Looking for the Who, What, When, Where, Why and How behind Sunday’s race? Amy Henderson has you covered each week with the answers to six race-day questions, covering all five Ws and even the H… the Big Six.
Who… gets my shoutout of the race?
Talladega is a whole different animal in NASCAR, and for a young driver in a part-time ride, that can be bane or blessing. For Ryan Blaney, it was a blessing and it was obvious from the start that Blaney and his Wood Brothers Racing team had brought a rocketship to the track. Blaney qualified third, and in the closing laps, it looked as though he was the only driver who might be able to challenge Dale Earnardt Jr. and Jimmie Johnson at the front of the field. Blaney got shuffled a little on the final lap, but made a comeback to finish a solid fourth. It was a great race for the youngster and a glimpse at why Team Penske may be looking to add a third Cup team in the not-too-distant future.
What… beyond the drivers’ control affected the action?
A driver can get caught in someone else’s mess anywhere at any time, but at Talladega the risk is magnified as drivers have little chance of avoiding chaos with close-quarters racing and reduced throttle response. That means that the other drivers they depend on for drafting help are also a potential source of disaster. Nowhere but the plate tracks is a driver completely out of luck if he’s out there alone, yet inches away from disaster. Twice on Sunday, one driver got loose in traffic and several others paid the price. Both Trevor Bayne and Carl Edwards lost their cars on their own, yet both triggered multi-car incidents that affected many. It’s part of the game, but an ugly, unfair part.
Where… did the polesitter and the defending race winner wind up?
Jeff Gordon looked dominant early, winning the pole and leading six times for a total of 47 laps. The last time he boasted numbers like that, he won the race, and it looked like he’d do it again this week at a track where both ends of pit road boasted the number 24 painted on the ground to honor his legendary career. Unfortunately, Gordon got tagged with a speeding penalty on pit road late in the race and was unable to race through the field to challenge his teammate for the victory, finishing 31st.
Denny Hamlin, who won his only race of 2014 in the GEICO 500, tried to make a late run on a repeat, but had nobody to work with when it counted, surrounded by Hendrick-built Chevrolets and the Wood Brothers Ford. Hamlin made a move from fourth on the final lap, but was shuffled back to ninth when the dust cleared.
When… did it all go sideways?
One thing that’s been a problem in the sport for many years has become a bigger issue on the restrictor-plate tracks as well. The racecars are too dependent on aerodynamics. They race faster in clean air at the front, but on the plate tracks where they become more unstable in the draft, it causes cars to be pulled around even without direct contact from another car. Two multi-car crashes were triggered when Bayne and, in a later wreck, Edwards got loose in traffic. With the field so closely bunched, multiple teams were involved. NASCAR should be searching for a package that allows the cars to race better in the pack if they want the tight groups that have become the expectation at Talladega and Daytona. The package they ran in the early 2000s (and the Xfinity Series for much longer) with the roof spoiler made for much better racing than we have now. Surely there’s another solution to make the cars more stable in the turbulent air.
Why… did Earnhardt Jr. win the race?
Earnhardt drove a convincing race and had help when it counted from teammate Johnson, who already owed him one and was certainly beatable. However, hardly anyone even tried, because a combination of current rules and the Chase make the risk greater than the reward. It’s hard for cars to close in the draft with the current car, and for anyone in the top 10 or 15, making a move out of line isn’t worth the finishing position. If you go alone and several others don’t go with you, you’re done, sliding back into oblivion… and it was obvious in the late laps Sunday that nobody wanted to pull the trigger and try to make a run for the win. Tony Stewart led a late charge that looked as though it could bring a line of cars to the front to challenge the leaders, but it fizzled as most of those drivers pulled into the safety of the top line rather than continue the charge on the bottom. The last-lap moves were too little, too late, and fans who were expecting an exciting finish were probably disappointed.
How… did the little guys do?
Wood Brothers Racing; Blaney (No 21 Motorcraft/Quick Lane Ford): Blaney started third in what might have been the only car that had anything for the Hendrick Motorsports group. In just his sixth Cup race, Blaney was at the front when it counted, and charged to fourth at the end of the day despite getting shuffled in the closing laps by some veterans who didn’t want to chance working with a rookie… or maybe just with a rookie in a car that was faster than theirs.
Furniture Row Racing; Martin Truex Jr. (No. 78 Furniture Row Racing Chevy): It’s getting to the point where it’s more of a surprise to see this team out of the top 10 than in it. Truex scored his ninth top 10 and second top five of 2015 with his fifth-place finish and moved up a spot to second in points.
