One leader after another blowing tires and crashing, suffocating heat, rain that pushed the race into the nighttime hours, and a much maligned track made for quite an unpredictable Autotrader Echo Park Automotive 500 at the Texas Motor Speedway last Sunday. But what that race also did was add tons of drama to the ongoing NASCAR Playoffs.
An in depth look at the NASCAR Playoffs schedule offers some insight into the sanctioning body’s thinking in terms of how each stage is meant to provide certain degrees of drama(perhaps not in the way Texas did). Each three-race set of contests is meant to create scenarios that will peek the interest of fans and keep the competitors on edge. But it is in this second round in which that drama is meant to reach its most unpredictable level.
Each round of the Playoffs has at least one ‘wild card’ sort of track that has the potential to throw a wrench in the plans of championship eligible teams. That said, there is at least one track within in each round that is meant to offer drivers a break from chaos that could be created by those wild card venues.
In the second round, that predictable track is supposed to be the Texas Motor Speedway. After all, this 1.5-mile facility has come to be known for somewhat bland races which often times feature competitors strung out all around the speedway with little passing. The best cars have tended to get to the front of the field and stay there throughout the event. It is supposed to provide drivers an opportunity to either score a win or accumulate points before the madness of the next two rounds arrives.
Following last week’s race at Texas will come this weekend’s trip to the always crazy Talladega Super Speedway followed by a visit to the Roval at the Charlotte Motor Speedway. A massive crash can occur at any moment to eliminate title contenders in bunches at Talladega and the makeshift road course at Charlotte is filled with a variety of pitfalls that await the combatants.
After a first round that saw each of the three races won by non Playoff drivers, it would have seemed appropriate for the racing gods to allow a more predictable outcome in the opening stanza of the second triumvirate of contests. Instead, the 500-miler held on the track located in the Fort Worth area was filled surprises as one car after another suffered tire failures and other misfortunes opening the door for a driver who had been eliminated from contention in the first round to score the win.
Once again, the championship hopefuls were thwarted in their hopes of securing a free pass into the next round.
Now, see what they have to look forward to. The twelve drivers who remain alive will not only have to hope for a strong run in Talladega but also hope not to be swept up in a massive crash that could drop them into a finishing position outside of the top-30. It is more than a little conceivable that a driver could have the best car all day and look like a certain top-5 finisher if not a winner only to be caught up in a 12 or 15 car pileup with less than ten laps remaining.
Further, the Roval offers plenty of chances for disaster. The slightest of slips off the track could send a car into a tire barrier or a retaining wall causing significant damage that could potentially bring about a premature end of the day for a Playoff driver. Missing a chicane on a late restart would bring about a stop-and-go penalty that could allow half the field to pass by with finishing positions and points being tossed away. And as we have seen in the past, a driver with a vendetta might consider this to be the place to exact revenge.
Tyler Reddick’s win at Texas deprived those drivers still alive ion the NASCAR Playoffs of the assurance that they will move on to the next round no matter what happens at Talladega and Charlotte. And based on the current standings, no one is far enough ahead in the points that they can feel at ease about those two races. Advancement to the ‘Round of 8’ is truly up in the air.
As crazy, random, and somewhat disappointing as the tire-blowing debacle in Texas was, it definitely added to the drama and mystery of these next two races and the entire NASCAR Playoffs picture. How would you like to be a driver or crew chief heading into these next two races needing consecutive solid finishes?
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Richard Allen has been covering NASCAR and other forms of motorsports since 2008.
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