NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2014 Aaron’s 499 at Talladega

Key Moment – On lap 137, Brad Keselowski, who was already six laps down thanks to an incident with Danica Patrick on lap 14 while going for the lead, spun in front of the field while trying to get his lap back the old fashioned way. At the time he and Jamie McMurray were the only two cars not on the lead lap and they were both six laps down, so getting a lap back would have set him up to benefit from multiple Lucky Dogs over the rest of the race. Unfortunately his car stepped out and it caused a big wreck that inflicted damage on 14 racecars. To say that his fellow drivers were less than pleased is an understatement.

In a Nutshell – The majority of the race looked like the Daytona 500 after the rain delay with cars going three and four-wide throughout the pack. Even though cars could go where angels never tread, getting the car to work up there was a challenge. As a result, much of the race was run in a pack where no line was ever advantageous over the other and you just had to ride and hope for a mistake in a line that would allow you to move forward. In the end, late race pit strategy put drivers in position to win and, when the white flag flew before the final caution, the race was complete.

Dramatic Moment – The folks in race control decided not to wave the caution flag for a spin in the pack as the field went through the tri-oval on the penultimate lap and allowed the white flag to fly, in essence avoiding controversy where the field was about to go green-white-checkered and a multitude of cars would have run out of fuel. Whether the status of the fuel condition of most cars played a role or not in their decision, the bottom line is it was a confusing set of circumstances that left many fans questioning the finish.

What They’ll be Talking About Around the Water Cooler

The biggest discussion coming out of the race was Keselowski choosing to battle with the leaders when he was six laps in arrears. While it was a unique circumstance, one thing is for sure, Keselowski did not give up and was racing until the end. While different conditions may have led to a scenario where racing the leaders hard when that far behind was unacceptable, in this situation Keselowski could have gotten in front of the leaders when a caution flew. That would have put him five laps down and given him the Lucky Dog to go four laps down. From there he would have benefited from enough Lucky Dogs to have been back on the lead lap. With a car that was capable of running with the leaders, there should not be a problem with someone racing with them at six laps down. We constantly complain about drivers not going 100% all of the time. Keselowski was going 100%.

Among fans, the question was whether the caution flag should have flown on the final accident that happened in the tri-oval on lap 187 as the field came to take the white flag. Cars were spinning before the leaders crossed the line and it was obvious that tire smoke was at least in the air. Unlike many other instances, where the caution flag has flown immediately for someone whose car got out of shape late in the race, the flag didn’t come out until after the leaders crossed the line. The field raced until reaching turn three before the yellow went in the air, even though there was a bumper laying in the groove at the start/finish line. Many teams were stretching fuel and would have run out of gas if the yellow came out and caused a green-white-checkered. The foil hat brigade is claiming a conspiracy to try and fix the race, which would actually make more sense if they had thrown it first. The real thing that people would like is just a consistent application of the caution flag for spinning race cars.

During the pace car rides before the race, Brett Bodine stopped on the top of the banking and mentioned to the occupants of the car that one thing many people do not think of is the safety vehicles during these races. Being 65 feet in the air on 33-degree banking at a slow speed is a daunting feeling in and of itself. Add in a jet drier or tons of oil absorbent while driving across spilled oil on that banking can make for a harrowing experience. Two thumbs up to the people who work so hard to make the track safe for the competitors.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. led three times for 26 laps on Sunday before coming home a disappointing 26th. During the race, Earnhardt commented on his radio that, if he was unable to be in the top five with a shot to win, he’d bail out because he didn’t want to be caught in a wreck. Post-race, Earnhardt was quoted as saying, “You know they’re going to crash and I can’t afford to wreck anymore here.” He went on to be asked about the risk not being worth the reward. “Not to me,” Earnhardt added. “We already got a win and like I said, I’ve been in too many late-race wrecks. I didn’t want to be no part of it. And there were three or four there we dodged pretty good.” The sport’s most popular driver has just opened a can of worms by saying that he didn’t go 100% for fear of being in a wreck. Whether it was due to his previous concussion experience or just a statement about being complacent because of having a win, it is going to get the people talking.

Talladega tore down the superstretch grandstand to enhance their viewing options for the loyal fans of the track. They replaced the stands with RV parking spaces and some corporate hospitality parking areas. Like Bristol, the camping around Talladega is an experience by itself, and this new offering has given an additional option for fans who bring RVs to the track and want to watch from their mobile residences.

The attendance for Saturday’s Nationwide Series race was impressive. The fans of Talladega are some of the most loyal in the sport and they continue to show up in large numbers when any of the NASCAR series hit the track. The biggest track on the circuit pulls in some of the biggest crowds because they put on a whale of a show.

Speaking of Nationwide, they announced that they are stepping up their sponsorship in the Cup Series and joining forces with the sport’s most popular driver. Earnhardt Jr. will have Nationwide livery on his car for 12 races in 2015. They will sponsor 13 races in 2016 and 2017. The company has already announced they will not return as the title sponsor for the Nationwide Series in 2015.