Phil Parsons Racing; Josh Wise (No. 98 Phoenix Construction Ford): Wise scored his career-best finish on Sunday, bringing in a top 10 for his single-car operation. Wise was also able to lead a lap. Runs like Wise had are the upside of plate racing; when the playing field is leveled, talent plays a bigger role than equipment, and that leads to some pleasant surprises at the top.
Front Row Motorsports; Chris Buescher & Cole Whitt & David Gilliland (No. 34 CSX Ford & No. 35 Speed Stick Ford & No. 38 Farm Rich Ford): Whitt led the way for FRM this week, leading a couple of laps and scoring his best finish of 2015. Gilliland also led a circuit and scored a top 20. Buescher had overheating problems early but recovered for a 24th-place finish. The team had a very strong showing this week as a whole and that’s one thing this team is good at — putting all three cars in a similar position at the end.
BK Racing; JJ Yeley & Matt DiBenedetto (No. 23 Dr. Pepper Toyota & No. 83 Dustless Blasting Toyota): After a slow start to the season, a pair of top-20 finishes was sorely needed for BK Racing, especially after Jeb Burton failed to qualify. Yeley overcame a black flag when his window net came undone, as well as a subsequent penalty for speeding while coming in to fix it, for a 14th-place result at the end. DiBenedetto suffered minor damage in the lap 47 crash caused by Bayne’s spin, but was able to continue and finished 18th.
Tommy Baldwin Racing; Alex Bowman (No 7 Golden Corral Chevy): Bowman also suffered some damage in the lap 47 melee, but his team was able to make repairs and keep the young driver in the game; he finished a strong 16th, a career-best.
JTG-Daugherty Racing; AJ Allmendinger (No. 47 Kroger/Hungry Jack Chevy): Allmendinger hasn’t been known for being a top restrictor-plate racer, and Sunday didn’t really do much to make him suddenly fall in love. He ran in the 20s or so for most of the day and actually benefitted from the last-lap crash, which gained him several spots to finish 17th.
— AJ Allmendinger (@AJDinger) May 3, 2015
HScott Motorsports; Michael Annett & Justin Allgaier (No. 46 Bene-fit Chevy & No. 51 Brandt Chevy): Allgaier was caught up in the Bayne crash, and all things considered, a 23rd-place finish certainly wasn’t the worst that could have happened. Annett ran in the back half of the 20s for much of the day, and that’s where he finished, in 29th to be exact. For the pair, it wasn’t a disaster, and they got away with an okay day.
GoFAS Racing; Bobby Labonte (No. 32 C&J Energy Ford): Labonte, like many others, was in the wrong place at the wrong time at the end of the day. Unable to move forward when nobody was willing to make a move, Labonte wound up mid-pack, in 27th. That’s not a terrible finish for this team, but it’s not what they were hoping for either.
Germain Racing; Casey Mears (No. 13 GEICO Chevy): Things can turn in an instant at Talladega, and they turned the wrong way for Mears on the final lap as a top 10 turned into a 28th-place. Edwards got loose and turned in front of the No. 13, leaving Mears with no place to go. Instead of one of the best finishes of the day in this group, he had one of the worst. His team’s Twitter summed up the final lap:
— GEICO Racing (@GEICORacing) May 3, 2015
— GEICO Racing (@GEICORacing) May 3, 2015
— GEICO Racing (@GEICORacing) May 3, 2015
Hillman Smith Racing: Landon Cassill (No. 40 Chevy): Cassill got the worst of the lap 47 crash, sending him to the garage for repairs. The team puts a great deal of focus on the restrictor-plate races, and to be taken out so early was a disappointment to Cassill, who finished fourth in the fall race at Talladega last year. He had worked his way into the top 10 just before the crash. His team was able to make repairs and get him back on track to gain a spot or two, and Cassill even joked about leading the field. After the ordeal, Cassill finished 39th.
— Mike Hillman Racing (@Hillman_Racing) May 3, 2015
Next time, I suppose
— landon cassill (@landoncassill) May 3, 2015
Premium Motorsports; Brendan Gaughan (No. 62 Dia Thrive Chevy): Gaughan and Co. made the race, which has been a struggle for them this year, but that might have been the highlight of their weekend. Gaughan was collected in the lap 47 crash caused by Bayne, but was able to continue, only to cut his right-rear tire on lap 92, hitting the wall to bring out caution. Gaughan was okay afterward, but for a team searching for positives, an early exit in 40th place was tough to swallow.
Circle Sport; Brian Scott (No. 33 Shore Lodge Chevy): Scott lost his engine on lap 19, ending his day early and relegating him to last place.
About the author
Amy is an 18-year veteran NASCAR writer and a five-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found filling in from time to time on The Frontstretch 5 (Wednesdays) and her monthly commentary Holding A Pretty Wheel (Thursdays). A New Hampshire native living in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.