Brad Morgan · Monday October 21, 2013
Talladega Superspeedway can be a confusing track. After seemingly mastering the restrictor plate circuit as illustrated by good finishes, Matt Kenseth found himself at the wrong end of a long single-file column during the final laps and crossed the line in 20th position, losing the points lead in the process.
A strangely calm finale to an otherwise hectic race left for a bizarre looking finishing order that might suggest that many of this year’s Chasers struggled to get around the 2.66-mile facility. But that wasn’t the case, as almost every driver ran among the leaders at some point Sunday afternoon.
This edition of Who’s Hot and Who’s Not highlights those who were positioned well as the race-ending caution flag flew, and makes the case for the less fortunate at the series’ next stop: Martinsville.
The Hendrick Motorsports duo of Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. led unchallenged for parts of the Camping World Rv Sales 500. Johnson appeared especially hard to pass when the No. 48 Chevrolet paced the sometimes four-wide pack. But the five-time champion (like so many others) wasn’t in the ideal position when Ricky Stenhouse Jr. got into Austin Dillon during the final trip down the backstretch, sending the No. 14 Chevrolet careening upside down – an accident that simultaneously froze the field and ended the race.
Johnson’s 13th isn’t all that impressive considering how things might have ended, but the end result is. For the first time since the Chase began at Chicagoland, Johnson sits atop the standings – four points ahead of Kenseth – and pocesses a semi-comfortable margin over the other title contenders.
A runner-up finish might have left Earnhardt Jr. and the majority of the Talladega sect of Junior Nation on hand unenthusiastic, especially because of the anticlimactic conclusion of his late rally from the mid-pack scrum. But he too should have nothing to feel bad about. Junior put on a restrictor plate show on par with many of those from his Dale Earnhardt Incorporated days and scored more points than every other title candidate in the process.
Of the teammates, Johnson has the clear edge on paper at Martinsville; however, Junior is no slouch there either. The No. 88 Chevrolet is typically right there with the Lowes team when the green flag waves at the world’s biggest paperclip. But where Johnson (eight Martinsville wins) will be looking to collect another grandfather clock and close the gap on all-time greats Richard Petty (15 wins) and Darrell Waltrip (11), Earnhardt Jr. will be trying to snap a streak of two finishes of 21st or worse.
What if NASCAR rules still allowed drivers to race back to the checkered flag after a last-lap crash? What if the drivers hadn’t stayed single file…? What if…?
There were several unanswered questions regarding the ending of this Talladega race, but in the end Jamie McMurray was the driver celebrating. McMurray still gets the nod for a Hot or Not spot even though NASCAR’s most popular driver finished second.
Auburn University fans rejoiced as the Earnhardt-Ganassi, in-state university sponsored Chevrolet rolled into victory lane, and rightfully so. It’s not as if McMurray’s win (the seventh of his career and fourth of the restrictor plate variety) came as a complete surprise, but it sort of did. Many signs pointed to either a Hendrick driver or Kenseth hoisting the trophy; instead, it was McMurray who led the final 15 laps.
Another successful race, this time at Martinsville (where McMurray finished 7th in April), would help to maintain the gap over Brad Keselowski for the first non-Chaser spot in the standings.
Front Row Motorsports is at it again. After going one-two during the Aaron’s 499 at Talladega earlier this season, the FRM tandem of David Gilliland and David Ragan finished inside the top 10 again. In a style similar to the May race, Gilliland and Ragan paired up for the final laps and wound up challenging for the win before placing 6th and 7th. That makes four total top-10 finishes for FRM this season, all occurring at Talladega.
Austin Dillon ran well en route to what looked to be his best career finish of his young Sprint Cup career, but made one mistake and paid dearly for it. Getting spun was the least of his problems. A split second later Dillon collided with Casey Mears, sending the Stewart-Haas Chevrolet spinning through the air. The end result of Dillon’s otherwise masterful Talladega debut is the only reason he’s down here.
The Richard Childress Racing driver suffered his first career Sprint Cup DNF only a half lap from what appeared to be at least a third-place finish – ending up 26th after the field was frozen. Through 12 career starts Dillon has been held without a top-10 finish (his best being an 11th at Michigan in June). Talladega has a way of turning good days into miserable experiences at a moments notice, and Dillon was on the receiving end Sunday.
Bobby Labonte is another driver who ran a clean race only to have his chances crippled because of a momentary letdown – or in his case two lapses. Labonte maintained the pace through 45 laps and entered the pits for a scheduled stop but was found to be speeding upon review. He then attempted to serve a pass through penalty, but got caught going too fast again and received a stop and go as punishment. The No. 47 team wasn’t able to recover from the lap that Labonte lost because of the second penalty, and the Scotts Products Toyota Camry fared no better than 34th.
Dropping to the back after the green flag flies is sometimes regarded as a smart move, because it lessens the chances of being caught up in a more traditional Big One. At times these drivers have looked like geniuses, but when that plan doesn’t work it can result in the loss of the draft or worse. For Kasey Kahne worse happened in the form of lost laps, some of which stemmed from an eventual pass through penalty because of a speeding violation.
Kahne hasn’t seemed prepared for the level of racing required to beat out other Chasers and make a serious run at the championship, and it continued at Talladega. The No. 5 team didn’t show any intensity as Kahne fell off the lead lap and wasn’t in a position to make up serious ground when the laps began to wind down. He is now 101 points behind Johnson in the standings and is in danger of losing contact with Joey Logano for 12th.
Kahne will need a first-ever win at Martinsville and more to follow in order to get back into a respectable position in this year’s Chase. Right now he seems more like the driver who struggled in his first two Chase opportunities as opposed to a 4th-place effort from a year ago.
Kahne wasn’t the only cold mainstay to have problems at Talladega, other frequently criticized drivers like Denny Hamlin and Juan Pablo Montoya also encountered their share of issues. Montoya was involved in a two-car accident that ended his day after only 78 laps and Hamlin departed shortly after with a blown engine – his third since the beginning of September. Ouch.
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