Top 5, Talladega: Michael Jordan a NASCAR ambassador, fuel-saving at superspeedways


Five thoughts after Sunday’s race at Talladega Superspeedway …

1. Taking Stock

Though Michael Jordan has been frequently spotted at NASCAR races — particularly since selling the Charlotte Hornets — he’s largely kept a low profile while at the racetrack. Jordan will often sneak onto pit road right before the race and climb atop the pit box without any fanfare, and he’s only done a few interviews in the three and a half years since deciding to start 23XI Racing with Denny Hamlin.

Sure, there have been the occasional moments when he lingered on pit road after a race to celebrate Bubba Wallace’s playoff berth. But for the most part, Jordan isn’t interested in calling attention to himself. He doesn’t make laps in the garage or do anything to take away from the competitors about to strap into their machines.

But Sunday put a giant exclamation mark on precisely why Jordan is so important to NASCAR. His pure joy and unbridled enthusiasm for watching one of his cars win a race was instantly sent around the wider sports world and gained attention for NASCAR that most other Talladega results would not have.

There was Jordan, picking up Tyler Reddick’s son, Beau, and letting out a giant laugh moments after he jumped up and down while hugging team members. There was His Airness, waving to his wife and kids at home during a victory lane interview as if he were on TV for the first time. And there was perhaps the most famous athlete in the history of the world talking about how NASCAR — NASCAR! — scratches his competitive itch like an NBA playoff game would have.

Jordan is plenty involved in NASCAR already. He not only watches every Cup Series race, but Reddick crew chief Billy Scott said Jordan also watches all the Xfinity Series and Truck Series races. Jordan calls into 23XI meetings frequently, Hamlin has said, and has input on the team’s marketing and sponsorship side. And Jordan’s longtime righthand man, Curtis Polk, has been leading the charge among team owners to strike a better charter extension agreement with NASCAR (often ruffling feathers along the way).

So while Jordan isn’t about to start doing a bunch of promotional appearances on talk shows or hawking race tickets, he in some ways has a chance to become NASCAR’s greatest current ambassador.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon and Richard Petty are all phenomenal figures in the sport. But no one transcends the entire sports world as a whole like Jordan — heck, most young people these days know him for his sneakers more than his basketball career. In that sense, NASCAR is incredibly lucky to be the beneficiary of Jordan’s racing passion.

2. Fastest Car Tracker

Drivers were running half-throttle for large portions of the race, raising doubts as to whether we saw a true battle of the best cars (since the focus was on saving fuel). That said, a case can be made for Michael McDowell, who led the most laps (36) and was able to control both lanes for a large part of the race (he also won the pole, although that’s not as significant on a superspeedway).

The excellent Auto Racing Analytics account on X (@AR_Analytics) also noted Brad Keselowski could be in the conversation; either way, Reddick didn’t seem to have the fastest car, so that’s another point for the Other Cars in our season-long tally.

Also, an oddity continues: McDowell is the 10th different driver in the first 11 races to get our “Fastest Car” nod, which is quite a streak (Keselowski has yet to appear here as well).

Fastest Car Score: Other Cars 6, Fastest Cars 5

Fastest Cars by Driver: William Byron 2, Michael McDowell 1, Tyler Reddick 1, Martin Truex Jr. 1, Denny Hamlin 1, Christopher Bell 1, Kyle Larson 1, Todd Gilliland 1, Joey Logano 1, Ty Gibbs 1.

Michael McDowell


Michael McDowell had the fastest car Sunday at Talladega before a last-lap crash with Brad Keselowski ended his shot at a win. (James Gilbert / Getty Images)

3. Q&A

Each week in this space, we’ll pose one question and attempt to answer one from the past.

Q: What can be done to eliminate fuel-savings racing at superspeedways?

Sunday’s race ended with 72 lead changes, which was tied for the sixth-most in any race in NASCAR history (and ranks second for races other than the tandem drafting era superspeedway events of 2010-11). You would think fans would find that many lead changes overwhelmingly entertaining.

But in Year 3 of the Next Gen car, the secret is out: Because it’s so difficult to pass with this car on superspeedways, track position has become more important than ever. Gone are the days of cars dropping to the back and then slicing their way up through the pack. Once the drivers start racing full-throttle in two-by-two lines, there’s no passing to be done.

That makes track position incredibly valuable, and teams have figured out the way to get it is to spend the least amount of time taking fuel on pit road (tires don’t matter, so it’s not a traditional pit stop under the green flag). Thus everyone is riding around in fuel-conservation mode — sometimes to an extreme degree, like six seconds slower per lap — for much of the day and not actually racing.

