Through the Field: The Road Less Traveled
As the NASCAR Cup Series season is nearing its end, so too are the “Through The Field” columns for 2021. And while I have a few column ideas in the garage that I’m looking forward to putting out to the world, I’d be remiss if I didn’t devote some discussion to Bubba Wallace earning his first career Cup win at Talladega.
The Talladega race weekend was wild in typical fashion; there were first-time winners (which also ended up meaning no playoff drivers going to victory lane) in all three series, the only green-flag finish featured two trucks crashing across the finish line and weather, unfortunately, had a role to play.
This wasn’t a typical rain-shortened victory; oftentimes, a few smaller or weaker teams will hedge their bets on the race being at its end and stay out of pit road on a strategy that is completely unfeasible if the race continues to its full distance. This has resulted in the first career victories for drivers such as David Reutimann, Chris Buescher and Justin Haley, who each won races they really had no business winning. That’s not to discredit any of their careers nor anyone else who earned an upset win from a race that ended too soon. But to say that Wallace did not earn this victory is just factually incorrect.
Sure, the race ended earlier than its scheduled distance. But every single team knew the rain was coming, and the racing during the final green flag laps on Monday was exactly as it would have been coming to the finish line of a Talladega race completely unaffected by weather. Instead of a race to the end, it was a race until the rain came, which it did shortly after a crash.
No team was on a Hail Mary throw of a strategy; their finishes were earned, even if some good contenders placed near the rear due to their plan to stay behind the chaos.
I’m sure this isn’t how Wallace expected to earn his first victory, but we all could sense it was going to happen someday, and I believe he and 23XI Racing are here to stay.
This may be one of the more cliche sayings or lessons that I’ve featured, but it rings true. Sometimes the path you expect to take isn’t what happens, and there’s nothing wrong with that. A path less traveled by or not, your life and the way it happens is yours alone. And as long as you do your best to get to where you want to be, there’s nothing wrong with that either.
With the playoff field about to be cut to just eight drivers, the favorites for the title are narrowing down and it’s not necessarily shaping up how we would have expected. Some favorites are shaping up to be eliminated and there’s a chance that all four Hendrick Motorsports drivers get knocked out, which would be a shock as well.
We’ve gone over road course favorites many times this season and that isn’t changing, so I’ll focus on some of my title favorites and what spot they’re currently in.
NASCAR Cup Series Championship Contenders
Kyle Larson: Having the largest chunk of playoff points is extremely helpful, but one bad race can hurt, and Larson’s crash at Talladega wiped out some of his advantage. He’s still extremely safe compared to most of the field at +22 above the cutline, but if incident strikes him again at the Charlotte Roval this week, he could be in trouble. Don’t expect it to happen as Larson’s No. 5 has run very well everywhere this year, including on the road courses.
Denny Hamlin: Despite his consistency, I didn’t have Hamlin as a title favorite because he didn’t win at all in the regular season. But after two wins in the playoffs and the lone driver to be guaranteed into the Round of eight heading into the Roval, I think Hamlin is the man to beat for the title.
Team Penske: I’m a bit shocked that none of the three Penske drivers are in big trouble heading to the Roval. Ryan Blaney (+15) did end the regular season on a hot streak but hadn’t shown playoff consistency before.
As for Joey Logano (+21) and Brad Keselowski (+20), I expected both of them to be all but finished by now. Each of those two drivers had only one win, both coming in so-to-speak “fluke” races and had relatively quiet years otherwise. But they’re both running great in the playoffs, and even going into the final four in a few weeks, don’t be surprised if multiple Penske cars end up fighting for the title in Phoenix.