Roger Diez: Talladega scrambles NASCAR Championship Chase
October 20, 2017
As usual, Talladega scrambled the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup point standings, shook up the playoff field, and destroyed a lot of race cars. Only 14 of the original 40 starters were still running at the checkered flag after the third and final stage of the race transformed into a high-speed demolition derby. Brad Keselowski needed a win, and he somehow avoided the carnage to achieve it. Not so fortunate were the other playoff contenders, as Denny Hamlin in sixth was the only other playoff driver in the top 10. Kyle Larson finished 13th and Matt Kenseth in 14th was the last car still running at the checker. The other eight playoff competitors were in the garage with crash damage. Larson is third in points, in good shape to transfer to the next playoff round, but Kenseth is still below the cutoff line in 10th.
Kenseth isn't the only former champion in jeopardy of being eliminated from championship contention at Kansas Speedway on Sunday. Seven-time champ Jimmie Johnson is currently eighth in points, just seven above the cut line. Former champions Kyle Busch and Kenseth are on the outside looking in, seven and eight points back, respectively. All three have posted victories at Kansas; Johnson three times, Kenseth twice, and Busch once. Other playoff drivers who have won at Kansas are points leader Martin Truex Jr., who scored his only win there this past spring, and Keselowski – both have already clinched a transfer spot to the next round. Kevin Harvick has two Kansas victories, and Hamlin has one. Only two non-playoff drivers have won there; Joey Logano has made two trips to victory lane and Ryan Newman has scored one Kansas win. However, there hasn't been a repeat winner in the last five Kansas races, and that trend could very well continue. Young guns Larson, Ryan Blaney, and Chase Elliott are all fast and hungry, and any of the three could take the checker on Sunday.
The Xfinity series is down to eight contenders for their 2017 championship, and comes into Kansas with a tight three-way battle for the lead. William Byron has a mere three-point advantage over Justin Allgaier, with veteran Elliot Sadler another three back in third. Win or lose, Byron will be moving to the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup series in 2018, driving the No. 24 Chevrolet for Rick Hendrick's operation.
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Formula One makes the series' annual visit to the USA this weekend for the U.S. Grand Prix at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas. It's the latest of many venues the series has used here since 1959. They include Sebring, Riverside, Watkins Glen, Long Beach, Dallas, Phoenix, Las Vegas, and Indianapolis.
Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton comes into the race with a commanding 59-point lead in the drivers' championship standings. If he wins on Sunday it will be Hamilton's sixth USGP victory, surpassing Michael Schumacher's five. Hamilton won the last USGP at Indianapolis in 2007, driving for McLaren. When the series returned to the States in 2012 at Austin, Hamilton won the race and every subsequent race there except in 2013 when he lost to Sebastian Vettel, who was then driving for Red Bull. Vettel, now with Ferrari, was locked into a tight battle with Hamilton for the championship until consecutive bad races at Singapore and Malaysia put him behind the eight ball. Now his only hope for a fifth title is for Hamilton to experience similar difficulties in the final four races of the season. Not a likely scenario.
Finally, the news broke last week the Dale Earnhardt Jr. and wife Amy are expecting a baby. Junior Nation must be thrilled, even though it's a girl. In 18 years or so, they'll be able to cheer on a female racer they can really root for. I wonder if Junior will name his daughter after somebody famous … like maybe Dale Evans?