Our experts weigh in on four of the biggest questions in motorsports as the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series heads to Kansas Speedway on Sunday for the final race in the second round of the playoffs:
Turn 1: There were 14 cars running at the finish at Talladega. A joke or an exciting battle of attrition?
Ricky Craven, ESPN NASCAR analyst: The former driver in me says it was typical Talladega. The ESPN analyst has a different view. I believe Dale Earnhardt Jr. saved the day, having avoided or survived all the major wrecks, Junior kept the fans engaged. I’ve never completely understood why fans spend so much money to watch a race on a track this size … the smallest track (Martinsville) is premier in my mind. It’s becoming clear to me that the fans or the paying customers love the element of the unknown that exists at Talladega. Drivers don’t!
Ryan McGee, ESPN.com: Exciting battle of attrition. I am continually surprised that people are continually surprised when these races look like this.
Bob Pockrass, ESPN.com: An exciting battle of attrition. No doubt the race was a little bit of a mess and won’t go down as a thing of beauty, but it’s Talladega and when no one ends up in the air or in the hospital, it ranks as a good day. A green-white-checkered finish, especially with Dale Earnhardt Jr. still in the mix, made it intriguing and exciting.
Matt Willis, ESPN Stats & Information: I’m going to take a long route to my answer. I often am against 500-mile races now, because they lack the appeal of having teams try to make cars that will both survive 500 miles, as well as beat the rest of the field. Now, the cars are durable to the point where you might have a mechanical failure or two over 500 miles, but sometimes none. Now, we do have a type of racing where drivers are both competing against one another, but now they’re also competing against the style of racing, trying to make it through 500 miles of plate racing unscathed. Do I wish the races felt less dangerous and maybe this one lasted an hour or two less? Definitely. But I did enjoy the feel of knowing beating the next driver was only half the battle, but you also had to beat the style of racing.
Turn 2: Former champs Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth are 8-9-10 in the standings. Do they all advance following Kansas? If you had to pick just one, which one?
Craven: Johnson is still a half-step behind where he needs to be, Kenseth hasn’t found his stride all season but Busch has the fastest horse among the three. It’s time for him to capitalize on it.
McGee: Busch. In 2017 a Toyota on a 1.5-mile oval is greater than whatever else you can come up with, even if that whatever else is Johnson.
Pockrass: No. Johnson should be worried. The Toyotas like their 1.5-mile tracks. Busch should advance — he sits just seven points behind Johnson and should already catch him in points once the second stage ends.
Willis: At least one of those drivers will be out after Kansas. Based on the points, I think drivers 3-6 (Kyle Larson, Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin, Chase Elliott) will play it safe and use their cushion over the bubble to coast to the next round. I think Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Jamie McMurray are too far out, and not real candidates to win at 1.5-mile track races. That leaves two spots for Johnson, Busch, Kenseth and Ryan Blaney. I think Busch takes one. If physically forced to make a pick on the other, I will say Johnson makes up the two points on Blaney while both are passed by Busch.
Turn 3: With all the wildness that takes place, should a plate race remain in the playoffs?
Craven: Yes. The customers love the product, and it’s become a more interesting race because more drivers have embraced the skills required at restrictor-plate tracks. Side drafting was a method perfected by Dale Earnhardt, and it’s now used to the extreme by most competitors. I would favor it being a first race in a round, but never a final race.
McGee: Absolutely. I miss it being a cutoff race. I have always said the postseason should mirror the regular season. The guy that wins the Cup should have to do it by running every type of track the sport has. A plate race and a road course race both should be in there. Next year they will be.
Pockrass: Yes. But Talladega should run in the first round so the impact isn’t as big to those who have performed well during the regular season. Repeating from a few weeks ago: Talladega should open the playoffs to create enormous buzz at the start of the NASCAR postseason.
Willis: Yes, although I like it away from an elimination race in the playoffs. Three out of the 26 regular-season races are on plate tracks, which is more than 11 percent. So it should have a spot in the playoff schedule as well. I’d like to see more variety as a whole in the Cup Series schedule across the board, which is why I’m also hyped we’re going to see a “roval” in the playoffs next year.
Turn 4: With Kyle Busch’s issues in the Round of 12, who’s now your second-favorite driver — presumably behind Martin Truex Jr. — to win the championship?
Craven: Larson, but Harvick should not be dismissed. If Harvick wins Phoenix, he may have the momentum headed to Miami.
McGee: Larson is still in it, right? And he’s pretty dang good at Homestead, right? Right.
Pockrass: Never presume anything with my warped brain. As long as Larson remains in it, he’s the favorite because he has shown more prowess at Homestead in recent years.
Willis: I thought about maintaining that Busch is still number two, but I’m going with a name who I strangely hadn’t thought much about entering the playoffs, Harvick. Before Truex dominated on 1.5-mile tracks, Harvick was doing the same thing. Happy led 149 laps at Charlotte a couple weeks ago, and if he can get through to the Round of 8, Harvick is as good at Phoenix as any driver at any track right now, so that will at least get him to the Championship Round.