instances, officials claimed the spirit of the yellow-line rule wasn’t violated even though the letter clearly was.

Here’s how the rule was presented in the drivers meeting at Talladega: “Drivers, this is your warning. Race above the double-yellow line. If in NASCAR’s judgment, you go below the double-yellow line to improve your position, you will be black-flagged. If in NASCAR’s judgment, you force someone below the double-yellow line in an effort to stop someone from passing you, you may be black-flagged.”

It’s indisputable that, just like Earnhardt did in passing Kenseth 16 years ago, Ryan Blaney went below the yellow line before taking the lead for good Monday from Ryan Newman. It’s possible that contact with Newman caused Blaney to dip below the boundary, and that seems to be NASCAR’s explanation in why no call was made.

But it also seems like the rule demands that (as it did in 2003) a penalty should have been called on either Blaney or Newman. NASCAR can rule that “in its judgment,” Blaney didn’t intentionally go below the yellow-line to improve his position … but if that’s the case, it means he had to have been forced there, right?

Regardless, NASCAR officials say they are happy with the language of the rule.

Given that it affords them tremendous leeway to turn every yellow-line pass into a ball and strike call, it’s easy to see why.


As many have noted, manufacturer alliances at Daytona and Talladega were invented long before the 21st century. In the 1990s, Chevrolet and Ford drivers regularly worked together – when possible — to try to ensure their makes won the race.

But there were some glaring differences about the tempest that sprung forth last weekend and sparked major disgruntlement among fans and media.

Chevrolet’s decision to call an in-race meeting at Garage Suite 3 in full public view was ill-advised, at best. The references afterward to shilling Corvettes and watching PowerPoints were too clever by a factor of maybe 100, and they also were indicative of why the optics were problematic.

Chevy’s extremely disciplined approach felt too corporate, and it seemed micromanaged to the point of making Michael Scott blush. Chastising drivers for racing three wide instead of single file while still in Stage 1 is hardly palatable to anyone in NASCAR, which has an appealing undercurrent of cutthroat intensity (especially at Daytona and Talladega).

It’s understandable why Jim Campbell demanded his Chevy drivers stay on script. The heat from GM headquarters in Detroit surely was unbearable after Hendrick Motorsports essentially helped Toyota win the Daytona 500. And Ford and Toyota drivers surely were given virtually the same marching orders at Talladega – just much more discreetly.

That might be the right line to choose next time.


The focus on manufacturer alliances wasn’t all bad, though.

It forced some good discussions on awkward topics into the open, and it raised important issues about how much influence manufacturers and teams should have in effectively determining race winners. If younger drivers for midpack teams essentially are told to subjugate themselves for the greater good (or risk being stripped of perks), is that a just sacrifice at a track that might offer their best opportunity at winning all year?

That conversation got shoved to the forefront by the weekend’s manufacturer debate. And it was nice that none of it actually mattered at the conclusion of a race that featured a passel of unheralded underdogs vying for the checkered flag.

It also could be indirectly good for NASCAR while continuing to court new manufacturers to enter with its next generation engine (which probably won’t happen until 2023). With the overall decline in the corporate sponsorship spend over the past decade, there are few entities investing as much in stock-car racing as the automakers.

At least they got good bang for their bucks at Talladega, particularly if you ascribe to the idea that there is no such thing as bad publicity.


Ryan Blaney still isn’t a favorite to reach the Championship 4 this season, but Monday might be remembered as a turning point if the No. 12 driver eventually wins a Cup title.

Ryan Blaney receives congratulations from teammate Joey Logano (Photo by Jeff Robinson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images).

There is enormous pressure on the 25-year-old to perform at Team Penske, which has been enjoying a worldwide results bonanza well beyond NASCAR that is impressive even for this storied organization. Never mind championship teammates Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano, Blaney also is competing against winners of the Indianapolis 500, Bathurst 1000 and Rolex 24. If he makes the playoffs but still goes winless this year, it gets noticed more than it would at a less successful team.

It was important that his 2019 breakthrough happened at Talladega after a string of plate failures the past few years. Blaney’s Fords led four of the past six races at Talladega but didn’t finish higher than 11th in any of them. He finished seventh in the 2018 Daytona 500 despite having the best car and leading a race-high 118 laps.

The confidence-booster of making every right move over the final two laps (including the bold decision to choose the outside for the lead on the final restart) should go a long way toward making Blaney feel his place is secure at one of racing’s greatest teams.

 

Results, point standings after Truck race at Las Vegas

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Austin Hill won Friday night’s Truck Series race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway for his second win of 2020.

He beat Sheldon Creed for the victory.

The top five was completed by Tanner Gray, Stewart Friesen and Chandler Smith.

IndyCar driver Conor Daly finished 18th and Travis Pastrana was 21st.

Click here for the race results.

Point Standings

With his win, Austin Hill is the first driver to advance to the second round of the playoffs.

Todd Gilliland is last in the playoff standings with 2,050 points. He is 13 points behind Ben Rhodes.

Click here for the standings.

Austin Hill wins Las Vegas Truck race

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Austin Hill won Friday night’s Truck Series playoff race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, leading the final 39 laps to score the victory.

