To the Point: On the last lap of a wild race at Talladega, leader Dale Earnhardt Jr. was a sitting duck. With a Hendrick teammate behind him, second-place Jimmie Johnson just needed a push and a little good luck.
Instead, third-place Brian Vickers made sure things ran amok.
While attempting to make the pass on Junior for the lead, Vickers bumped Johnson from behind a little too hard and in the wrong place, clipping the No. 48 car in the right-rear corner and sending Johnson straight into the No. 8 Chevrolet. Both cars spun out of harm’s way down the back straightaway into turn 3 while Vickers streaked by to take the UAW-Ford 500 checkered flag, his first Cup win in 107 career starts. Kasey Kahne streaked past the melee to take second, with Kurt Busch third, Matt Kenseth fourth and Martin Truex Jr. collecting his first career top-five finish in fifth.
Who Should Have Won: Johnson. With the run he needed coming down the back straightaway, all Johnson had to get was a straight push from teammate Vickers heading into turn 3 and the race would have been his. No other cars were even close to challenging the three; unfortunately for Johnson, his biggest challenge became finding a way to grit his teeth exiting the infield care center, as his anger towards his teammate clearly showed during his post-race interviews.
Five Questions You Should Be Asking After the Race Weekend
1) Will Vickers be fired?
No. Despite spinning out a championship contender who also happens to be his teammate, both contract and sponsor obligations at Hendrick will prevent anything from happening to Vickers. In the old days of the sport, you might see this happen but nowadays it would be difficult and unnecessary to go through all the legal wrangling with six races left in the season.
However, don’t expect to see any sort of major interaction with Vickers and Hendrick employees over the final month and a half; comments aimed at the youngster from Johnson were vicious, similar to the type of mudslinging Jeff Gordon was throwing Vickers’s way last month in New Hampshire. Expect Vickers to show up at the track, do his job, and try and end his tenure at the No. 25 as professionally as he can, despite the controversy. In fact, with the monkey of the winless streak off his back, don’t be surprised if Vickers doesn’t grab one or two more checkered flags before the year is out.
2) How did the new pavement at Talladega Superspeedway come out?
While most drivers despise the dreaded evil of restrictor-plate racing when they come to Talladega, no one had anything but praise for the new pavement, one of the smoothest resurfacing projects NASCAR’s seen in the past decade of track fix-ups all over the country. With 63 lead changes and 23 leaders, it was one of the most competitive races in the history of the speedway, with an ending worthy of highlight reels for years to come. However,
3) Why did NASCAR wait so long to give out a smaller restrictor plate? How could they do that when they promised they wouldn’t “react for the sake of reacting” the day before?
The one thing the new pavement did at Talladega was increase speeds. OK, quick poll. How many people out there really thought a brand new paving job would do nothing to increase speeds?
I don’t see any hands raised, except NASCAR officials! It seemed everyone in a NASCAR uniform was confident nothing significant would happen with a newly paved track, then expressed genuine shock and horror when the speeds jumped to over 200 mph in practice. Wow, ’cause you know, speeds at Charlotte and Richmond didn’t jump at all, alright, I think I’ve made my point here.
So, to react to the problem, NASCAR initially claims they’ll do nothing Friday, then hears from the safety demigods overnight and comes to the track on Saturday with a different restrictor plate for all the teams, designed specifically to slow speeds. Of course, without any practice with the new equipment all of the teams were up in arms; but if NASCAR had anticipated the problem, as they should have, and brought new plates to the track on Friday, there wouldn’t have been an issue.
4) Why does NASCAR refuse to show debris?
The race’s second debris caution was significant in that it let fan favorite Earnhardt Jr. back on the lead lap, but according to what I’ve been told (I wasn’t in front of a TV at the time) there was no debris shown on screen as the reason for the yellow flag. Gee, let the conspiracy theorists pour a little more fuel on the fire, why don’t you, NASCAR? I don’t understand why the sport can’t get that if you don’t let people know why the caution comes out, it becomes a subjective judgment call, and those calls will always be questioned.
5) Can Mark Martin win a championship this season after officially announcing he’s leaving Roush?
While the Mark Martin to MB2 Motorsports announcement over the weekend was clearly a shocker, it’s got to be a blow to the Roush organization most of all, who has to watch their flagship driver bail from both the No. 6 car and Ford after 19 years. After getting through the Talladega mess unscathed, Martin stands a mere 10 points away from the title he covets; but will his lame-duck team rally around him after such a surprise announcement? That’ll be one of the big stories to watch at Lowe’s Motor Speedway this weekend.
