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In a Nutshell: Kyle Busch took the checkered flag 0.002 of a second ahead of Aric Almirola to win the Mountain Dew 250 Saturday afternoon at Talladega Superspeedway. Busch pushed Almirola during a green-white-checkered finish but pulled ahead just before the start/finish line to score the smallest margin of victory in the history of the series. Johnny Sauter, Matt Crafton and Ricky Carmichael rounded out the top five.
Who Should Have Won: Busch. In a plate race, it’s really anyone’s game until the checkered flag flies. Anyone from Ron Hornaday Jr. to Todd Bodine to Almirola to even Chris Fontaine had a chance Saturday afternoon. But it was Busch who was out front when it mattered most. He managed to push Matt Crafton to the front early in the race and stayed out of the Big One to score his sixth win this season.
Questions You Should Be Asking After the Race
1. Should NASCAR have penalized Kyle Busch?
It wouldn’t be Talladega without a little controversy. Former teammates Busch and Almirola spent much of the day Friday working together with intent to race together on Saturday after Almirola pushed his then-teammate to the win last fall. And the two did race together for a bit… until the final lap of the race.
With Sauter on his back bumper and Almirola on his front bumper, Busch was forced to defend his own position. A slight move to the inside by Sauter left Busch to peek inside Almirola, and as a result, the three finished side-by-side in what can only be described as a photo finish – with the left-side tires of the No. 18 Toyota below the yellow line.
Almost immediately, Almirola tried to plead his case to NASCAR, but their decision had been made after watching the replay “two or three times” according to Vice President of Competition Robin Pemberton.
“He wasn’t forced down there, he got down there because of the door-to-door contact,” Pemberton said. “We had three, four good camera anglers and there was absolutely no question whatsoever.”
A visibly disappointed Almirola made his case to the media from pit road.
“I was at [Kyle Busch’s] mercy. He could have went to my outside, he could have went to my inside,” Almirola said. “I tried to do everything I could to try to protect as long as I could. I think NASCAR maybe should look at that. It looked like he went below the yellow line right there before the start/finish line.”
“It was really close, but I hate to lose one like that. These guys work awfully hard on our speedway stuff. To lose one like that is bad. He’s below the yellow line.”
I know how much he wanted that win, but Almirola is wrong.
Yes, Busch’s tires were below the yellow line when the trio crossed the start/finish line; however, Busch already had a nose ahead of Almirola’s No. 51 Toyota when the two made contact and Busch wiggled across the yellow line.
I had my doubts when I originally watched it, but thanks to our DVR, I was able to rewind and get a good look at the finish in slow motion. It mirrored what happened between Jamie McMurray and Kevin Harvick in the Cup race in the spring – Harvick was awarded the win even though his left-side tires were below the yellow line when the duo actually crossed it.
Though Almirola was quite disappointed with NASCAR’s ruling, they ultimately made the right call.
2. Did the “hang back and wait” method work on Saturday?
Each driver that took the track Saturday afternoon had a plan to avoid the wrecks and make it to the finish. Sauter made his plan very clear when he dropped to the back of the pack before the green flag flew. His teammate Crafton drove to the front with Busch early, but fell back to join Sauter in the safety of the rear of the field, while Almirola dropped to the back after pairing up with Busch for a little bit in the early stages of the race.
But did the hang back and wait it out method really work out?
Teammates Sauter and Crafton – along with Almirola – ran nose to tail for several laps while posting speeds of 195 mph at times. And as the laps wound down, all three drivers made their moves toward the front of the field. Though Sauter and Almirola had a better time working their way through the running order, Crafton did eventually join the two. Almirola finished second followed by Sauter and Crafton.
Clearly, the “hang back and wait” method worked for the trio. They managed to avoid damage in the big one with two laps remaining and scored solid top-five finishes at a place where nothing is guaranteed. It wouldn’t surprise me to see more drivers taking advantage of that strategy when the Truck Series visits the 2.66-mile oval next season.
3. What happened to cause the Big One?
Any time there’s a race at Talladega, it’s usually a waiting game to see when the Big One occurs. This time, it came on lap 92. Grant Enfinger, who was making his Truck Series debut, gave Bodine a vicious bump-draft, and chaos ensued. Bodine made contact with Hornaday Jr. who spun sideways and was then pushed by Mike Skinner before the No. 33 E-Z-Go 2Five Street Legal Vehicle Chevrolet went airborne and barrel-rolled before coming to a halt on its roof.
Bodine was the first person to Hornaday Jr.’s truck and signaled that everything was alright. Because of the belts that strap the drivers in, safety workers had to right the No. 33 Chevrolet before Hornaday Jr. was able to emerge under his own power. Narain Karthikeyan and Ken Schrader also received damage.
Surprisingly, Hornaday Jr. and Enfinger were the only drivers unable to continue and had to settle for 21st- and 22nd-place finishes, respectively. Bodine finished 18th, two laps down while Karthikeyan and Skinner finished on the lead lap in 13th and 15th, respectively.
