If only I could time travel. Going back a few days, I could have been able to pin-point exactly what one needed to do to win at Talladega on Sunday.
1. Drive a Ford.
2. Work for Tony Stewart and Gene Haas.
3. Save fuel.
4. Do not lead until after the final turn.
It would not work next year, with the new rules packages coming in. However, last Sunday, it would have been spot on.
As it turned out, only 14 drivers mattered. If they were not behind the wheel of a blue oval, they did not stand a chance. Of the 193 laps they eventually ran, only nine were led by someone in another make of car, five of those by William Byron in a Chevy.
If you were working for Stewart-Haas, you were among the Top Four all day long. Those four led the opening two segments, actually running far beyond anyone else especially over the opening 55 laps.
A lot of cars ran out of fuel coming to the green flag as they embarked on over-time. Kevin Harvick was among them, as that SHR entry wound up in 28th. Kurt Busch ran out of petrol while leading coming out of Turn Four in sight of the finish line. He wound up 14th.
Between them, Harvick and the elder Busch led 154 laps. Not a place to be if you wanted to save on fuel. Now, sitting third and fourth, especially on that final run to glory, paid dividends. Aric Almirola was fourth for most of the day, moved to third when it counted, and crossed the line ahead of team-mate Clint Bowyer for the victory. Almirola’s win locked him into the next round of the playoffs, along with Harvick and Dover winner Chase Elliott. Kyle Busch is a sneeze away from being there himself, while his brother and Joey Logano are not a lock, but both are still 30 to the good. As for the hopes for six others, it all hinges on what happens next Sunday at Kansas.
It was one of the most impressive team races in NASCAR history. All four Stewart-Haas entries were disciplined. They opened up spots for their team-mates on re-starts, stayed tight together up front, and stayed that way right to the end. No one could touch them. They tried, but as veterans Jeff Burton and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. pointed out from the broadcast booth what the rest had to do to challenge as the laps counted down, the boys on the track seemed to toss away those opportunities on every turn.
Next Sunday, Byron has to win to advance. Kyle Larson is 26 points out. Ryan Blaney is 22 away. Brad Keselowski finds himself 18 on the outside, behind Martin Truex, Jr. and 21 in Bowyer’s rear view. Not an impossible gap, but not an easy one to see disappear.
Hope is not buoyed for the rest by the knowledge that the most recent winners at Kansas were named either Harvick or Truex the past four visits there, or the guy before that was Kyle Busch. Logano won it twice prior to that, sandwiching Jimmie Johnson’s third win at the venue. The seven time champion has just four more chances to win one final time with Chad Knaus on his pit box before the pair end their race day alliance at the end of the season. Together they have won at least once every season since 2002.
If a contender does not do it this upcoming weekend, I think a Johnson and Knaus celebration would be a fan favorite. I would love to tell you how it ends but, alas, that time traveler thing has not worked out for me. If it had, I would have gotten extremely rich betting against the polls a couple of years ago.