What a weekend! The roller coaster-esque ebbs and flows of storylines and drama poured through Talladega more than at any track in a long time. The breakthrough win of David Ragan in Saturday’s Aaron’s 312 Nationwide Series race was impressive enough – but it merely set the stage for what would be a remarkable finish the following day. At first, it seemed after a series of Big Ones it was the usual suspects who would rise to the front at the end. Ryan Newman and Dale Earnhardt Jr. almost fulfilled that prophecy, creating their two-car breakaway during the final restart of the Aaron’s 499. But just when you thought they had it won… something unexpected actually happened in the Sprint Cup Series, as the two-car tandem of Carl Edwards and Brad Keselowski blew by them on the white-flag lap. And after using some brilliant strategy, it was none other than Keselowski who scored his first Cup win, handed owner James Finch his first, and assisted in one of the wildest, scariest crashes ever.
Meanwhile, I feel we are allowed to start counting points now – after all, the season has reached the one-quarter mark – and it’s about time, because the Chase race is simply bananas. Title contenders Jeff Gordon and Clint Bowyer were immediately eliminated from contention in the first Big One on lap 8, while top-12 hopefuls Kasey Kahne, Mark Martin, Kevin Harvick and Jamie McMurray also found themselves further on the outside of playoff comfort.
Next, Jimmie Johnson’s chance to assume the point lead evaporated after his involvement in the second Big One on lap 179. That crash also set back two other drivers (Martin Truex Jr. and David Stremme) who are already seeing their Chase window slide to a close before we’re even halfway through spring. Finally, Edwards’s 24th-place finish, after his violent crash into the grandstand fence at the end of the last lap, kept him not only from the win but also from capitalizing on others’ misfortunes.
Of course, not everyone was down in the dumps after ‘Dega. Earnhardt Jr.’s runner-up finish helped right the No. 88 ship that seemed on the verge of sinking, while Newman now finds himself 13th in points after a horrendous start to 2009. Both have used that restrictor plate momentum to join a group of nearly 20 drivers shaping up to fight for just 12 playoff spots this season.
Not to be ignored, drivers fighting for the Top 35 also felt the effects of plate racing, too. The crashes that swept up Robby Gordon, David Gilliland, Bobby Labonte and Sam Hornish Jr. – along with the good finishes of Joey Logano, Scott Speed and Paul Menard – have compressed that race as well.
Phew! All that movement to talk about this weekend… and we’re not even past the intro yet. So with the unpredictability, excitement, and danger of Talladega finally put to bed until October, here are the drivers that ended up HOT, WARM and NOT after Sunday’s race.
HOT: Keselowski – Debate can exist as to whether or not Keselowski belongs on this list, since he is not a full-time Sprint Cup driver, but let’s face it… he came out of nowhere and won the race! Not only did the 25-year-old win in only his fifth start, but he did it for a James Finch team that rarely shows up in the Cup Series with its sights set on victory. Indeed, Keselowski came from the back to the front to the back of the pack several times Sunday, seeming to show that he did not have the speed to hang with the leaders up front. But on the final restart, he ended up hooking up with Edwards at just the right time to take a chance at the win – and it paid off. As a result, Keselowski scored arguably the most unexpected Cup victory since McMurray’s maiden triumph while driving for the injured Sterling Marlin in 2002. For all of this – and so much more – BK deserves a HOT crown this week.
HOT: Kurt Busch – Kyle Busch radioed his crew at one point Sunday to say that Kurt Busch’s No. 2 team bragged before the race that they were going to cut the bumper cover off of the Miller Lite Dodge on purpose (he was probably joking). Though doing so releases air from underneath the racecar, which creates downforce, Busch still had to soldier his machine to a sixth-place finish after making several pit stops to repair damage on many other spots of the car. The missing bumper cover also made him an unfavorable partner to draft with, hampering his chances to contend. Nonetheless, Busch managed to capitalize on the misfortunes of others while surviving two wrecks of his own; as a result, he assumes the points lead for the first time since 2005 after scoring his sixth top 10 of the season.
HOT: Jeff Burton – Lost in the dust of the craziness in Talladega is Burton and the No. 31 Caterpillar team’s comeback from electrical problems. One of the few Chase-contending drivers to not crash out of contention, Burton was three laps down after the midway point once the team first pitted the car to change a battery – and then did so again to change an alternator. Seemingly left to ride around the rest of the day, Burton’s luck changed as he got two Lucky Dogs due to no other cars being a lap down. Eventually, he was able to hang on at the end of the lead lap, finally placing him back in contention when a third yellow flag flew to let him circle back around. From there, Burton drove all the way back to the front, and his 10th-place finish Sunday is his seventh top 15 in a row – dating back to Las Vegas in March. Burton now sits ninth in points and now sits just one spot in the standings behind teammate Bowyer, who also has flown under the radar most of the year. But things aren’t perfect over in Burton’s world quite yet – he has led laps in only two of nine races this year.
WARM: Newman – His three top 10s this season have come in the last five races, with his third place at Talladega (despite scoring it with Edwards flipping and collecting his car) leaving him 13th in points, just 14 markers out of the Chase bracket. Newman did not let near-misses at victory at either Talladega race dampen his spirits, and the No. 39 appears to have overcome the demons that haunted it early in the year. The Cup Series now moves to Richmond this weekend, where Newman won a race back in 2003 and can be expected to contend again.