It’s no surprise that bump-drafting was the culprit in causing the big one Saturday afternoon. Drivers were warned before the race began about the poor alignment between the front and back bumpers on their trucks. And although there was quite a bit of bump-drafting going on throughout the field all day, a rookie driver just isn’t prepared to make the moves properly.
Truck Rookie Report
No. of Rookies in the Race: 8 (Add Karthikeyan, Jeffrey Earnhardt and debuting drivers Craig Goess, Enfinger and Dominick Casola)
No. of Rookies to Finish in the Top 10: 2; Dillon, finished eighth Goess, finished 10th
Rookie of the Race: Dillon, finished eighth
Lofton once again became the victim of another driver’s wreck. On lap 23, Earnhardt – who was making his fourth career start for Rick Ware Racing – was squeezed in the middle of Max Papis and Mike Garvey. Earnhardt’s No. 6 Chevrolet spun sideways and shot up the track, collecting Lofton’s No. 7 Toyota in the process. Both trucks were out on the spot, with Earnhardt finishing 32nd and Lofton finishing 33rd.
ARCA driver Goess made his Truck Series debut behind the wheel of the No. 46 Toyota and ran quite well all afternoon. After starting 19th, he methodically worked his way through the field and spent most of the late stages of the race inside the top 10. Though he peeked inside the top five for awhile, Goess was left to settle for a respectable 10th-place finish.
Enfinger would probably like to forget the late stages of his Truck Series debut. While he ran inside the top 20 all day long and even made it up into the top 10 a couple times, his bump-draft on Bodine that caused the Big One will likely be what his debut is remembered for – he finished 22nd.
Casola also made his Truck Series debut behind the wheel of the No. 00 Koma Unwind Chillaxation Drink Chevrolet for Daisy Ramirez Motorsports. He started off the race with a corded tire and was forced to pit within the first five laps for a fresh set. Casola ran in the mid-20s for the early stages of the race before retiring after just 56 laps with suspension problems – he was credited with a 28th-place finish.
“It’s really unfortunate for everyone over on the visitPit.com Toyota Tundra. We had a really good truck. I was just sitting there playing around. I would jump up out of the pack and fall back – then move back up. Real proud of all the guys and all the hard work that they put into it. Real unfortunate that it had to end this way.” – Justin Lofton, finished 33rd
Worth Noting/Points Shuffle
Following his involvement in the Big One Saturday afternoon, Bodine’s points lead shrank to just 216 over Almirola. However, thanks to the hard work of his crew in making repairs to his truck that allowed Bodine to run two extra laps, he now needs a finish of 13th or better in the final three races to clinch the championship. Sauter remains in third, 314 points back while his teammate Crafton jumped one spot to fourth. Just seven points behind Crafton, Dillon rounds out the top five.
Hornaday Jr. remains in sixth, just seven points ahead of Timothy Peters in seventh. Skinner remains in eighth followed by former teammate David Starr in ninth. Jason White remains in tenth and has expanded his lead to 69 points over Carmichael in 11th.
Fontaine tried to use pit strategy to outsmart the field Saturday afternoon, and it almost worked. After qualifying sixth – a career-best starting position – he ran inside the top 10 for much of the race. He took the lead after a two-tire stop but dropped back when Busch pushed Crafton to the front. Later, Busch pushed Fontaine into the top spot where he managed to stay for 15 laps – he had previously led five in his career at Dover. Fontaine dropped a little on the restart on lap 89 when Busch received a push from White, but it appeared he’d be able to finish inside the top 10 for the first time in his career. It wasn’t meant to be, though, since Fontaine ran out of fuel as the field took the green on lap 94 for the GWC finish. He was left to settle for a 19th-place result.
“As far as our race day goes – obviously, it was pretty exciting. In the beginning there, we just were kind of hanging out and biding our time kind of riding. Jason White at the end of the race was a really good friend for us, and he did a great job getting us out front and getting the lead. It was crazy, and it was a battle. I was just trying to keep the thing straight and luckily, I was able to do that.” – race winner Kyle Busch
“I was at [Kyle Busch’s] mercy. He could have went to my outside, he could have went to my inside. I tried to do everything I could to try to protect as long as I could. I feel like I let my guys down, but I really don’t know what else I could have done. (Busch) had shown signs of going high so I attempted to block high, and as I was turning back low, he was back under me. Call it what you will – we finished second.” – Aric Almirola
“This truck was just as good as we thought it would be. It blew the best numbers of any ThorSport Racing truck ever in the wind tunnel. We knew we had a great engine. Joe (Shear Jr., crew chief) and the guys did an incredible job with this truck. The only real worry we had were the things out of our control. We did our best to stay out of harm’s way until the end, and we know if we did that we’d have a great shot to win it at at the end.” – Johnny Sauter, finished third
“If you can’t win, you’ve got to bring the steering wheel back.” – Ron Hornaday Jr. after the Big One
Up Next: The Camping World Truck Series heads to Texas Motor Speedway for the WinStar World Casino 350K Friday night. Last season, Busch led 54 laps en route to a nearly one second victory over Crafton. Coverage begins at 8:30 p.m. ET on SPEED; the race can also be heard on your local MRN affiliate or on Sirius Channel 128.
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