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Takeaways from Talladega: Did unstable cars lead to a relatively tame race?


Welcome to the 2018 season and welcome back to our post-race takeaways column. Per usual, we’ll have some random thoughts to espouse after Cup Series races and this column will be the landing spot for them.

• So much for slicing and dicing and constant two and three-wide action Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway.

It’s OK if you were underwhelmed with the racing product, a 500-mile affair that was dominated by Joey Logano. Sunday’s race wasn’t the most thrilling. That happens sometimes. Not everything can be epic and legendary. Because if everything was epic and legendary, how do we know what truly is epic and legendary?

Anyway, let’s get to the point. Why was Sunday’s race more a thrill-an-hour than a thrill-a-minute?

Was it because of NASCAR’s new ride-height rules? The cars at Daytona and Talladega are closer to the ground this year, especially at the back. The lower heights mean the spoiler is lower to the ground to help produce more speed. But at the expense of downforce and stability.

[Logano wins at Talladega]

“It was an unusual Talladega,” Aric Almirola said. “The cars are a big handful. They keep getting them lower and lower and lower and we are going faster and faster and faster but the cars just drive worse. It is a lot harder to run in a big pack three and four-wide all day long.”

Chase Elliott agreed.

“The cars are just pretty unstable so the racing is just different,” Elliott said. “Nobody is going to want to race quite as hard because their stuff is not driving as good to be able to do it.”

Jimmie Johnson said it felt like a normal restrictor plate race to him — at least from the cockpit.

“The cars weren’t handling really good, so you had to be very cautious with the runs that you had and where you had them,” Johnson said. “I don’t know how that looked to the eyeballs watching from the outside, but inside it seemed like a normal plate race except going 20 mph faster with the lower ride heights.”

It’s easy to contrast Talladega with the Daytona 500, which featured crazy racing through the first two stages of the race. And that racing led to wrecks, where top contenders for the win were eliminated through crashes because of the runs they got on the cars ahead and the mistimed blocks that happened because of those runs.

NASCAR cut the size of restrictor plates after Jamie McMurray’s violent crash on Friday. McMurray’s car got airborne and tumbled down the backstretch after an apparent flat tire. The ride height rule was instituted, in part, to help prevent cars from lifting off the ground. Less air underneath a car means less of a possibility of a car to take flight.

The smaller plates led to slower speeds but didn’t cut Ford’s dominance at the track. Ford has now won the last five races at Talladega and had multiple cars up front in the waning laps of the race.

That glut of Fords combined with the instability of the cars seems like a great reason why there were no banzai moves for the win. Elliott finished third and was looking for someone ahead of him in the waning laps to make a move.

“I got to the end and those guys around me were working together so much,” Elliott said. “I thought for sure one of them wanted to win a little worse than what they did. They were being very patient with one another and I was surprised by that. If it was me, I feel like I would have wanted to try or do something. Those guys weren’t having it. I was trying to move forward and make a lane and push and they were not interested in advancing.”

The 25 lead changes in Sunday’s race were the fewest in a race at Talladega since the fall race of 1999 won by Dale Jarrett.

• Fox play-by-play broadcaster Mike Joy twice called Talladega the “fastest speedway in the world” on Sunday. It’s an odd claim to make because it’s so demonstrably false.

In a NASCAR world desperate to find a positive — the size of the crowd in attendance was complimented multiple times during the race despite Talladega’s listed capacity being less than half of what it used to be in NASCAR’s heyday — hyperbole and superlatives are in overflowing supply.

But there’s a difference between a hyperbole or superlative and an outright lie. Saying Talladega is the fastest speedway in the world is an outright lie.

The fastest official lap at the track is approximately 212 MPH and the fastest unofficial lap came in a 2004 test, when Rusty Wallace ran a lap of 216 MPH. That’s blazingly fast. But the record for a fastest lap on an oval is a lot faster than that. Gil de Ferran ran a lap of over 240 MPH in a CART qualifying session at Auto Club Speedway in 2000.

Yes, Wallace was driving a stock car at Talladega and de Ferran was running an IndyCar at ACS. But that doesn’t change the fact that Auto Club Speedway is the site of the fastest oval lap and therefore the fastest oval. Sure, an IndyCar could run faster at Talladega, but it hasn’t. Someone could run faster than Usain Bolt’s world record in the 100 meters. But he hasn’t. Therefore Usain Bolt is still the fastest person on the planet.

Why is this important? Because words matter. And they matter more than ever in a NASCAR that’s trying to figure out where it sits on an evolving sports landscape. Remember what we said above about the problem with calling every race legendary or epic? When words are used to describe things they don’t mean they end up losing their meaning. NASCAR is losing its meaning with many fans, based on its television ratings. Overpromising and underdelivering in the form of meaningless words isn’t going to solve that problem.

• David Ragan was sixth for Front Row Motorsports on Sunday. That’s his highest finish since he was sixth at Daytona in July when he was passed by Ricky Stenhouse Jr. for the win after making the wrong move.

Front Row is one of the smaller teams in NASCAR. Coincidentally, Charles LeClerc finished sixth in the Azerbaijan Grand Prix on Sunday for Sauber, one of the smaller teams in Formula 1. We have nothing more to add other than noting the coincidence.

• Paul Menard’s win in the second stage of Sunday’s race was his first-ever stage win. It didn’t mean much for Menard’s third-stage hopes as he ended up crashing out in the third stage.

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Nick Bromberg is a writer for Yahoo Sports.