Just five races remain in the 2019 Cup Series season. The final season finale at Homestead is creeping closer and closer.
1. Denny Hamlin
Hamlin is the points leader among drivers who aren’t clinched into the third round of the playoffs and also finished third on Monday with a heavily repaired car. That’s a win.
Hamlin basically waited out the crashes and then went forward after he got back on the lead lap. With every playoff driver involved in at least a spin on Sunday or Monday, it was a good strategy.
“I was just trying to play chess out there,” Hamlin said. “I knew my odds and percentages with the wrecks. I knew once my competitiors started to fall there, I knew that I had to be smart. I just knew the end of these races usually end up like a crashfest and I was just going to take all the crash positions I could get once I got back on the lead lap. Once I saw that the percentage was better for me to go race up front for the win versus just taking the end of the lead lap even if we were to crash, I knew it was in my best interest to try to go there at the end and we almost won it anyway.”
Hamlin has a 56-point lead on ninth place heading into Kansas. He could clinch advancement into the third round by the end of the first stage.
2. Martin Truex Jr.
Since Truex entered Talladega with a healthy points cushion on ninth he figured he could find “a safe place there and chill out and ride.”
That did not work. Truex got crashed as you can guess.
“Wrong place, wrong time, which seems like about every time I come here,” Truex said. “I feel like I should just race as hard as I can race because I’m probably going to get wrecked anyway.”
Truex has a very good record at Talladega ... at crashing. He’s been crashed a lot at Talladega recently. The good news is that he’s 48 points up on ninth so Kansas should be pretty straightforward.
3. Kyle Busch
Busch was the one playoff driver at Joe Gibbs Racing who was up front early and often. And guess what?
You don’t have to guess.
“Everybody starts getting more aggressive towards the end and some guys just started pushing and I got pushed,” Busch said of the wreck that took him out with fewer than seven laps to go. “I don’t know if he was getting pushed from behind him or what, but just got turned sideways the wrong way on the straightaway and that was it.”
Busch is 41 points up on ninth. Because nearly everyone crashed, the JGR trio at the top of the standings entering Talladega leaves with a sizeable cushion. While Monday was an expensive day for the team, it was pretty negligible when it comes to the points standings.
4. Ryan Blaney
This feels like a bit of an overdue Daytona or Talladega win for Blaney. His two teammates Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano have recently won at the tracks and Blaney has been running up at the front just as often as they have. He just hadn’t visited victory lane.
His win could also take a playoff berth away from another driver. Blaney entered Talladega last among playoff drivers in the standings and sure looked the least likely to make the third round. He’s now one of only two drivers who have clinched spots in the third round and can have a care-free race at Kansas.
“After last week, having that trouble with some parts breaking, our mindset was really we had to win one of these two races,” Blaney said. “We were so far back in points. I know Talladega is a wild card. There's a lot of wrecks today. A lot of guys got tore up. We didn't get stage points, far behind the eight ball. We knew we had to probably win one of these two weeks.”
5. Kyle Larson
Larson immediately noted after winning at Dover how he didn’t have to worry about his Talladega performance because he was locked into the third round. That proved prescient as Larson ended up with a destroyed car after he crashed into Alex Bowman in the big wreck at the end of stage 2.
Larson ended up 39th and last among all of the drivers that restarted the race on Monday.
Harvick finished on the lead lap and in 17th. He looked well-positioned for a good finish but was also caught up in that last big crash. He had an interesting analogy after the race.
“I would have loved to have scored stage points and finish better, but we didn’t,” Harvick said. “You can’t put much merit into this. It’s kind of like bumper cars with your friends that don’t know how to drive at the go-kart track.”
Harvick is 36 points ahead of ninth.
7. Brad Keselowski
Keselowski was pushing Brendan Gaughan to the lead on the outside line with less than seven laps to go. Milliseconds later he was involved in a crash and Gaughan’s car was flipping over before landing on its wheels.
“We were about to take the lead. I was pushing Brendan Gaughan and was really excited about how it was looking there for a minute and it just didn’t work out,” Keselowski said.
“It just didn’t work out” is a very nice way to say “our car got wrecked in a wreckfest at Talladega.” Keselowski is 20 points ahead of ninth in the standings.
8. Joey Logano
Logano got caught in the second big crash and ended up with a silver hood after all the tape that was used on it. And he somehow ended up finishing 11th with a car that is probably getting cut up for scrap parts as you read this post.
Logano is in eighth and 18th points up on ninth. He just needs a playoff driver ahead of him to win at Kansas if he doesn’t while he maintains that 18-point gap. Seems doable, doesn’t it?
Elliott was one of three Hendrick cars crashed in the wreck at the end of stage 2. His was the only of the three that was repairable and he drove his way back through the field to finish ninth. If Elliott advances to the third round because of misfortune ahead of him, that Talladega finish will be looked at as the pivotal moment in his playoff quest.
“You have to have the mindset to go out there and control what we can control and do everything we can to get a win,” Elliott said. “That's all we can do.”
A win at Kansas would certainly be a pivotal moment too.
10. Alex Bowman
Bowman is the guy in ninth in the points standings. He was running up front at the end of stage 2 and went to keep Logano at bay and kablooie, the crash started.
“After watching it, I just didn’t realize how fast [Logano] was coming there,” Bowman said. “I probably shouldn’t have even attempted to block that. He was a solid chunk faster than us, so that’s on me. It’s part of Talladega and superspeedway racing. It’s really unfortunate for our team. I apologize to the other guys that got taken out in that.”
With the same rules set — at the moment — to be used at February’s Daytona 500, expect much of the conversation leading into the race to be about blocking and the crashing that inevitably comes with it.
11. William Byron
Byron was that lone Hendrick driver who got through the stage 2 crash and then ended up crashed in stage 3. He’s 12th in the standings but just nine points behind Bowman ... and 27 points behind eighth.
12. Clint Bowyer
Here’s a GIF that ultimately sums up Bowyer’s day.
Bowyer lost laps during that mess and finished 23rd. He probably needs his first win at his home track to advance in the playoffs.
The Lucky Dog: Michael McDowell finished fifth. It’s the first top-five finish of his career that hasn’t come at Daytona.
The DNF: Fourteen drivers had their days ended because of a crash and Spencer Boyd didn’t even get to compete on Monday because the engine in his backmarker car broke on Sunday.
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Nick Bromberg is a writer for Yahoo Sports.
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