Restrictor plate racing. It’s hard to describe the sensation it brings. Just when it appears evident that a dominant car/driver has prevailed, the field shuffles again.Brian Scott had it right when he said, “Love them or hate them, with the luck involved in superspeedway racing, you always feel like you have as good a shot as anybody.” Really, just about anyone can win a race at Talladega; history has proven that to be the case.
Scott started on the pole Sunday, after Richard Childress Racing and its affiliates flexed their muscle during qualifying. Only two of those cars wound up in the top 10 after 188 laps. Yes, Scott definitely got it right.
So who else got it right when it came to the roll-the-dice finish? Who’s Hot and Who’s Not salutes a veteran driver who had never won a restrictor plate event until now and denounces some of Talladega’s finest, who look to Kansas Speedway for a little more normality.
Denny Hamlin’s driving record could be used to describe him as many things, but restrictor plate maestro isn’t one of them. In 33 starts prior to Sunday, Hamlin had never won a points-paying race at Daytona or Talladega. Whether it was because of a “Big One” or a squandered lead during the final laps, fortune just hadn’t smiled on him. Now, Hamlin can put those demons to rest.
Hamlin isn’t one of the first drivers that come to mind when thinking about Earnhardt-like draft masters, but at Talladega, they don’t always have to be great. The No. 11 Toyota went to victory lane thanks to a caution on the white-flag lap. Being in the right place at the right time gave Hamlin a victory in his 300th start.
What’s so hot about a driver who broke into the win column on a technicality and sits only 12th in the standings? Hamlin has a few things going for him. Of course, winning more than likely puts him in the Chase. It also extends his streak of consecutive seasons with at least one victory to nine.
The race-ending yellow flag also came at the right time for Greg Biffle. No, the Biff didn’t have time to make a move on Hamlin, but he did improve his Hot or Not stock with a runner-up.
Biffle has shown a certain expertise at Talladega, dating back to 2012 when Roush Fenway Racing began performing consistently better at the superspeedway.
It’s the third time Biffle has finished top six in four races – a nice streak that could continue to grow if he finds success in Kansas again. He has two wins there since 2007 and sports the Cup Series’ third-best average finish (10.3).
Michael Waltrip Racing was one of the few organizations to enjoy a clean sheet over the weekend. Full-timers Clint Bowyer and Brian Vickers both stayed out of trouble and in the right line as the field sorted itself out for the final time. The MWRteammates ended up third and fourth, respectively and received a boost in the standings.
Owner Michael Waltrip did the same. Waltrip didn’t have the keen closing ability at Talladega, a skill he’s shown in the past, but the 51-year-old veteran kept the No. 66 Toyota clean en route to a lead-lap finish.
AJ Allmendinger is better than ever after his fifth-place result. The ‘Dinger, on the rise now has back-to-back top-six finishes for the first time in his career. As for making it an unprecedented three-peat, well let’s not discuss that (because having no finish better than 20th over the last five Kansas races isn’t exactly warm).
Paul Menard, sixth, was the highest-finishing driver with RCR equipment under the hood. Menard was essentially T-boned by the rear end of Brad Keselowski’s Ford during the lap 138 “Big One”, causing noticeable damage on the right side of the No. 27. The Chevrolet’s nose was undented, however, allowing Menard to continue drafting well without issue.
Menard is off to another fast start, what he’s known for and is on pace to set a career high in top-10 finishes. Adding another at Kansas (where he is three for his last three) would bring him one step closer.
Jimmie Johnson isn’t seventh in points without his fair share of bumps and bruises, as his cut tire at Richmond last week showed. Johnson’s fortune at Talladega was the latest iteration of this trend.
The six-time champ was caught up in multi-car accidents not once, but twice, making it a busy afternoon for the No. 48 crew. Neither incident was his fault, but Johnson still paid the price, salvaging a 23rd. It could have been worse, but so could many of the races that have played out badly for the Lowe’s team lately. Johnson has been struggling far more than usual, with five finishes of 19th or worse over the last seven races. More importantly, he has yet to win.
Of course, Johnson should be in the hunt in Kansas, but he must avoid the problems that have plagued him over the past two months to have a chance at joining the winner’s club.
The seven-time champion wasn’t the only Hendrick Motorsports driver to catch a case of the Talladega blues. Jeff Gordon left Alabama with the points lead. That was the one positive takeaway for the No. 24 team after Gordon was among those collected on Lap 138.
Dale Earnhardt, Jr., meanwhile was in contention for the win for much of the afternoon before taking a conservative, wait-and-see approach. Junior dropped to the back of the field near the end of the event, but struggled to stay with the lead pack, finishing 26th.
Since winning at Martinsville, Kurt Busch has endured a terrible skid. Busch’s involvement in the lap 174 wreck only compounded the problems he’s had over the last month – a stretch of finishes that includes a 31st, 33rd, and 39th.
Busch is also getting frustrated with himself and his team again. While driving the destroyed No. 41 Chevrolet back to the garage area, Busch said that this season was the worst he’s had outside of the win over the team’s radio, and it’s true. He has only two top-10 finishes and his average result (25.1) is worse than it was in 2012 when he drove for James Finch.
Things couldn’t have been much worse for teammates David Ragan and David Gilliland. The Davids managed an upset win at Talladega last season against many of NASCAR’s Goliath organizations, but reality bit them hard this year.
Gilliland’s No. 38 blew its engine on Lap 150, leaving oil all over the racing surface. Then Ragan was taken out in the wreck on Lap 174. Restrictor plate racing gives small organizations like Front Row Motorsports a chance to compete for the win, but it didn’t happen on Sunday. To make matters worse, a third FRM entry driven by Eric McClure failed to qualify for the race after struggling during Saturday’s opening qualifying session.
The nightmare is over for FRM. Now, it’s time to wake up, only the world that it is waking up to is even worse. Its drivers have combined for no top-10 finishes this season, and only Gilliland ranks among the top 30 in driver points.
From the looks of it, things aren’t going to get any better anytime soon.