Sunday, May 07, 2017

Talladega Legacy And Future

The 2017 Winston 500 weekend at Talladega opened with a surprising burden of legacy and ended with the arrival of an aspect of the future - a confluence that made for an interesting weekend.

The Busch/Xfinity Series opened things up with an exciting shootout in the Sparks 300 and Aric Almirola matched his Firecracker 250 win from last July by bagging this one.  

The burden of legacy for Talladega was two-fold  - Part I was this marked the 30th anniversary of the 1987 Winston 500 and the breakthrough victory of Davey Allison and the Ranier Racing team.   The second-generation Allison began one of the sport's most celebrated careers with that breakthrough victory as a rookie, ultimately winning nineteen races -  but the championship he wanted escaped him in the famous crash with Ernie Irvan during the 1992 Dixie 500, and a frustrating 1993 season ended in tragedy in the helicopter crash in Talladega's infield. 

The second part of Talladega's burden of legacy was unexpected - the retirement after 2017 of Dale Earnhardt Jr., a six-time Talladega winner and the Most Popular Driver for some sixteen years running.   There was a great deal of expectation when Dale Junior timed onto the front row for the Winston 500 - but it would be the pole-sitter who stole all the thunder.

Ricky Stenhouse won two Xfinity Series titles in Roush Fords, posting eight wins and thirty-two other top-fives in that process, but that left no one impressed as Stenhouse blundered his way through the Winston Cup wars from his rookie season in 2013 with just twenty-two top-10s in 158 starts to date - more damning is Stenhouse has led a paltry 58 laps for his Cup career to date.    Making him seem even more of a joke is his well-known romance with Danica Patrick.

Yet Stenhouse wound up serving up the future in the 2017 Winston 500, and like Davey Allison, Phil Parsons, and Brad Keselowski  made this race the breakthrough for his Cup career.   It marked the first Roush victory at the Winston Cup level in 101 starts and it also marks the seventh-straight plate race won by a brand other than Chevrolet, which so dominated restrictor plate racing from 1990-2015 it wasn't funny - adding insult to injury Chevrolet led a whopping eleven laps in this 500 and Dale Junior finished an inglorious 22nd.   Jamie McMurray salvaged some pride for Chevy by finishing second and Kasey Kahne showed up the rest of Hendrick Motorsports by finishing fifth.  

It also marks the third Ford team to win in the 2017 Cup season, an important breakthrough for the competitive depth of the renewed Ford effort that began with the acquisition of Stewart-Haas Racing from Chevrolet; SHR, Penske, and now Roush have won, with Richard Petty's team and Wood Brothers Racing no longer just also-rans but legitimate contenders for a win or two.  

The other striking aspect from the manufacturer standpoint is Toyotas led 95 laps and had just one top-ten finisher to show for it, furthering the concern about Toyota's true strength as 2017 proceeds.   It also raises the issue of whether Toyota's approach where it is basically just one organization - Joe Gibbs Racing, with Barney Visser's two-car outfit (both crunched in the backstretch mess) just an extension of JGR - is sufficient; clearly there seems need for Toyota to add two more organizations to its Winston Cup fleet - especially as the Honda and Dodge rumor for NASCAR still exists, albeit has stayed underground.

People gripe about the crashes at Talladega - well there were plenty of them yet again.

The racing was good, though it seemed passing the leader in the 500 was too much of a chore compared to Daytona, which struck me as surprising, especially with the bonus points awarded for segment finishes which have created more incentive to lead and sparked manifestly greater intensity for Speedweeks.  

In all it shook out as a memorable Talladega weekend with the promise of October to come as well and with the rest of the NASCAR season beckoning.  

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