Roger Diez: Second place a bad place to be last week
October 13, 2017
It was a no good, awful, terrible, bad weekend for the second-place in points in both the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup and the Formula One series, as both took a serious hit in the title standings. Kyle Busch suffered an encounter with the wall from which he never recovered, finishing 8 laps down in 29th and dropping from second to sixth in the championship standings. Martin Truex and Kyle Larson showed why they're the class of the 2017 Cup field, finishing first and second respectively. Larson regains the second-place spot in the title chase, while Truex remains firmly in control with his ticket already punched for the round of eight.
Sebastian Vettel suffered mechanical issues with his Ferrari early in the race, and was out on the fourth lap with a 19th place finish and no points. Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton went on to win with a 1.2 second margin over Max Verstappen's Red Bull. That widened the point gap from Hamilton to Vettel by an additional 25 points to 59, an almost insurmountable lead. It appears Hamilton has all but wrapped up his fourth F1 drivers' championship to tie him with Vettel.
This weekend is the biggest wild card on the NASCAR playoff schedule. Talladega is the track drivers fear most, because the "big one" can end your day through no fault of your own. In the past, strategies at Talladega included running up front, hanging back to avoid wrecks, partnering with teammates, or partnering with similar car makes. All these strategies depend on the current regulations and the level of cooperation from the various parties involved. The playoff format and this year's addition of playoff points have added another dimension to Talladega. No longer can drivers hang half a lap back to avoid the big one, and catch up in the last 50 or 100 laps to contend for the win. Stage racing has made that a defunct strategy, particularly for those 12 teams still in the playoffs. Now, playoff drivers must fight for every point they can get, especially those precious playoff points.
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So who will be the most desperate to win Sunday? And more to the point, who knows the way to Talladega's victory lane? Among active drivers, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has by far the best record, with six Cup series victories at the 2.66 mile high-banked oval. His most recent win was in the 2015 spring race while the other five are ancient history, from 2000 to 2003. Brad Keselowski is second on the Talladega winners' list with three, while several drivers have two victories apiece there. They are Joey Logano, Jamie McMurray, Jimmie Johnson, and Clint Boyer. One-time Talladega winners are Denny Hamlin, Matt Kenseth, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who won in May. But we could very well see a new face in victory circle on Sunday –Truex, Larson, Chase Elliott, and Ryan Blaney are all capable of winning at 'Dega.
A good finish at Talladega is crucial for Stenhouse, who's currently in 12th place in the playoffs. He's 10 points behind McMurray in 8th place, the final transfer spot into the next playoff round. Kenseth, Keselowski, and Ryan Blaney sit ninth through 11th in points, and also need a good finish to stay alive in the championship fight. Truex is already locked into the round of eight, and Larson, Harvick, Chase Elliott, Hamlin, and Busch are in a strong enough points position to weather a bad Talladega finish. If a playoff contender doesn't win, it will increase the pressure on those drivers near or below the cutoff line to transfer on points.
Being a purist, I was against NASCAR's playoff idea at first. But I have come to appreciate the drama it adds to the championship chase. It's much more exciting than previous seasons, when the champion would have an unassailable lead or would clinch the title three races before the end of the season. I'll admit it — this is better.