And though it looks good to have a three-wide pack on TV, that’s not what longtime fans have in mind when they think of Talladega and Daytona.

But that’s the current reality, so can it be fixed? It’s difficult to see how, at least as long as the Next Gen is around. Unless NASCAR can change the way the car races and suddenly allow for drivers to make moves again on their own (instead of being penalized for pulling out of line while trying to make a pass, as Kyle Busch noted), then fuel strategy will continue to be a major factor.

A: This was last year’s question after the Top 5 column at Talladega: Is it better to have the entire field be so incredibly close that passing is so difficult, thus requiring drivers to be perfect? Or should drivers be able to slice through the field if they have a faster car and show off their superior skills while overcoming poor track position?

That’s an oddly timed question, considering this has again been a recent topic for NASCAR. Though this conversation was just coming into light at this time one year ago, there’s no longer much of a debate about which is better. As we detailed last week in Item No. 4, the quest for “parity” has actually turned into a net loss for NASCAR because when all the cars are roughly the same speed and all the drivers have adopted each other’s style through SMT data, passing becomes extremely challenging.

As with the other question in this section, no immediate fix seems to be on the horizon. The focus has turned to improving the tires, but the car itself? This is only the start of Year 3 for a spec vehicle that was originally billed as a cost-savings measure, so the idea of starting over with another model seems extremely unlikely anytime soon.

The car races how it races, and the field is likely to only get closer. That might sound like a downer of a statement, but at least the intermediate tracks are great.

4. NASquirks

Scoring pylons — or more specifically, the lack thereof — were the hot topic of the weekend heading into the Talladega race. And that’s a problem.

No, not because the pylons were missing at Talladega and Texas. Although that’s not ideal and we’d advocate for them to return — after all, pylons are certainly important to the at-track fan experience, even if some are outdated and expensive to replace — isn’t it actually more concerning that this relatively minor issue became such a topic among fans?

From this view, it’s an indication NASCAR continues to struggle with storylines and star power. These are known issues and nothing new, but the week-to-week “As The Wheel Turns” soap opera element that drove the sport for much of the ’90s and ’00s has been largely absent of late.

In Jordan Bianchi’s quarter-season report last week, he labeled the two biggest storylines so far this season as the dominance of Joe Gibbs Racing and Hendrick Motorsports (which have combined to win every non-superspeedway race plus the Daytona 500) and the disappointing racing at short tracks.

And … he’s right. Those have been the two biggest stories so far. Except that’s not a good thing, because this sport has always been driven (excuse the pun) by storylines that compel people to watch one race and then be interested enough to tune in the next week.

So it’s no surprise, then, that in the absence of a rivalry or a moment that gets everyone talking, scoring pylons filled the void this week. But don’t worry, because now the topic of the week will be too much fuel-saving at superspeedways. Sheesh.

Fortunately, NASCAR has some great racetracks coming up, so let’s hope something water-cooler-worthy happens soon.

5. Five at No. 5

Our mini power rankings after Race No. 11/38 (including exhibitions):

1. William Byron (last week: 1): Talladega marked his fifth straight finish of seventh or better, a stretch which includes two wins. Byron was surprisingly one of the 15 drivers who did not lead a lap on Sunday, yet he still finished seventh. That’s a sign things are going pretty well at the moment.

2. Tyler Reddick (last week: not ranked): It’s not just the last-lap win at Talladega that gets Reddick here. He now has five straight top-10 finishes (only eight drivers even have five top-10s all season so far, let alone in a row) and moved to fifth in the point standings after ranking 24th after the first two races of this season.

3. Kyle Larson (last week: 2): He’s still the points leader despite back-to-back 21st-place finishes, and he should be one of the favorites at all three of the next few races (Dover, Kansas, Darlington) before he embarks on the Double.

4. Chase Elliott (last week: 4): Still hasn’t finished outside the top 20 all year and moved up to a season-best third in the point standings after placing 15th on Sunday.

5. Denny Hamlin (last week: 3): The last spot came down to Hamlin (who only has three top-10 finishes all year despite consistently fast cars) and Martin Truex Jr. (who has three straight finishes outside the top 10 but is still second in the point standings). We’ll give the nod to Hamlin since he at least had a chance to win last week at Texas.

Dropped out: Martin Truex Jr.

go-deeper

GO DEEPER

For Tyler Reddick and Michael Jordan’s 23XI, a smart Talladega strategy pays off

(Top photo of Michael Jordan at Sunday’s race: James Gilbert / Getty Images)





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