NASCAR Race Weekend Central

The Cool-Down Lap: 88 is the Magic Number in Talladega… & Junior Didn’t Even Win

We didn’t know it, but sunny skies Sunday morning were an omen of things to come. For as the fog and clouds burned off at Talladega Superspeedway, shadows of doubt about the Aaron’s 499 lurked. Would the return of the spoiler to a plate race, bigger holes in the restrictor plates, and NASCAR’s “Have At It Boys” CPR maneuver produce cash or a clunker on the 2.66-mile track?

Turns out it was a jackpot!

Some have called Talladega races “The Alabama Lottery” because of the crapshoot dogfight finishes. Sunday’s race was no exception, but skill and a relic move called “the slingshot” won Kevin Harvick his first Cup race in 115 events, dating back to the 2007 Daytona 500. He pushed runner-up Jamie McMurray to the tri-oval on the closing lap before diving under him at the checkered flag, leading only his second lap en route to the victory. The pass for the win was also the race’s 88th lead change – eclipsing the almost 26-year-old NASCAR record of 75 from Talladega in May 1984.

While Harvick’s win comes amidst uncertainty about his future and the announced departure of primary sponsor Shell/Pennzoil from the No. 29, the story of the day is the success of NASCAR’s new rules package. Not only were there a total of 144 green-flag passes for the lead, but 29 of the race’s 43 cars led at least one lap – both NASCAR records.

When posed with the question of what part of the new bundle of NASCAR’s rules led to such a successful day, Harvick could not single one element out. “It’s a combination of a lot of things,” he said. “I think that a lot of people put a lot of effort into the spoiler, the restrictor-plate size and making sure the racing was what it needed to be. I think they’re all contributing factors in some way.”

His boss, Richard Childress, echoed those sentiments. “This is about as good a race as you can get at Talladega,” he admitted. “The spoiler and everything worked great.”

The inevitable parity and carnage that plate racing brings also allows underdogs a chance to shine. Mike Bliss somehow finished 10th driving the same No. 09 Chevy that Brad Keselowski won in for Phoenix Racing one year ago. Bobby Labonte in the No. 71, Michael Waltrip in the No. 55 and Johnny Sauter in the No. 36 all either led laps or at least appeared in the top 10 before problems took them out of contention. Runs like these bring much-needed attention to these cash-strapped teams, and also break the monotony of the continued success of the well-funded organizations.

However, such parity and hodgepodge has its critics.

Despite a fourth-place run, Denny Hamlin had mixed feelings about Sunday’s slugfest.

“It was the biggest yo-yo effect that I’ve ever seen as far as the front to the back to the middle,” he claimed. “You just couldn’t keep your track position. As hard as you tried to stay up front, there’s nothing you could do to stay there.”

However, Hamlin later conceded that the race was as competitive as one could ask for and in order to win, a driver had to put himself in the right position with about 10 laps to go.

That is exactly what McMurray and Harvick did.

Both wasted no time in dropping their Chevys to the back of the running order, and remained around the 30th position for at least two-thirds of the scheduled 188 laps (200 ended up being run). McMurray and teammate Juan Pablo Montoya began their moves to the front with around 50 laps to go, while Harvick and teammate Clint Bowyer started their charge a short time later. Bowyer could not keep up with Harvick, though, meaning the No. 29 had to find different dancing partners to waltz to the front. But while Harvick slowly worked his way up on his own, Montoya and McMurray became a tag team force, swapping positions one and two several times. Despite not leading until lap 147, McMurray wound up pacing the field for 27 laps (second only to Jeff Burton, who led 28 laps before crashing out late). It seemed like a 1-2 finish for Earnhardt-Ganassi was in order… until the set of green-white-checkered finishes. By the third one Montoya and McMurray had been shuffled to different rows, linking up the No. 1 and No. 29 Chevy in a two-deep train to the checkers instead. They then avoided calamity as Harvick perfectly executed the race-winning pass – a move he claimed was perfected in Friday’s practice sessions.

The thrilling finish came with a .011 second margin of victory – the eighth-closest since NASCAR began electronic scoring. Yet with all the stats that show this race was one of the most competitive in history, some are still complaining.

As this column is being written, media members are asking different drivers, crew chiefs, and car owners if coming to such a risky racetrack is worth the trouble. Does NASCAR need to tighten the rules again on bump-drafting? Has NASCAR done too much to make the races exciting?

Most of the drivers have had the same answer: Yes, it is nerve-wracking. But it is also fun.

Yes, there are risks (see Dennis Setzer’s last-lap airborne, fiery trip into the turn 4 catchfence at the end of the Nationwide race) and yes, the endless GWC finishes, numerous Lucky Dog/wave-around cars and jumbled up gaggles of racecars seems manufactured.

But the racing is exciting. Only the best drivers in the world can pull it off. They did so Sunday, even with seven crashes and around 20 cars damaged. If we beg NASCAR for change, demand that “the gloves be taken off”, and permit personality to be shown, then we have to eat our cake instead of throwing it back at NASCAR and the drivers. Sunday’s race was entertaining, and the ending was masterful.

Let’s enjoy a good thing when we see it.

Listen to Doug weekly on The Allan Vigil Ford Lincoln Mercury Speedshop racing show with host Captain Herb Emory each Saturday, from 12-1 p.m., on News/Talk 750 WSB in Atlanta and on wsbradio.com. Doug also hosts podcasts on ChaseElliott.com and BillElliott.com.

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