WARM: Reed Sorenson – The No. 43 team holds another page in the book of Aaron’s 499 comeback stories. Running midpack for much of the race, Sorenson cut a tire late in the event, sustained damage, and fell off of the lead lap. But a series of late cautions allowed the Lucky Dog to fall at the feet of the young driver and he capitalized quietly in the King’s car, ending the race a surging 11th. Paired with last week’s 12th-place finish, Reed heads to Richmond with his best two-race run of the season after falling flat on his face following a Daytona 500 top 10.
WARM: Marcos Ambrose – Even though he was on this list last week, Ambrose remains because his consistency is unchanged. “Doing the opposite of what I predicted last week, the Australian’s fourth place run was more than unexpected from the rookie and vaulted him seven spots in the standings to 19th. In nine races this season to date, Ambrose now has no finishes below 22nd (other than two mechanical failures) in the remaining seven events. This No. 47 team was predicted to struggle this year… but is doing everything but.
COLD: McMurray – The only drivers who have fewer points than McMurray in the last five races (that have run each of them) are John Andretti, Gilliland and Robby Gordon. McMurray has been unable to put good finishes together as of late, racking up results of 37th, 10th, 38th, 11th and 42nd in this quintet of races. While Sunday’s wreck for this driver can be attributed to little more than bad luck, a reunion with old crew chief Donnie Wingo has not been the potion to cure the ills of inconsistency for McMurray or the No. 26 team.
COLD: Scott Riggs – Tommy Baldwin Racing qualifying into the Daytona 500 was a huge victory, and the 25th place effort by Riggs in the Great American Race did little to dampen the new team’s optimism. But since then, the No. 36 has missed four races and has finished no better than 30th in the ones where it qualified. Riggs’s ride has also been without a sponsor for the last two races despite timing it into the main show both weekends. Sunday’s lap 8 crash and 41st-place finish didn’t help on that front, possibly spelling a bad ending soon to one of the best stories that’s left from Daytona.
COLD: Jeremy Mayfield – The plight of Mayfield Motorsports has been more dreadful than that of the TBR team. Beginning operations just before the season, Mayfield’s car actually has financial backing, something most startup teams beg for. The driver then raced his way into the Daytona 500, sparking the surprise and excitement of many, but crashed out and finished 40th to end that honeymoon rather quickly. Since then, the No. 41 has missed five of the eight races and has a best finish of only 32nd – which came after crashing out in Talladega Sunday.
There is not enough room in this column to give justice to all of the big happenings of this tumultuous Talladega race week, but here are some other HOT and NOT stories to leave you with this Tuesday….
HOT: Newman and Dale Earnhardt Jr. taking a stand – These two veteran drivers have a more-than-keen understanding of the intricacies of restrictor-plate racing, as evidenced by their running 1-2 in the final laps of both Saturday’s Nationwide race and Sunday’s Cup race. After Edwards’s crash in the catchfence, the second- and third-place finishers both made clear that NASCAR needs to change the oft-criticized CoT – not the yellow-line rule – to try and prevent cars from flipping. Newman suggested looking into reevaluating the design of the roof flaps and other aerodynamic pieces on the racecars, while Earnhardt Jr. actually suggested the cars be allowed to go faster, making handling more of an issue and breaking up the tight, treacherous packs.
If NASCAR doesn’t want to listen to those two men, it should listen to the opinions of almost everyone else that has tackled the titanic oval – for they all agree that something needs to be done about airborne racecars. Seeing the ease that Matt Kenseth’s and Edwards’s cars flipped with Saturday and Sunday helped galvanize these opinions even more. Since banning stock car racing at Talladega will not happen – and should not – the drivers should get out front of this issue and make their biggest stink about the danger of the cars in order to force some changes. After all, Talladega’s always been a place for that type of rebellion; most of the series’ top drivers boycotted the track’s opening race in 1969 due to safety concerns.
NOT: The main reason that drivers needed to take a stand – Edwards’s near entry into the grandstands was the closest that a car has come to the fan area since Bobby Allison’s horrifying 1987 Talladega crash, which prompted the arrival of restrictor plates to NASCAR racecars. Sans a few instances where debris has flown into the stands, fans have been able to watch the sport closely without much worry since then. Clearly, our thoughts and prayers at Frontstretch go out to the eight injured Sunday and their families.
The Sprint Cup Series gears up for the season’s third short-track race of the year at Richmond International Raceway Saturday night. That track has been known to produce good luck for underdog drivers and teams (remember Mayfield in September 2004?). Turn here to see who escapes Virginia bearing riches and who leaves this exciting short-track wearing rags.
Listen to Doug host the Captain Herb Emory’s Allan Vigil Ford Lincoln Mercury 120 racing show this Saturday from 2-3 p.m. on News/Talk 750 WSB in Atlanta and online at wsbradio.com. Doug is also a pit-road reporter for the GAS (Georgia Asphalt Series) Radio Network, and their next race is Saturday night at Lanier National Speedway in Braselton, Ga.