MONTE DUTTON - THEY’VE WORKED THE GROOVE IN
Every time conditions change at a race where engines are restricted, some changes occur that are unexpected. A few years back, no one expected two-car tandems and relentless bump drafting. Everyone went out on the track, and, pretty soon, the action became a highly skilled variety of, “Hey, y’all, watch this!”
Watching at home last Sunday, I found myself chuckling at the broadcasters, who kept saying, breathlessly, “We haven’t seen racing like this at Talladega in 20 years!”
True. Racing at Talladega hadn’t been this bad in 20 years. Most of the race followed the same pattern. The four Stewart-Haas Fords, occasionally carrying with them a lucky interloper, lined up and gradually pulled away. Twenty years earlier – maybe a little less – lines of cooperating cars settled the outcome. Back then, though, the two lines were roughly equal. This time the debate was: Is the inside line naturally faster, or is it faster because of the cars that are in it. Available data supported the latter.
Counting the familiar mayhem of the ending, it was an interesting, if not particularly exciting, race that ended up being an overdue victory for Aric Almirola.
But begone with Talladega. It was the last plate race. NASCAR will get back to normal this weekend outside Kansas City.
Recent victories by Almirola (holy cow, he’s 34 now), Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney, in reverse order – have broken the logjam that defined most of the season. It’s added uncertainty for the drivers – Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr. – who won 20 of the season’s first 28 races. Five different winners – Brad Keselowski, Busch, Elliott, Blaney and Almirola – have won the five playoff events to date.
Unless you’re a fan of Harvick, Busch or Truex, this is likely a pleasing development.
Still, the four highest ranked drivers entering the final race of the second elimination segment are Busch, Harvick, Truex and Keselowski, who are also the four drivers with the most victories. There is justice in that.
While not as frenetic as Talladega alone in its unpredictability, the season has been one of surprises. Even the concentration of success in a few drivers is a surprise. Every Stewart Haas driver – Harvick, Clint Bowyer, Kurt Busch and Almirola – has won. Only one Hendrick Motorsports driver, Elliott, has won, and the most famous, Jimmie Johnson, has not.
Considered together at this point of the season, the results have smoothed out. Out of 12 winners in 31 races, six have won more than one. Erik Jones and Elliott were first-time winners.
In short, as the season has progressed, it has normalized. I’m not sure whether that’s good or bad.