The Headline(s): On the heels of a manufacturer meeting that stressed teamwork, fan favorite Chase Elliott led Chevrolet’s strongest showing of NASCAR 2019. At Talladega Superspeedway, he worked with teammate Alex Bowman to best Joey Logano and Kyle Busch on a late restart and win the 2019 GEICO 500. Elliott’s, and Chevrolet’s, win snapped a seven-race win streak at Talladega for Ford Motor Company. It also marked the first Cup Series event this year (out of 10) not won by Joe Gibbs Racing or Team Penske.
How It Happened: Fans expecting total chaos after both of Friday’s practice sessions saw more than half the Cup field top 200 mph were perhaps disappointed in the final result. But at day’s end, NASCAR’s new package which took restrictor plates off the cars at Talladega for the first time since 1987 put on a fantastic 500-miler.
The potential for a melee appeared early on lap 11. That’s when Bubba Wallace, streaking forward from a 30th-place starting position into the top 15, locked bumpers with Ryan Blaney entering Turn 1. Blaney, out of shape as Wallace tried to pass, saved his car, but Wallace didn’t.
Instead, the No. 43 turned into the pack and collected Kevin Harvick, Clint Bowyer, Michael McDowell, Denny Hamlin and Matt Tifft. Hamlin and Bowyer would stay on track and limp to 36th and 29th place finishes, respectively; the rest wound up out of the race.
With that first incident out of the way, the rest of the first stage would go green. Aric Almirola and Logano traded the lead for much of the way. However, with the Fords having to pit around lap 47 to take fuel, the top spot was handed off to Ty Dillon. He then led a pack of Chevrolets to score a second stage win in the last three races for his Germain Racing team.
Elliott and Bowman would lead the field through the restart on lap 61 until lap 68, when the Penske Fords of Brad Keselowski and Logano took the point. From there, 2019’s power teams of Team Penske and Joe Gibbs Racing (plus Ricky Stenhouse Jr.) would swap the lead through lap 93, before Elliott came back to the front.
It was at the end of the second stage Elliott’s and Chevrolet’s teamwork became visible. Elliott, benefitting from a short pit strategy for fuel that got them ahead of the Fords, led a disciplined line of both Hendrick Motorsports and Richard Childress Racing Chevrolets. They kept Blaney and his high line of Fords at bay, scoring the stage two victory.
The final stage started out exactly like the second one ended. Elliott and his line of Chevrolets on the bottom kept holding Blaney’s high line of Fords at bay. But that status quo went out the window on lap 132 when caution flew for debris on the backstretch. The ensuing pit stops, which saw multiple cars in the top 10 take zero, two or four tires on pit road, mixed up manufacturer battle lines and set the stage for an intense late-race war headlined by Logano and Kyle Busch.
The duo ran the show at the front of the drafting packs with complete authority (though Martin Truex Jr., Keselowski and David Ragan had their fun up front as well). Including a cycle of pit stops, the race would stay green until lap 182, when Chris Buescher got turned by Almirola and triggered a nasty wreck on the backstretch with Matt DiBenedetto.
What a hit.
— NASCAR on NBC (@NASCARonNBC) April 28, 2019
The wreck and ensuing cleanup led to a red flag and the final restart of the race coming on lap 185. Though Logano would get ahead of Kyle Busch on that first lap it was Elliott, with dedicated help from teammate Bowman, who used the bottom line to his advantage. He would take the lead and hold it until the white flag lap, when a vicious wreck that sent Kyle Larson airborne on the backstretch brought out the yellow flag. Thankfully, all drivers involved in the last-lap crash were not injured.
Should You Care: Hell yes. First things first, I stand by my criticism of how NASCAR got to this point with today’s aero package. Having said that, NASCAR’s teams came to play at Talladega this Sunday (April 28) and delivered the most intense race since Daytona. There was no shortage of all-star moments to be had: Logano doing his best Keselowski (or Tyler Reddick) impression in controlling the draft despite the increased speeds; Keselowski’s pit crew throwing the audible of the season on a botched green-flag pit stop; Justin Haley turning Spire Motorsports’ backmarker No. 77 car into a contender in his Cup debut. There were certainly moments of freight training in this race, but not enough to complain about.
