Heading to a green-white-checkered restart at Talladega last fall, Kevin Harvick found himself with a failing engine and a potential lost opportunity to advance in the Chase. Ryan Newman and Denny Hamlin were among those drivers licking their chops to sneak inside the Round of 8.
Mere seconds later, the field was a smoldering mess. Harvick and Trevor Bayne made contact, the resulting wreck involved a dozen cars and one of the biggest controversies of last year’s 10-race postseason was in full swing.
“Harvick saw people coming, he knew he was going to be 30th,” Hamlin said after getting caught up in it. “So he caused the wreck.”
Matt Kenseth, who himself was involved in what he felt was an intentional spinout one race earlier, called the contact “not what NASCAR was about.” Newman, never a fan of plate racing, was livid about a lost opportunity.
Those drivers formed part of a solid majority who felt Harvick’s actions were toeing the line. But in the court of NASCAR consequences, then or since there’s not enough evidence to charge Harvick with the crime of influencing the Chase. He’s been consistent that the contact was accidental; video of the incident proved inconclusive as to whether the driver turned intentionally into Bayne.
All we can take from it is the factual reality past Talladega Chase races give us: what the field looks like with even five laps to go is nothing like what it turns into by the checkered flag. Keep in mind this event has had a green-white-checkered, two-lap dash to the finish eight straight years. That’s right; you have to go all the way back to 2007, two full playoff formats ago, to find the last time Talladega’s fall event finished with five consecutive green-flag laps.
So when setting up your fantasy roster, considering the amount of wreckage and shuffling plate races produce, keep in mind that anything goes. All of the 40 starters have a shot to win; each one could be running top 5 only to be caught in a last-lap wreck. Nowhere else is the element of luck so front and center than 500 miles of racing here.
It’s a pattern that makes Talladega so controversial as an elimination race… and what will keep your stomach tied in knots.
2016 Hellmann’s 500
Time: 2 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Track: Talladega Superspeedway (Lincoln, Ala.)
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who’s at the Front: Kevin Harvick
Harvick, fresh off an engine failure at Charlotte, bounced back in a big way at Kansas. Crew chief Rodney Childers perfected the car over the course of 400 miles, making the right adjustments in time for the No. 4 car to push out front during the final restart. Harvick, who punched a ticket inside the Round of 8, is now 8-for-8 in advancing through NASCAR’s current Chase format. Whether it’s consistency, wins, or that bizarre ending at Talladega, the 2014 Cup champion knows how to push through.
Who’s at the Back: Chip Ganassi Racing
The blessing of putting two cars in the Chase has quickly turned disastrous for CGR. Jamie McMurray wrecked at Kansas, his second finish of 36th or worse the last three races, as he fell to dead last in the Chase standings (16th). Kyle Larson hasn’t been too much better; he was 30th at Kansas, holds an average finish of 20.0 during the same three-race stretch as McMurray, and sits a distant 14th in the points. Both men are already eliminated from title contention as suddenly, the season can’t end soon enough.
After a slower-than-normal Silly Season in NASCAR, business appears to be picking up. Single-car team Tommy Baldwin Racing has been reported by several outlets to have sold their NASCAR charter (and locked-in spot in the field) to the No. 95 Circle Sport Leavine Family Racing team for 2017. The car, which was running the charter owned by Joe Falk, will have that partnership expire after the season and it appears that Falk will go his own way.
That car, driven by Michael McDowell, has not solidified 2017 plans yet. Could the team, strongly allied with Richard Childress Racing, get paired with XFINITY Series regular Ty Dillon instead? Dillon, looking to go full-time next season can’t do it with RCR as there’s no room at the inn: Ryan Newman, Paul Menard, and brother Austin Dillon are signed to long-term deals. So the next option is to pair him with an RCR ally, either this No. 95 car or a much hotter rumor surrounding the No. 13 and Germain Racing.
Germain, whose sponsor GEICO is signed through the 2018 season would have to break contract with Casey Mears to bring Dillon on board. Mears, who wouldn’t comment specifically at Talladega, could then get shuffled elsewhere, either to the No. 95 or another team altogether for 2017. Stay tuned.
Teenager Gray Gaulding, just 18 years old, will make his Sprint Cup debut at Martinsville next weekend. He’ll drive The Motorsport Group No. 30 Chevrolet sponsored by Feed The Children.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Finishing position for Alex Bowman at Kansas, his best since stepping in to sub for Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the No. 88 car. It’s also the best finish for Bowman in his limited Cup career to date.
Laps led by Austin Dillon all season long. Dillon remains tied for the eighth and final spot in the Chase heading to Kansas.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
This weekend will be a referendum on how much teamwork still exists at Joe Gibbs Racing. All four of their drivers: Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards, Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth could easily advance in the Chase. We could also see a number of them miss depending on how well they work together and stay out front. At the Daytona 500 back in February this group, along with JGR satellite driver Martin Truex Jr., ran 1-2-3-4-5 for a good portion of the race. During an event where staying out front is critical, should they do so again they’ll be on pace to cruise to victory. Their horsepower makes them a solid pick; hopefully, they can get past Hamlin’s confidence issues and a little Edwards-Busch spat after an aggressive on-track battle at Kansas.
Austin Dillon heads into this race with momentum. Dillon is three-for-three on top 10s at Daytona and Talladega this year; he loves plate racing and will not be afraid to take chances. The third-year driver, who wasn’t expected to come this far in the Chase, would consider the Round of 8 an added bonus; that will keep him looser than all other drivers in the field. And who can bet against the No. 3 at Talladega?
Kyle Larson has quietly collected two top 10s in plate races this year and is hungry to put the disappointment of the Chase behind him (see above). If he hooks up with McMurray, a plate race expert, the CGR duo could be a force to be reckoned with.
There are plenty of good underdogs to throw on your roster at Talladega: Landon Cassill, Trevor Bayne, even a part-timer like David Gilliland. But I think the best of the bunch this weekend is going to be Regan Smith. Smith, who was once best known for losing a race win at Talladega by going underneath the yellow line, has his Sprint Cup future in doubt after TBR sold their charter for 2017. Sunday is a primetime opportunity for Smith to audition and remind people he’s still one of the sport’s underrated drivers. His No. 7 team should perform; they ran top 10 in February’s Daytona 500 and the organization has a history of doing well in plate races.
What Vegas Thinks
As of Friday afternoon, Brad Keselowski was a strong favorite at Talladega with anywhere from 9/2 to 6/1 odds across the various Las Vegas casinos. Kyle Busch, who has been up-and-down at plate tracks since his injury in February 2015 at Daytona, appeared second on most odds sheets.
What I Think
I’m going to go outside the box on this one. An unpredictable race ends with an unpredictable winner as Austin Dillon sneaks his way into Victory Lane for his first career win on the Cup level – along with a berth in the coveted Round of 8.
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and the Majority Owner of NASCAR Web site Frontstretch.com. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.
(Photo by ASP Inc.)