Hill took the lead on a restart and held off charges from Sheldon Creed over the final 20 laps.

Creed’s progress was slowed with 11 laps to go when he got loose and scraped the wall in Turn 1. He was never able to get close enough to Hill to make a challenge.

Creed dominated the early portion of the race, leading 89 laps before he struggled to get going on the final restart and briefly fell to seventh.

The win is the second of the year for Hill. He’s the first playoff driver to win in the postseason and it come after he finished 25th at Bristol.

“We didn’t have the best truck tonight by no means,” Hill told FS1. “Pit crew did a hell of job on that last pit stop getting me into the position I needed to. I just had to go out there and get it. … Sheldon was definitely way faster than me. … I was probably looking in my mirror more than I was our front. I knew he was better than we were.”

The top five was completed by Tanner Gray, Stewart Friesen and Chandler Smith.

More: Race results and point standings

STAGE 1 WINNER: Sheldon Creed

STAGE 2 WINNER: Sheldon Creed

WHO HAD A GOOD RACE: Tanner Gray, Stewart Friesen and Chandler Smith all matched their best results of the season … While he was the first driver to finish one lap down, IndyCar driver Conor Daly placed 18th in his first career Truck Series start … Travis Pastrana placed 21st in his second start of the season.

WHO HAD A BAD RACE: Rachael Lessard finished 20th after he had to pit early in the race following contact with the wall … Ben Rhodes finished 23rd after he spun from contact with Stewart Friesen and hit the inside wall on Lap 84 … Jordan Anderson’s engine expired on the ensuing restart. He finished 32nd.

NOTABLE: Natalie Decker, who was not medically cleared to compete Friday night, was treated and released from the infield care center.

WHAT’S NEXT: Race at Talladega Superspeedway, 1 p.m. ET Oct. 3 on FS1

 

Natalie Decker not medically cleared for Las Vegas Truck race

Natalie Decker
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NASCAR announced right before Friday night’s Truck Series race that Natalie Decker hadn’t been medically cleared to compete.

No details were provided about the issue that prevented Decker from being cleared. During the final stage of the race, NASCAR announced she had been treated and released from the infield medical center.

The Niece Motorsports driver would have started 23rd. Due to her No. 44 truck having cleared inspection and having been placed on the starting grid she was credited with a last-place finish.

Decker has made 11 starts this year. She missed the June 28 race at Pocono after she was hospitalized due to bile duct complications related to her gallbladder removal in December.

Brandon Brown hopes to shed underdog role in Xfinity playoffs

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Brandon Brown knows the odds are against him advancing beyond the first round of the Xfinity playoffs.

“If I went out and we did a survey and we asked 1,000 NASCAR fans to create a playoff bracket, I guarantee that 90 to 99 percent of them have me getting eliminated in the first round,” he told NBC Sports.

But that’s not stopping him.

Brown is in the Xfinity playoffs for the first time, earning the final spot last weekend with his family-run team. He enters Saturday’s race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN) last in the 12-driver field. Brown has 2,000 points and is 10 points behind Ross Chastain, who holds the final transfer spot, entering the first round.

MORE: Saturday’s Xfinity race start time, lineup, forecast

Regardless where he is in the standings, Brown still met the team’s preseason goal of making the playoffs.

“It’s hard to put it into words,” the 27-year-old said of making the playoffs. “It’s so exciting and so thrilling. We’re just happy. Life is good. We’re seeing the fruits of our labor.”

Much of the Xfinity playoff focus will be on Chase Briscoe, who enters with a series-high seven wins. Or Austin Cindric, who won the regular-season title. Or Justin Allgaier, who has won three of the last seven races and could be the favorite if he makes it to the championship race at Phoenix Raceway.

Brown, who is in his second full season in the series, has four consecutive top-20 finishes going into this weekend. He knows the challenge he faces.

He said a key for this weekend is to have no mistakes, be running at the end and try to take advantage of any mistakes other playoff drivers have.

Then, he’ll look to Talladega. He’ll have an upgraded Earnhardt Childress Racing engine for that race, the team spending the extra money for the engine upgrade.

“I go into that track with confidence,” he said. “I need to go out there and make it happen, go win and make an name and go ahead and punch my ticket.”

While Brown knows most look at him as the underdog of these playoffs, he hopes to drop that title someday.

“The goal will be to get rid of that underdog title and to build that program that is going to be looked on as a powerhouse of the NASCAR Xfinity Series,” he said. “I enjoy the ride (as underdog), but now I’m ready to advance past it.”

Points entering Xfinity playoffs 

2,050 – Chase Briscoe

2,050 – Austin Cindric

2,033 – Justin Allgaier

2,025 – Noah Gragson

2,020 – Brandon Jones

2,018 – Justin Haley

2,014 – Harrison Burton

2,010 – Ross Chastain

2,002 – Ryan Sieg

2,002 – Michael Annett

2,001 – Riley Herbst

2,000 – Brandon Brown

First Round races

Sept. 26 – Las Vegas Motor Speedway (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN)

Oct. 3 – Talladega Superspeedway (4:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN)

Oct. 10 – Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval (3:30 p.m. ET on NBC)