Make no mistake: Talladega delivered this Sunday. Fans not entertained by this show aren’t going to be pleased with anything NASCAR does.
Talladega also has the potential to dramatically shift the storyline of NASCAR’s 2019 season. For one, Chevrolet is finally off the schneid, scoring their first Cup win of the campaign as Elliott locked at least one bowtie into the playoffs. What’s more, even on yet another off day for Jimmie Johnson (who was a non-factor after pounding the wall in the first stage after cutting a tire in Turn 3), Hendrick Motorsports functioned in the pack. Both Hendrick and RCR also visibly cooperated with each other on track.
Superspeedway racing is its own animal. But just as with Reddick’s stellar display of willpower in winning Saturday’s Xfinity Series race, Chevrolet has emphatically had enough of losing. They finally did something about it. The fact their teams held a private manufacturer meeting about cooperation this weekend was very public knowledge, as is Elliott’s striking popularity in Alabama.
— Frontstretch (@Frontstretch) April 28, 2019
That being said, as the checkered flag flew at Talladega, I had my tinfoil hat on. Because it sure seemed that NASCAR officiated the end of Sunday’s 500-miler knowing full well Elliott was the race leader. Erik Jones spun off the track into the grass in Turn 4 coming to the white flag. But NASCAR let the race go green, rather than throwing the yellow for an overtime re-rack… because Elliott was leading.
NASCAR let the white-flag lap continue even as Ricky Stenhouse Jr. endured a hard head-first crash into the frontstretch wall (and came to a stop on the flat immediately after said start-finish line) because at the time Stenhouse wrecked, it was not clear to the naked eye whether the white flag had in fact been taken by the leader (Elliott). It wasn’t until the cars got nearly entirely down the backstretch, with Stenhouse still wrecked and Larson literally airborne (with Elliott visibly ahead of a single-file line) that the caution finally flew.
It pains me to criticize NASCAR here, as I’ve been consistent for the entire time I’ve covered this sport they need to stop being so trigger-happy throwing yellow flags. But I don’t for one second believe that Cup officiating suddenly got woke in Alabama. Instead, we got the 2019 version of Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s ever-controversial 2003 pass below the yellow line to win.
I’m not taking away from what Elliott did behind the wheel. He drove a race worthy of victory. The No. 9 car also was in great position without the benefit of that last-lap yellow. But even without restrictor plates, the “fix” was lurking at Talladega. Conspiracy theory? That’s Thinkin’ Out Loud for you.
Drivers Who Accomplished Something
It’s been readily apparent Hendrick Motorsports is undergoing a changing of the guard, with Elliott ready to take the mantle. This Sunday, it showed on the track convincingly. Elliott was composed, authoritative and even dominant once he got his No. 9 car to the front, wheeling a Camaro in ways Talladega hasn’t seen in years.
To be fair, this win won’t fix the Camaro’s shortcomings on intermediate tracks. But it will certainly provide a needed shot in the arm to this group. Hendrick teammate Bowman‘s runner-up finish was also a career best.
Elliott may have crashed this party, but Logano has completely replaced teammate Keselowski as the best superspeedway racer on the circuit. Closing speeds and handling challenges be damned, Logano managed the draft lines much as Keselowski did in the past few seasons amassing his win total at Talladega. Penske’s new standard-bearer drove a race worthy of winning, even if he did finish fourth.
And then there’s Kyle Busch, who came from relative obscurity only to be a forceful factor in the race’s final 50 laps. With Toyota battling at a deficit in terms of car count (only seven Camrys started Sunday’s race), Kyle Busch simply forced himself into the equation. In the end, he was in contention for the win at the final restart.
Though Busch faded to 10th after the high line failed, his No. 18 team has still scored top 10s in every Cup race this season. The No. 18 team is strong enough that they don’t need to win superspeedway trophies… they just need to survive. The team did just that Sunday.
Vocal superspeedway racing critic Ryan Newman (who ironically now drives the No. 6, which superspeedway critic Mark Martin made famous) finished seventh. It’s his third top 10 in a row this season and third top-10 finish in his last four Talladega starts.
