Talladega has always been a wildcard race regardless of where it fell in the schedule from year to year and on Sunday, the reason quickly became obvious why drivers and crew chiefs approach it that way.
The opening lap wasn’t complete before the first of thirteen caution flags waved to give everyone a glimpse of what was in store for the twelve playoff drivers still in the hunt for this year’s title.
Sunday’s race was the second of the Round of 12’s three races that will eliminate four drivers after this weekend’s race on the Roval at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
While it was the middle race of the three, the field took the green flag on Sunday with the mindset that the series champion was going to be crowned at the end of the day.
The checkered flag was the ultimate prize on Sunday but the points that were going to be awarded at the end of the first two stages for drivers finishing in the top-10 proved to be just as motivating as the win.
This mentality of racing every lap like the white flag had just waved played havoc for much of the field as the thirteen caution flags that it produced broke the track record by two.
The yellow flags played no favorites on the day as the majority of the 12 playoff drivers were involved in wrecks with only six of them running when the checkered flag finally waved after the third overtime.
Denny Hamlin made a three wide pass on the final lap to capture the win and with it the automatic transfer spot into the Round of 8. It was only fitting for the day that the end of the race would also be contested as NASCAR had to go and review the tape to see if there were any penalties involving either a driver going down below the yellow line to make a pass or driver forcing another driver below the yellow line.
After “further review” as they say in the NFL, Hamlin’s win stood but several drivers were penalized for forcing drivers below the yellow line including Matt DiBenedetto who crossed the finish line in second but was dropped to 21st for forcing William Byron below the line.
Hamlin and his Joe Gibbs Racing No. 11 Toyota’s strategy entering the race was to just lay back and see what unfolds in front of him knowing that to have a chance to win it you had to be around at the end of the race. The ultimate goal was to leave Talladega with enough points to be locked into the next round before racing at Charlotte this weekend but as the race unfolded near the end, the checkered flag came to him.
Hamlin joins Kurt Busch who won last week at Las Vegas as drivers who can go to Charlotte knowing that regardless of where they finish or where another driver finishes that they are advancing to the third round.
Charlotte will be the last chance for a playoff driver to advance by making a trip to victory lane so that leaves the rest of the playoff field having to approach it with the same mind set of Talladega where every lap was contested for every point available in all three stages.
Austin Dillon, Kyle Busch, Clint Bowyer and Aric Almirola were the four drivers that left Talladega below the cutoff line after getting caught up in wrecks. Dillon was the only one of the four to be running at the end of the race as he finished 12th.
Dillon and Busch are -21 points below the cutoff line and could “point” their way into the next round if one of the drivers just above the cutoff line encounters trouble.
Alex Bowman +22 and Joey Logano +21 would be the two drivers that must stay out of trouble and collect some bonus points to safely hold on to their transfer spots.
That leaves Clint -38 and Almirola -48 as the two drivers that face a must-win Sunday afternoon if they want to keep their playoff dream alive.
Hamlin’s strategy of having to be at the end to have a chance to win on Sunday is now the strategy for every playoff driver moving forward.
If they want to win the title they have to be there at the end of the race in Phoenix for that chance and that must begin this weekend at Charlotte.