The Monster Mile didn’t provide much in the way of wrecks or exciting racing, the way it got its name, but a few playoff drivers fell into Dover’s grasp nonetheless.
The Monster struck very early for Joey Logano and Chase Elliott, and Ryan Blaney later became a casualty of the 1-mile concrete oval. Uncharacteristic mechanical failures bit each of them, another product of Dover’s tough surface and banking.
Logano broke an axle on the pace laps, Elliott’s engine failed less than 10 laps in and Blaney, Logano’s teammate, was plagued by a suspension problem with 100 circuits to go.
All of them finished 34th or worse. And now, the Monster Mile gives way to the real beast of the playoffs.
And with those three drivers’ woes placing them below the playoff cutoff line, that makes ’Dega even more intense.
You see, at Talladega, there’s nowhere to run and nowhere to hide. Drivers have wrecked with equal frequency from the front, back and middle of the pack because The Big One doesn’t discriminate.
There are two schools of thought as to what Blaney, Elliott and Logano, along with Clint Bowyer also below the cutline and William Byron just above it, should do at Talladega.
Fight hard all race long and stay near the front? Or play it safe (definitely a relative term) and hang out toward the back?
Of course, the other six playoff drivers not named Kyle Larson have the same decision to make. They just have a little more breathing room with which to make it.
And don’t forget, on top of that, they’ll all have 28 other competitors out there with nothing to lose — they’ve either been eliminated from the playoffs or missed the postseason altogether — but a lot to gain with a victory at Talladega, a place that’s as tough to win as anywhere.
Win Talladega and you’re locked into the Round of 8. Survive Talladega and you’ll be in decent shape to advance next week. Fall victim to Talladega and you’ll probably have to go win Kansas.
Logano and Elliott each have a Talladega win in the past two seasons, Bowyer has one in his career, Blaney has none and Byron has never won on the Cup level. Also count Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski, Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin as playoff drivers with past ’Dega wins and locked-in Larson, Martin Truex Jr. and Alex Bowman as those without.
But on Sunday, it won’t matter. Every Talladega race can end in glory or flames, and a bunch of drivers’ and crew chiefs’ nerves will be on edge and blood pressure will be high in fear of it being the latter.
That goes for the Truck Series, as well, where Brett Moffitt, Austin Hill, Ross Chastain, Stewart Friesen, Matt Crafton and Tyler Ankrum will kick off their second playoff round at The Beast in pursuit of a championship.
Talladega is as close to must-see TV as NASCAR fans can get.
Justin Epley is a sports writer for The News Herald. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 828-432-8943.