After rain shortened the running of the Nationwide race at Talladega Superspeedway Saturday afternoon, Mother Nature struck again once the Sprint Cup Series took the track Sunday. The Aaron’s 499 may have taken most of the day to complete after a 3.5 hour weather delay, but nothing could dampen the 2.66-mile track’s ability to produce unpredictable finishes.
In the end, David Ragan crossed the finish line first after a daring set of moves left him ahead of the pack during the green-white-checker scenario brought about by the second massive crash of the afternoon.
Because those wrecks ruined the day for so many drivers, mere survival is a major underlying theme in this edition of Who’s Hot and Who’s Not, as there were several frontrunners whose stock took a hit in the melee that unfolded in the Heart of Dixie. And things won’t get any easier from here for those who faltered, as a date with the Lady in Black looms just around the corner.
For those who drove home early or changed the channel because of what turned out to be a lengthy delay, it may come as a surprise to find that Carl Edwards wasn’t declared the winner of the Aaron’s 499 after all.
In the end he couldn’t hold the point as teammates David Ragan and David Gilliland briefly rediscovered the art of tandem drafting. And no, he couldn’t perfectly predict the weather.
So why should he lay claim to the top spot usually reserved for the week’s winner, despite finishing a close third?
If anything can be said of Cousin Carl this week, it should be that he showed the ability to time his attacks in a manner that put the No. 99 car in position to win all weekend, be it during practice turned qualifying or both parts of the race. Sure it wasn’t impeccable, but his timing put him in the mix when the stakes were highest and more importantly, it had him ahead of the back when both big ones broke out.
That effort was good enough to secure a second consecutive top 10 heading into Darlington, where he’s on a hot streak with six such finishes in nine career starts.
Jimmie Johnson was very happy with how things unfolded after climbing out of his car even though he placed behind Edwards in the final running order. After starting fifth he kept the No. 48 Lowes Chevrolet near the front for 188 laps, posting an incredible fourth place average running position figure that stands as the second highest in the event.
He too stayed ahead of the multi-car accidents that ended the day for several other drivers hoping to find the winner’s circle. That’s why Johnson is deserving of a HOT-level mention; and with a fifth place run he also retained the points lead.
Finally, here’s David Ragan, who by winning at Talladega claimed his second career Sprint Cup Series victory, both of which have come at restrictor plate events. It may seem unfair to hold the Front Row Motorsports driver outside the HOT grouping after claiming his organizations first ever win, but the chances of Ragan gracing victory lane at Darlington are highly unlikely. With six career starts there, he has one top 5, but also has just one other finish inside the top 20 otherwise, after placing 28th in the No. 34 Ford Fusion last season.
And don’t expect his most recent trip down victory lane to transform him into a championship contender over night. While the win helps his case in a potential wild card scenario, Ragan must first get into position to benefit from it. Currently, he sits only 39 points out of 20th position, but he must contend with drivers like Tony Stewart and Kurt Busch to have a chance at cracking into the Chase.
Matt Kenseth sits alongside Ragan for an entirely different reason. Unlike the aforementioned Edwards, Johnson, and Front Row Motorsports, the No. 20 Camry wasn’t in the right place at the right time, similar to this season’s Daytona 500. Sure he led for an astounding 142 laps and stood as the only driver with an average running position better than Johnson’s, but he inevitably settled for an eighth place finish after being forced to the high line during a hectic final lap. That makes it back-to-back weeks in which Kenseth appeared to have the best car on the circuit only to falter late.
Still, the top 10 helps Kenseth and Joe Gibbs Racing rebound in the aftermath of the 50 point penalty the team suffered when it was discovered they won at Kansas Speedway with a connecting rod that was lighter than the minimum weight specified by NASCAR.
Kenseth might have wished for a better ending to an otherwise near-perfect afternoon, but there were several drivers who would gladly swap with the veteran after being involved in either of the two all-to-familiar big ones.
Many of NASCAR’s biggest stars were setup for solid runs only to have them smashed, among those, Kurt Busch and Ryan Newman standout because of the violent nature of their wreck. During the second multi-car accident, Busch spun after J.J. Yeley contacted his right rear quarter panel, causing the No. 78 car to catch air and leave the racing surface. The Furniture Row Chevrolet eventually landed on top of Newman’s Stewart-Haas machine ending a promising day for both drivers.
That same accident also spoiled what had been a solid run for rookie Danica Patrick, who was visibly upset inside her car afterwards.
Others couldn’t endure long enough to see the spectacle of the second wreck after being caught up in the first one. A 13 car pileup on lap 43 collected Greg Biffle, Kevin Harvick, and Kasey Kahne before they got going.
After triggering the earlier pileup, Kyle Busch had to spend time behind the wall as his team repaired the battered No. 18 Camry. The damage was extensive enough that he had to settle for a 37th place finish, 54 laps down.
The one factor that separates Busch from the other stars involved is repetition, and not the good kind. In Kyle’s case, he has now been involved in wrecks in three consecutive events. In that time, the M&M’s team has been in a tailspin, freefalling from second to ninth in the driver standings over a three week span.
He’ll get another chance to turn things around at Darlington where he has one career win and has a 7.33 average finish over the past three races there.
Trevor Bayne is another driver who didn’t fair well at Talladega. He wasn’t involved in either big one, instead bowing out because of a blown engine after only 22 laps.
The Wood Brothers driver hasn’t been the same after a bout with Lyme disease sidelined him for two months during the 2011 season. In four starts this year, he isn’t faring much better with no finish higher than an 18th place run at Texas Motor Speedway in April.
From here Bayne will likely receive a few weeks off from a part-time Sprint Cup Series schedule before returning to action at Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.