TALLADEGA — There she goes again, mean and spiteful, up to her old tricks. You can clean her up, glam her up from homely to Homecoming Queen, and she’s still evil.
Spend $50 million on a facelift, spiffy her up so the spectators can drink designer moonshine and watch crew work up close and personal, but that doesn’t change the soul.
Talladega Superspeedway may be fan-friendly, but never driver-friendly. Unless, somehow, you’re the one who happens to be front when she decides to stop the wheel from spinning.
She turns the field into an automobile graveyard with those highlight video Big One crashes, then buries hopes and dreams alongside.
Know this: Nobody has ever won a NASCAR championship at Talladega.
Dozens have lost championships here.
Add Clint Bowyer to that list now. And Alex Bowman. And William Byron. And, just to prove she doesn’t play favorites, no matter the genetics, Chase Elliott.
NASCAR’s braintrust decided several years ago that Talladega would no longer be a “cut-off race,” the last in a three-race tier in its playoff elimination format. It wanted some cushion for the inevitable 'Dega disasters and disruption.
The golf word is “mulligan.” The racing phrase is “Kansas Speedway,” which hosts the final race in the Round of 12 next week. After Kansas four drivers take their consolation prizes and disappear into the gloaming, back there with Matt Tifft and Corey Lajoie and Joey Gase, in the netherworld where NBC’s cameras never seem to focus.
A win at Kansas is pretty much the only legit hope for Bowyer, Bowman, Byron and Elliott, which sounds a little like a law firm representing accident victims, instead of causing accidents.
Talladega wasn’t through twisting the knife. It went and handed the checkered flag to a surprise winner, Ryan Blaney, with his James Bond-ish .007-second cushion over Ryan Newman. Blaney was 12th in points, 85 points behind leader Martin Truex Jr. Blaney’s only hope to advance to the Round of 8 was to win here, or at Kansas.
That followed Kyle Larson’s upset victory at Dover the week before, so the Round of 8 has two guys who three weeks ago had no better chance of advancing to the Round of 8 than your last Uber driver.
You can lock Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. into the next tier alongside Blaney and Larson, and probably Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick.
That leaves only seventh-place Brad Keselowski, 20 points above the cut line, and teammate eighth-place Joey Logano, 18 points ahead of Bowman, to gnaw their fingernails going to Kansas. A win from any of the bottom four could scuttle their chances, and considering the trend, that’s not beyond the realm of possibility.
In its cruelty, Talladega has no shortage of co-conspirators in costing championships.
Bowman was among them, trying to protect a lead when he swerved to block Logano. When Logano unavoidably tagged him, Bowman lost control and took out a passel of cars.
Then Kurt Busch, near the front of a tight string of cars, bulldozed Byron, who hit Logano and caused another Big One.
With seven to go, Kurt Busch caused a massive wreck with seven laps to go by knocking younger brother Kyle akilter. “It just takes the smallest mistake,” Kurt said. Or two mistakes.
Now, for a number of Talladega denizens, seeing both Busch brothers eliminated in one instant is a thing of joy. But not when the domino effect takes out another six or eight more appealing drivers.
Logano, the defending NASCAR champion, wonderfully described what happened to him.
“I was riding around and everything was good in second place and, ‘Boom!’ The next thing I know I’m sideways and up in the air.”
And, laughing at him all the way, that evil crone Talladega, no less cruel no matter how pretty she now looks.
Veteran sports columnist Mark McCarter is a special contributor to The Anniston Star. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.