Ty Dillon won his second stage in the last three races. And though the 17th-place finish wasn’t overwhelming, the younger Dillon, both through his comments and his performance on track, seemed more of a veteran than at any point in his Cup career. The power of hitting career start number 100?
A third-place finish by Preece was also impressive. The rookie now has a career average of 3.5 on superspeedways. The patriotic-painted Kroger car is counting down the days ’till the Firecracker in July….
Haley’s Cup debut ended in a violent wreck. But for 182 laps, Haley had the No. 77 car that’s spent the year on seven cylinders a front-running contender. Before Sunday, Spire Motorsports had averaged a finish of 33rd, running no better than nine laps off the pace. Haley ran legitimately in the top 10 for much of the first two stages, still on the fringes of contention before the wreck that ended his day. In terms of respect, no driver gained more than Haley this Sunday.
Drivers Who Accomplished Nothing
Despite being the active wins leader at Talladega, Keselowski finished outside the top 10 in both stages on Sunday. He fell out of the lead draft in the final green-flag run leading up to the lap 182 wreck and resulting sprint to the finish due to an unforced driver error entering pit road.
Nice slide. pic.twitter.com/9qb05IFBal
— FOX: NASCAR (@NASCARONFOX) April 28, 2019
The Team Penske crew gets all the credit in the world for making that pit stop work. But for Keselowski, it’s a striking failure in execution at a race he’s supposed to win.
Meanwhile, Harvick’s race was over so soon, that on lap 59, the No. 4 hauler was seen heading home to Charlotte. Stewart-Haas Racing remains shut out of the winner’s circle this season.
— Frontstretch (@Frontstretch) April 28, 2019
At Daytona, watching DiBenedetto wreck after being arguably the fastest car in the field was heartbreaking. Nine races later, hit the repeat button. The 31st-place finish was the worst of the season for a No. 95 team that couldn’t catch a break.
Stanton Barrett’s return to Cup racing for the first time since 2008 was an unmitigated disaster (though he did win a Participation Trophy). Rick Ware Racing’s difficult 2019 season continued.
And then there’s Wallace, whose day ended after 11 laps and smack in the middle of the first wreck of the day. Though there were plenty on social media that pointed the finger at Blaney for causing the wreck, at day’s end, Wallace is the pusher. Wallace was the car to wreck. And Wallace had more riding on this race.
Driving for Penske, Blaney can win on any given Sunday. Wallace seldom has race cars that allow him to drive from 30th to 15th in 10 laps like he did at Talladega. To be so aggressive as to wreck out of such a race so early in the running is an abject failure for the driver of a single-car team, which Wallace certainly appears to be incapable of being. Richard Petty Motorsports needs to start asking hard questions about the future of the No. 43, sooner rather than later.
Insights, Opinions and Fake News
Having spent Saturday night at the Talladega Short Track, if there’s one thing I’ve learned about race crowds at Talladega… they arrive late. Feature events at the short track didn’t start till after 10 p.m. last night. Yet even at that hour, the crowd was flowing into the grandstands. The same thing must have happened this Sunday, too. This crowd shot was a lot better looking than what I saw from the press box during the pace laps:
— Brad Cook (@BradCook14) April 28, 2019
That’s easily the largest crowd the Cup Series has had since the Daytona 500, and it’s healthy enough to look good on TV. That’s not to say that Talladega is immune to the contraction the sport is enduring… I came across several campgrounds within walking distance of the big track that were clearly there for racing (The Fifth Turn, anyone?) and yet sat empty and overgrown.
The point? It goes back to my Saturday commentary…that despite Sunday being a rousing success, it wasn’t sure that it would be. NASCAR was reactionary and even lackadaisical in preparing the on-track product at one of the few reliable venues left in the sport. Thankfully, for all involved, Sunday worked out very, very well.
Despite having rocket fast Mustangs, Ford’s vaunted superspeedway program is now zero for two in 2019. There’s also obvious cracks starting to show in alliances Chevrolet is now copycatting. Just like with McDowell going with Kyle Busch in the 500 instead of Logano, the final stage of Sunday’s race saw Ragan going with Truex on several occasions to work ahead of the Penske Fords.
