NASCAR Race Weekend Central

The Big 6: Questions Answered After the 2011 Aaron’s 499 at Talladega

Who… gets my shoutout of the race?

There were a lot of lead changes in Sunday, and a few surprise leaders as well. One of those surprises came in the form of Dave Blaney, who led 21 laps before all but wrecking in turn 3 after a mis-timed bump from Kurt Busch as the race drew to a close. For Tommy Baldwin’s small operation, it was shaping up to be a huge day. That it was ended through no fault of Blaney’s should cast any pall over it. At a track that is the great equalizer in terms of equipment, it was interesting to see exactly which cream rose to the top. Blaney was all cream on Sunday; too bad he got iced at the end.

What… was THAT?

Whether you like Jimmie Johnson or not, you can’t argue the excitement of the finish at Talladega. In fact, Sunday’s finish tied a record for the closest margin of victory in NASCAR history. The only other race to be this close? The 2003 classic at Darlington in which Ricky Craven and Busch went door-to-door for the last two laps, trading shoves and the lead. This time, Johnson edged Clint Bowyer by .002 seconds to lay claim to a piece of the record. And for the record, NASCAR made the right call on Johnson; while it’s true that his wheels touched the yellow line in the closing laps, Johnson did not advance his position in that fraction of a second, making his move legal. The finish was legit, and it was one of the best we’ve seen in years.

Where… did the polesitter wind up?

Jeff Gordon wound up within a quarter car-length of victory after winning the pole Sunday. But when the dust cleared, Gordon had to settle for third-place as both Johnson and Bowyer beat him to the line. Still, It was a great day for Gordon, who was fighting the flu. He and drafting partner Mark Martin never tipped their hand until it was go time, and when it was, they wasted no time in contending for the win.

When… will I be loved?

Talladega isn’t exactly known for incident-free racing, but the early going on Sunday was relatively neat. The first two crashes did have a common denominator, though: Busch. And as if that wasn’t enough, Busch got in one more at the end. In the early laps, Busch tried to give Landon Cassill a shove and turned him into Brian Vickers instead, ruining Vickers’s day and Cassill’s chances of a top finish. Then Busch got into the back of Brad Keselowski, sending his teammate sliding through traffic and collecting several other good cars in the process, including Kasey Kahne, whose car ignited when a fuel line was knocked loose. Then in the closing laps, Busch turned Blaney, who was having the best race of his season and who races for a team who can ill afford to replace cars. Sure, bump-drafting in a tandem all day is risky business, but Busch’s carelessness crossed the fine line between expected risk and taking chances that shouldn’t have been taken.

Why… was Ricky Stenhouse Jr. on-call in the No 99 pit?

Stenhouse, who is having a stellar year in the NASCAR Nationwide Series after a less-than-auspicious rookie campaign, was on standby for Carl Edwards on Sunday. The reason? Edwards’s wife is due to have the couple’s second child any day now. Edwards had Stenhouse as a backup plan, just in case he had to fly home at a moment’s notice to be on hand for the big event. There are much bigger things than racing, at the end of the day.

How… classy is the Hendrick organization?

Love them or hate them, Hendrick Motorsports showed nothing but class on Sunday. Coming to the finish, Gordon could have forced Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. below the yellow line, negating their finishes altogether, but he gave Johnson racing room, opening the door for Johnson’s win. On the final restart, Earnhardt could have dictated to Johnson that he wanted the front spot in their tandem, but told Johnson to take it, knowing it could cost him a win, as he felt the two were more likely to get to the front with Johnson at the point; if they could settle it between themselves at that point, fine. As it turned out, they didn’t get the chance, but don’t think that nobody noticed Earnhardt’s role in Johnson’s victory. After Johnson took the checkers with Earnhardt’s help, team owner Rick Hendrick radioed Earnhardt, telling him to join Johnson in Victory Lane, a reminder that Hendrick knew exactly how Johnson got there in the first place. Finally, Johnson, who always stops off at the flagstand for the checkers after a win, handed the flag over to Earnhardt in gratitude, offering his teammate the trophy as well. Earnhardt declined, saying he was just doing what teammates do. Johnson again thanked Earnhardt, adding that he’ll be Earnhardt’s drafting partner as long as his teammate wants… probably not what the competition wants to hear heading to Daytona this summer.

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