TALLADEGA, Ala. (AP) — Here's what went right at Talladega Superspeedway:
— It was a beautiful day with packed grandstands.
— Fans were treated to a sincere send-off to Dale Earnhardt Jr.
— NBC's overnight television rating was the highest for this race since 2012, when it was aired on ESPN.
— Brad Keselowski used a last-lap pass to win Sunday and advance into the next round of the playoffs.
So, what's the problem?
There were a lot of accidents in the race, contributing to almost 35 minutes of stoppage over three different red-flag periods. There were only 14 cars on the track at the checkered flag, and only four were playoff drivers. Two of them finished a lap down.
Sorry, that is not a playoff-quality event.
NASCAR did the right thing this season in moving Talladega into the middle of the second round of the playoffs so it would no longer be an elimination race. The event is too much of a crapshoot, and too many drivers have had their championship chances destroyed by some misfortune — often out of their hands — for the race to play such a pivotal role.
After Sunday, it could be argued that Talladega shouldn't be in the playoffs at all.
No one is suggesting taking it off the schedule. Fans love restrictor-plate racing at Daytona and Talladega, and many thought Sunday was a great race. Maybe it was. But it wasn't the kind of product that should be deciding a championship.
Chase Elliott could have won that race, same for Ryan Blaney, and each ended the day as spectators alongside their junked race cars. So, yeah, both sounded a little bitter about their results.
Blaney had won the second stage of the race to pick up valuable playoff points, and was for sure a contender.
"It's all ruined now," said Blaney. "We had a really good day, and now it's down the drain."
The 12-driver playoff field will be cut by four after this Sunday's race at Kansas Speedway, and all seven of the drivers at the bottom of the standings were involved in accidents at Talladega. That includes reigning series champion Jimmie Johnson, who was parked because his team worked on his damaged car during a red flag. He's now on the cutline to advance out of Kansas.
Talladega produces dramatic racing that draws fans to their feet for the entire 500 miles. Look away and you might miss something. That's great, and the four times a year that NASCAR puts the plates on, the customers generally leave satisfied.
But consider this: Keselowski overcame a broken antenna — a setback that not only hampered team communication but required a special pit stop to fix his radio — dodged all the accidents and then timed his pass for the lead perfectly to win. After, he credited luck, not skill, for his ability to "survive."
Also, the victory was the fifth straight for a Ford driver at Talladega. It gave Fords a season sweep of the plate races, and since Denny Hamlin won the Daytona 500 in a Toyota in the 2016 season-opener, Fords have won seven consecutive plate races. Clearly Talladega is a race about horsepower, and engine builder Doug Yates is winning it right now.
Ryan Newman has been critical in the past about plate racing, but declined after Sunday's runner-up finish to answer if it was a good race.
"That's a matter of opinion," he said. "I mean, it is what it is. I don't think it's anything out of the ordinary or a big surprise for this type of racing. It's totally different than what we had last week and what we'll have next week. I don't know that there's a desire to have a different product here at this type of racetrack."
Fair enough. Keep the racing as is, just keep it out of the playoffs. NASCAR doesn't have a road course in the playoffs because it's a novelty, something the Cup Series does just twice a year. Including it in the playoffs wouldn't be fair because drivers don't do it enough for it to be an accurate factor in determining the champion. Charlotte next season will use part of its road course for it's playoff race.
So why does Talladega get a pass? There's too much at stake — for drivers, teams, the sport — for days like Sunday to be a factor in deciding a champion. NASCAR needs to find a new place on the schedule for Talladega.
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