The Hindenburg Award for Foul Fortune

Keselowski was taking the lead of the race on lap 14 when he came down prematurely on Patrick. She appeared to be moving up the track to try and side draft the No. 2 but made contact, spinning the former champ through the infield. The resulting slide through the apron and run back up onto the racing surface caused the team to lose six laps affecting repairs. Were it not for that, Keselowski might not have been battling at the front of the pack when he caused the Big One.

There are multiple ways to peel an onion and one of the ways that teams attach restrictor plate races is to sit back and make a run at the end. Tony Stewart was on that plan for the entire race, at least until lap 137, when the big mix up happened with Keselowski spinning in front of the field. Even though Stewart was in the back of the pack with plenty of different avenues at his disposal, he couldn’t avoid the carnage. The resultant damage to his ride was so severe that it knocked him out of the race and relegated him to a 43rd-place finish.

You can certainly pick any one of the 20+ drivers who crossed the finish line with cars that were damaged to one degree or another. We’ll just lump them all in here and say that, fans wanted pack racing to return when the tandem racing was taking place, and it has with a vengeance. The big ones all day long caused damage to more than half of the cars in the field and prematurely ended the days of 12.

The “Seven Come for Eleven” Award for Fine Fortune

During the race, on at least two different occasions, Brian Vickers lost the draft. Both times, before he fell even half of a lap down, the caution flew and he regained contact with the pack. By the time the final restart occurred he was in the top five and capitalized to take home a fourth-place finish. With the position that he found himself in on more than one occasion Sunday, his finish was quite impressive.

AJ Allmendinger may have had the quietest sixth-place in history at Richmond, but people knew he was in Talladega on Sunday. Allmendinger fell back from his third-place starting spot to a low point of 38th for some time early in the race and again to 28th around lap 160 before rebounding to a fifth-place finish.

McMurray was a victim of the early race caution for Keselowski. Attempting to avoid the spinning car of Keselowski, he drove through the grass at the bottom of turn one and two and tore up the front of his car. He managed to keep himself ahead of Keselowski when both drivers were six laps down and wrangled no less than six Lucky Dog passes over the duration of the race. While that may or may not be a record for Lucky Dogs in an event, McMurray soldiered to a 29th-place finish and scored 14 more points than he would have if he’d packed it in after the accident and finished last.

Worth Noting

  • The victory for Denny Hamlin was his first of 2014. It is the 24th of his career in 300 starts.
  • 24 wins puts Hamlin in 30th place on the all-time winners list for the Cup series. He is one win behind the group tied for 26th that includes Kurt Busch and Kevin Harvick.
  • While Hamlin has won multiple non-point races at Daytona, this is his first ever win in a points paying restrictor plate race.
  • The win will most likely put Hamlin in the Chase for 2014. 2013 is the only year that Hamlin has missed the Chase since he began running full-time in the Cup Series in 2006.
  • Greg Biffle’s runner-up finish is his first top two and second top five of 2014. This was his career-best finish at Talladega and his third top five at the track in 23 starts.
  • Clint Bowyer finished on the podium at Talladega Sunday for the first top-five finish of the season. It is his first top three since Martinsville last fall. This is Bowyer’s fourth top three at Talladega in 17 career starts.
  • Kyle Larson took home the Rookie of the Race honors with his 10th-place finish. He also overtook Austin Dillon for the highest points position by a rookie.
  • Allmendinger followed up his best finish of the season with his first top five in the No. 47. That is Allmendinger’s first top five since the spring race at Martinsville in 2012. For JTG-Daugherty, it is their eighth career top five and first since 2011.

What’s the Points?

With race winners being locked into the Chase and points finishers who don’t have wins filling out the roster for the ‘playoffs’, below is the current list of individuals who would be running for the title if the field were set today.

Winners:

Daytona – Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Phoenix and Darlington – Kevin Harvick
Las Vegas – Brad Keselowski
Bristol – Carl Edwards
California – Kyle Busch
Martinsville – Kurt Busch
Texas and Richmond – Joey Logano
Talladega – Denny Hamlin

Drivers making the Chase on points who do not have wins.

1) Jeff Gordon
2) Matt Kenseth
7) Jimmie Johnson
8) Greg Biffle
9) Ryan Newman
10) Brian Vickers
13) Kyle Larson
14) Austin Dillon

Kurt Busch is the lowest standing race winner at 27th in points. He would have to drop four positions and 52 points to end up outside of the top 30 and ineligible for the Chase.

Overall rating (On a scale of 1-6, where 1 is a stinker and six is the finest of brews and a instant classic.) Restrictor plate races are a different animal. They are fan favorites for some and worse than a root canal for others. As plate races go, this weekend’s effort was pretty good. However, with it ending on a caution flag, it is automatically dropped by a beer. With that said, 48 lead changes among 23 drivers and three-wide racing for a large portion of the event will give it five All-American Budweiser beers. Salute to the folks on Talladega Boulevard.

What’s Next Now the traveling circus heads to America’s heartland for the first night race in the history of Kansas Speedway. The fresh pavement and cool night air should make for some spectacular racing. Fox will air the race at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday May 10th. It will also air on MRN at the same time.

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