Kahne: Throughout his career to date, Kahne is to restrictor-plate racing what oil is to water: not a good mix. With no career top-10 finishes at Talladega heading into Sunday and his chances at a championship shot, just making it to the checkered flag was a realistic expectation for the No. 9 team. But Kahne raced well, ran up front and capitalized on the late crash to wind up second, easily his best ever restrictor-plate finish.
Kenseth: Kenseth has yet to break through with his first restrictor-plate win, but he’s getting closer. 21 laps led and a fourth-place finish at Talladega served wonder to boost his resume at these superspeedways. More importantly, it’s the run needed to get this team back on track after a series of early misfortunes nearly ripped the label of championship favorites right out of their hands.
Martin: After being involved in the last three Big Ones at this track, Martin’s eighth-place finish was notable simply for the fact that he didn’t wreck; and as such, his championship chances steadily increase. Only 10 points out of first and heading to a track in which the No. 6 car has performed at a high level the past few years, Martin may finally start to believe a title run is possible; whether his crew does is another matter altogether (see question No. 5 above).
David Gilliland: OK, so 15th place isn’t exactly something to write home about. But for Gilliland, this might be the breakthrough weekend that finally gets his Nextel Cup career on the fast track. Winning the Bud Pole for the event, Gilliland stayed out of trouble and posted his best career Nextel Cup result; more importantly, the youngster has gone two weeks in a row without wrecking after over a month of tearing up more cars to fill a race shop. Showcasing the patience that has won his team a championship in the past, team owner Robert Yates is right when he says this kid does have raw talent; finally, it’s getting developed.
Gordon: Once looked at as a master of restrictor-plate racing, the performances at those tracks were nearly Gordon’s undoing leading up to the Chase. Sunday’s race may finally be the nail in the coffin. Collected in the race’s first big wreck when contact between Johnson and Carl Edwards sent several cars spinning, Gordon wound up with the brunt of the damage, forced to the garage area for repairs. Finishing 36th, it’s the first year of his career Gordon has raced in all four restrictor-plate events and failed to score a top-10 finish.
Jeff Burton: Burton did everything a points leader could do at Talladega to avoid the big wreck – and did so twice. Unfortunately, Lady Luck still intervened, as a cut tire in the race’s closing laps sent Burton to the pits and trapped him a lap down. Finishing 27th, one lap behind, his troubles made the championship a wide-open affair once again.
Denny Hamlin: After wrecking just a few times all season long, perhaps the yellow stripe is finally catching up to this year’s rookie phenomenon. Coming off a spin at Kansas last week, Hamlin got caught up in the carnage at Talladega – finishing 21st on the lead lap, things could have been much worse if not for the hard work of his crew, but Hamlin expected to place better here.
Jamie McMurray: A season of misery for the No. 26 team simply continued Sunday, when after leading 22 laps McMurray found himself with heavy damage after one of the race’s two Big Ones. The Roush driver wound up 37th.
With Burton’s late-race pit stop, his points lead got cut faster than the tread on his Goodyear tire – it now stands at just six over new second-place points man Kenseth, jumping up two spots. Martin remained third, but now is just 10 points out of the lead, with Harvick 33 back of Burton in fourth. Hamlin fell three spots to round out the top five, but notably closes to within 51 of the top spot despite being involved in both big wrecks of the day.
Earnhardt Jr. could have led the standings coming out of Talladega, but instead dropped to sixth following the last lap debacle. 100 points out of the lead, Earnhardt Jr. at least still has a fighting chance, Gordon may not, as his accident drops him to seventh, 147 behind Burton. Johnson remains in eighth, with Kyle Busch and Kahne tied for ninth place – but all three have slim, if any, chance of capturing this year’s title.
“It is not how I wanted to win it, but it is nice to get a win for this No. 25 car. It has been a long time.” – Brian Vickers
“I know [Vickers] was trying to get his first win, but he was in position to finish second or third the way that was and gave me one hell of a push from behind and pushed me into the No. 8… and off we went.” – Jimmie Johnson
“We were both going to finish well for the points and Brian [Vickers] just got a little excited there. But I don’t know if you call it, well… it’s a mistake. But he did win the race.” – Dale Earnhardt Jr.
“[Brian] Vickers was in a Catch-22, whether to go for the win for himself or to help his teammate. He had every intention of helping his teammate. It just didn’t turn out that way.” – Kurt Busch
“There is so much grip here, my mom could drive these cars. They’re easy as hell to drive.” – Dale Earnhardt Jr. on the new pavement at Talladega
Next Up: With the wildcard event of the Chase complete, the series returns to unrestricted racing at the 1.5-mile Lowe’s Motor Speedway for a Saturday night showcase under the lights. The Bank of America 500 will be shown this Saturday night on NBC beginning at 7 p.m., and can be heard on the radio with your local PRN affiliate.
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