The point of this column each week is to separate the winners and the losers after each race. It is to point out those who are trending up and those who are sliding back. After Sunday’s race at Talladega, it was hard to find many winners.
Ten of the 12 Chase drivers were involved in the chaos that ensued on the last lap, and every driver besides Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle lost ground on leader Brad Keselowski. The race that was supposed to tighten up the championship battle instead just knocked worthy drivers such as Clint Bowyer further out of contention.
The teams pretty much all went home losers, too. David Ragan crossed the line in fourth, but with a half of a racecar. Teams such as Hendrick Motorsports may be able to bounce back easily from that kind of destruction, but for ones like Front Row Motorsports, it’s never as easy. NASCAR was also a loser on Sunday. Especially after its most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr., hit at the sanctioning body and called racing at Talladega, “bloodthirsty.” He’s right.
Much like everyone else, I watched the final laps on Sunday not to see who won, but to see when the big wreck would happen and who would be involved. What bothered me most was that the last-lap wreck could determine the champion, and that is the biggest shame of all. If that happens, we all lose.
Here is who’s hot and who’s not after Talladega.
I have a theory that *Brad Keselowski* found Jimmie Johnson’s “golden horseshoe” from 2010 laying around at Kentucky and ran away with it. In all honesty, Keselowski’s consistency in the second half of the year has been more due to skill and smart strategy, but if there is one place a little luck doesn’t hurt, it’s Talladega.
Keselowski was toward the back of the lead pack when the big wreck started and drove through relatively unscathed until he was tapped toward the end. But unlike Denny Hamlin, Keselowski kept the wheel straight and pulled a brilliant save. If he is on the stage at Vegas in December as champion, moments like that will be why.
Keselowski now has 13 top 10s in the last 14 races and a 14-point advantage over Jimmie Johnson.
If it weren’t for a stuck throttle at Chicago, Keselowski would probably have *Jeff Gordon* as the closest driver on his heels and not Johnson. Subtract out Gordon’s 35th-place result at Chicago to start the Chase and his last six finishes are: third, second, second, third, second and second.
When Gordon was hit on to the apron on the final lap, he didn’t take his time avoiding the wreck, he did the smartest thing he could and floored it. Several other drivers had the same strategy, they just forgot about the wad of cars parked in front of them. Gordon didn’t gain on Keselowski the way he wanted to — probably because of that golden horseshoe — but is only 42 points back and shouldn’t be counted out yet, not with the performance he has shown lately.
*Denny Hamlin* may still need a lesson on how the draft works, but he escaped Talladega still within contention of the championship (36 points back). Hamlin didn’t seem to understand that he had to stay relatively close to the bumper of another car to stay in the draft, so he lost it about six times.
Hamlin also spun when the wreck happened in front of him on the final lap. He still came home in 11th, the fourth Chase driver to cross the line. His strategy may not have been pretty, but it paid off.
*Kasey Kahne* wanted to turn down to the apron on the final lap, much like his teammate Gordon did, who was pushing him at the time. The problem was Gordon pushed Kahne right into the wreck. Kahne still limped his badly bruised car back to the line for 12th. He is 36 points back, but should be the favorite at Charlotte, where he won in the spring and has four victories overall.
I also wanted to give a call out to *Regan Smith*, who much like David Ragan drove a damaged car to a top-5 finish. Smith won’t be back with No. 78 team next week because Kurt Busch (see cold) will be filling his seat, but it was nice to see Smith bring home fifth place in his final showing for Furniture Row.
*Tony Stewart* was less than half a lap from winning the race on Sunday and reinserting himself as a championship contender, but with the slightest turn of the wheel, he ended up upside down and out of the hunt for the championship.
That block he attempted to put on Michael Waltrip was the difference between 22nd (where he ended up) and possibly first. Stewart accepted full responsibility for his actions and apologized for wrecking the field afterward, but he doesn’t owe anyone an apology. If Stewart doesn’t make that move, another wreck was going to happen seconds later. It is just a product of the situation these drivers are placed in. If anyone should be apologizing afterward, it’s NASCAR for letting this continue to happen.
*Clint Bowyer* qualified third and raced for the lead all day, but when the carnage happened he was right in the middle of it. It’s unfortunate for the No. 15 team, because they had four consecutive top 10s heading into the event, and Bowyer was one of the few drivers who seemed like he was going to stay in contention until Homestead. That came to a crashing halt at Talladega, where his 23rd-place finish was good enough to move him 40 points out the Chase lead. That might be too much for Bowyer’s team to make up.
I wrote in “last week’s column”:https://frontstretch.com/bpoirier/41688/ that *Dale Earnhardt Jr.* better win at Talladega or his Chase hopes were over. Well, they are over. Junior led 18 laps, but was sliding backward on the last lap before getting mangled up and crossing the line 20th. He sits an insurmountable 51 points back of Keselowski.
Earnhardt Jr. chauffeured Johnson back to pit road in one of the more entertaining moments on Sunday. Maybe, Junior can chauffeur Johnson to the Sprint Cup awards ceremony in Las Vegas in December because as of now (11th) he isn’t going to be on stage.
*Kurt Busch* put on one final show for Phoenix Racing on Sunday before leaving for Furniture Row Racing this week. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the kind of show James Finch was thinking about when he agreed to let Busch drive his car at the start of the year, but instead the kind of show he’s come to expect from Busch.
Busch spun off of Turn 2 after running out of fuel in front of the field and backed the No. 51 into the inside wall. It was another wrecked racecar, but not necessarily Kurt’s fault. It was the display afterward that made headlines. Busch sat in his car with the window down, but determined that it could be fixed, so he began driving back toward pit road. The only problems were he wasn’t wearing a helmet (so when NASCAR told him to stop he didn’t get the message), there was a member of the emergency crew reaching into his car as he pulled away and the emergency medical kit was on the roof. Needless to say, NASCAR was not pleased with this and parked the No. 51 for the remainder of the event.
Only Kurt Busch could pull that off, and it’s sad to see the Phoenix-Busch saga come to an end. In 29 races, he brought home two top 10s, six DNFs and half-season’s worth of damaged racecars. Good luck Furniture Row.
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