Did You Notice? … Talladega truly is the most unpredictable race on the NASCAR circuit? OK, I know you hear that all the time. But let’s take a look at the type of upsets that have occurred here the last seven years….
- Spring 2009. Brad Keselowski wins in a James Finch-owned car that’s a single-car program, only went full-time in the past when it was start-and-parking some of the races and was making just its fifth start of that season. It was Keselowski’s first time behind the wheel of that car, his fifth start overall and yet he somehow dodged a long line of obstacles, found the right drafting partners and refused to back off when Carl Edwards came down on him to block coming off turn 4. How surprising was that moment in hindsight? Finch owned the team for four more years after that, expanded back to full-time competition and wound up finishing in the top 5 only once more after that: Sonoma in 2012 with Kurt Busch.
- Fall 2009. Yes, Jamie McMurray is known as a restrictor plate specialist but the circumstances entering Talladega were dire. His team at Roush Fenway Racing was scheduled to be shut down following the season; McMurray would eventually jump to his current ride at Chip Ganassi Racing for 2010 and beyond. Heading into the race, in 32 starts the team hadn’t scored a single top-5 finish all year. And yet here we were, race winding down and McMurray edges in front for the final 11 laps and holds off all challengers during a green-white-checkered ending.
- Spring 2013. David Ragan had earned one restrictor plate victory a few years back, winning the July 2011 race at Daytona but could not survive with Roush Fenway Racing once sponsorship pulled out. He then paired up with underfunded Front Row Motorsports, a team that at the time had only scored top-10 finishes at Daytona and Talladega. (Fast-forwarding to 2016, FRM has just one tiny 10th-place finish outside those tracks (Martinsville, 2014) in 686 total starts on the Cup circuit). Ragan wound up leading only four laps in total on this day but a late-race caution in which a dozen cars were wiped out provided a sudden opportunity to regroup. Once teammate David Gilliland latched onto Ragan’s rear bumper, the push was on heading to a green-white-checkered finish and the duo sliced through traffic to provide the most surprising 1-2 finish in modern Sprint Cup history.
Those are just three of countless stories surrounding ‘Dega victories. Even when the big drivers win, the end result often comes as a surprise. Denny Hamlin’s lone victory at Talladega, in 2014 came during a year where he missed a race and vastly underperformed during the majority of the regular season, going winless elsewhere. (In fairness, Hamlin caught a run of solid finishes during the Chase and wound up in the sport’s first Homestead “Final Four.”) Jamie McMurray’s victory in the fall of 2013 at ‘Dega came during a season where he wound up a ho-hum 15th in points; it’s his only victory in Cup within the past five years.
You don’t hear these types of upsets happen so consistently at other tracks. The last three times out, ‘Dega has been on its best behavior; Keselowski, anointed Alabama saint Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Joey Logano have won the last three races there. All of them were in the midst of solid seasons and were looked at as serious contenders for the series title.
That only means one thing for this upcoming race at Talladega. We’re due. Yes, Joe Gibbs Racing dominated Daytona, partnering with Martin Truex, Jr. to at times lead a 1-2-3-4-5 conga line. They enter the track with the most momentum and likely the best restrictor plate speed. But they also come into the weekend a tad less likely to play nice in line after one teammate bumped another teammate out of the way for a Richmond win last Sunday.
Who will benefit? Who knows. Just be aware the ‘Dega upset doesn’t stay dormant for long.
Did You Notice? … Some quick hits before we take off…
- With NASCAR’s expanded playoff system, a Chase format where nearly 50 percent of the drivers running full-time this season will make the first round it’s hard to pinpoint someone in “desperation mode” this early in the season. A win on Sunday at Talladega could even launch a surprise like Matt DiBenedetto into the field (see above for proof of upsets). But the most notable guy outside the top 16 right now? How about third-year driver Kyle Larson. 22nd in the standings, Larson has failed to lead a lap this season and owns just one top-5 finish on his resume (Martinsville). The more he runs, new crew chief in hand the more you wonder whether it’s the talent or the race team that’s been overrated here. Is Larson a case of Joey Logano, part 2? Logano struggled of course during his four years with Joe Gibbs Racing, saddled by the weight of expectations he could never reach at JGR until a fresh start with Team Penske allowed him to explode as a NASCAR superstar.
- Speaking of Logano, what’s up with Team Penske? Yes, they have a win so far with Brad Keselowski but the program looks a small step behind the Chevrolet and Toyota teams that have dominated the first nine races. Logano was a lap down at points during the short track races and seems a bit out of step, still winless despite having more Sprint Cup victories during 2014-15 than any other driver.
- Tony Stewart may have been slapped for a $35,000 fine by NASCAR after spewing about lug nut rules he felt endangered driver safety. But what did we get on Monday? New rules with stiff penalties for leaving off a lug nut during a pit stop. Stewart is one of the few drivers left that the second he speaks… NASCAR listens. The hope is that he’ll still have that type of sway as an owner; it’s sorely needed.