The 2014 Aarons Talladega weekend has come and gone and proven itself again a strong competitive endeavor. The weekend sees ten takeaways to digest -
1 - Restrictor plate racing is still the best racing - The FOX Sports website did a poll on what NASCAR should have more of - superspeedways or short tracks. I can confidently say the popular view is short tracks even though the objective view is superspeedways, as demonstrated yet again here at Talladega. No short track can produce so high a level of competition up front as the plate tracks have produced. The irony is that this season so far has produced very good races at all three types of tracks - the two plate races were great, Fontana was very good, and Martinsville was eye-openingly competitive.
2 - A mediocre Talladega is still better than others, yet.... - The 2014 Winston 500 saw 48 lead changes, the most for this race since 2011, yet as terrific as the racing was, it can still be better. "It's so hard to pass..." re-entered the postrace conversation and it makes further nonsense of NASCAR's recent rules to kill push-drafting. It bears repeating how 2013's Talladega Truck 250 showed how tandem drafting has been evolving back toward conventional pack drafting but with that extra power to pass that will always be the strongest such ever seen in racing. It would not have hurt anyone if the Busch and Winston Cup races were able to see cars push-draft all the way around and thus move the top line forward faster and stronger - it also, for Junior fans, have allowed him to make a run for the win at the end; we will discuss that below......
3 - Brad Keselowski's fall from grace - It's been said numerous times that Joey Logano has usurped Brad Keselowski as Penske Racing's top dog; one wonders about that watching Keselowski race like Ernie Irvan in this race; laps down after a tap from Little Miss Danica left him (and several others) with damage, he nonetheless raced like hell and crowded the top ten until he lost it and took others with him - ironically including Joey Logano. Now Keselowski has been flashy but this strikes me as very odd.
4 - Chevrolet gets a comeuppance - Normally Chevrolets dominate Talladega; not this time, as Fords and Toyotas were the strongest of the lot pretty much all day. Denny Hamlin's win topped a top-four near-monopoly by Toyota and capped a weekend sweep by Joe Gibbs Racing after Elliott Sadler's Aarons 312 win Saturday.
5 - The rookie race spreads out more - Austin Dillon's rookie run from the Daytona 500 pole has been pretty much downhill from there, as Kyle Larson outclassed him again.
6 - There's been a Michael Waltrip sighting - MWR finished third and fourth and Brian Vickers had a legitimate shot at the win; it's the first time seemingly all season we've seen any muscle out of MWR, and even with a third place Clint Bowyer didn't look particularly impressive.
7 - Junior and Hendrick's curious fall - Kasey Kahne salvaged a top-ten for Hendrick Motorsports and that was pretty much all to have for that team, as Junior never looked up to challenging for anything - though he led 26 laps he lost the draft twice late in the race - and both Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon crashed out. Though the Hendrick fleet has a combined twelve top-fives so far, the muscle of yore hasn't been there since Daytona.
And here, Junior's postrace comment to the effect that "the reward wasn't worth the risk" is flabbergasting. Trying to win is not worth it is an insult to competition in general and racing in particular, and signals there is something fundamentally wrong with Junior as a racer now.
8 - When Stewart-Haas's guys are good they run good - And when they're bad they don't. Simplistic a summary perhaps, yet watching Danica Patrick lead six laps and then finish 22nd with pretty much a whimper one cannot help but think this way. Kevin Harvick remains the organization's point car while the rest of the fleet limps in his wake - especially Smoke, who looked like he didn't even want to be there at Talladega.
9 - Break up the Underdogs! - Justin Allgaier finished 27th and his last-lap wreck ended the race under caution. Yet for a strong moment it appeared Allgaier might top David Ragan's spectacular win from last year as he stormed up the extreme high side for the lead. There was also a superb effort from AJ Allmendinger in Brad Daugherty's Chevrolet and a commendable if overlooked effort from Landon Cassill in Joe Falk's #40. Richard Petty's #43 of Aric Almirola looked like junk for most of the race yet drafted into the top fifteen - commendable yet like the race itself a frustrating reminder that it should be a lot better than that.
10 - It's time to get rid of Barney Hall - MRN, it's time to give up on Barney Hall. Yes, he's been a NASCAR icon forever, but it gets more and more embarrassing listening as he tries to recover a fastball that disappeared from him long ago.
And so the first Talladega weekend has wrapped and Kansas awaits. It's noteworthy that in 2013 Kansas saw racing strikingly similar to Talladega in the Trucks and Busch Series - one hopes they and the Cup cars get that kind of effect this time around.