There was also the lap 139 near-wreck between Keselowski and Blaney that had the normally mild-mannered Blaney irate over the radio. Be it the big versus small (Penske and Front Row) or the old guard versus the new prospect (remember, Keselowski hand-picked Logano as a teammate, not Blaney), there’s conflict in the Ford camp.
With Toyota having won twice as many races and blue ovals proving unreliable bets on superspeedways, it begs the question whether tension at Talladega will boil over in the coming weeks to other tracks. After all, 2019 has made the draft paramount just about everywhere.
There’s complaints about TV coverage and ads during every single NASCAR race. But this telecast at Talladega took that chorus to levels not seen in 2019.
Freakin commercials. Reason number 1 why the casual fan will never become a real fan. Commercials every 5 laps. They just change the channel and never come back. Only televised sport where you miss live action. Ridiculous. Do better @NASCARONFOX #NASCAR #GEICO500
— Bud3131123 (@Bud3131123) April 28, 2019
Anyone that’s read this column this season knows full well I’ve been critical of FOX’s telecast, and it’s deserved. I don’t dispute for one second that FOX could, and should, do a better job picking their spots when it comes to ads.
Having said that, we need to remember something … NASCAR TV contracts are a long-term deal. And the current ones were negotiated back before today, when NASCAR ratings and attendance are doing the high dive. Given that fewer viewers makes ads less valuable, FOX seems to be doing what they can … selling volume instead of top dollar. I’m not defending it. I’m not OK with it. But FOX is not operating trying to make NASCAR better. They’re trying to make money off a deal they’re on the wrong side of.
It’s not on FOX, or any network for that matter, to be ditching revenue for the sake of the sport. That sword is for NASCAR itself to fall on. It’s entirely within the sanctioning body’s power to cut their own revenue down, and to negotiate with the networks accordingly, to get broadcasting costs to a level where ads can get cut down and the action on screen back up. That, of all broadcasts, this one was peppered with ads is the definition of missed opportunity.
A couple of notes from Saturday’s NASCAR Xfinity Series race. It’s worth talking about given Reddick’s relentless drive to victory. For one, Reddick did fall victim to a pit road penalty that was at best suspect, busted for pit road speeding after being pushed on pit road by Ross Chastain. Of all the places on any track, pit road is the only one where a no-contact rule makes complete unmitigated sense. Chastain has opened a real loophole to be exploited down the road … push a competitor into a speeding penalty on pit road. NASCAR, let’s get this one fixed, now.
And speaking of Chastain, as strong a display as he put on Saturday, there was something disingenuous about a Dash for Cash race being billed as free of Cup drivers. Consider that Chastain, Landon Cassill and Cody Ware, all of whom have started most, if not all, Cup races in 2019, were in the field.
Yes, those three drivers all declared for Xfinity points or eschewed scoring Cup points for Talladega. That doesn’t change the fact allowing these Cup regulars into Xfinity races, regardless of whether they’re contenders to win on Sundays, means those drivers get to double their track time between practice, qualifying and racing in multiple divisions. That extra practice and track time is exactly why Cup driver participation proliferated to epidemic levels in the mid-2000s. And while younger drivers like Chastain and Ware may benefit from the track time, I’ll be blunt … drivers in that much need of track time shouldn’t be running Cup at Talladega.
A big thank you to the track staff at Talladega for being the friendliest bunch from parking attendant to press box crew that I’ve encountered at a Cup track. Southern hospitality is a very real thing. Having said that, despite Talladega’s impending infield renovations, if there’s a grandstand that needs a “Daytona Rising” type of redesign, it’s this one. Despite having immense space to work with, a great number of the grandstand seats, including the press box, do not offer a functional view of the backstretch, even with binoculars. The lack of a pedestrian tunnel is also surprising for a facility this size. Just leave the Boulevard alone.
Best Paint Scheme: Buescher – It may be Tide Pods instead of Tide in 2019, but the Tide car still looks awful good on a racetrack (until lap 182 anyway). The only thing missing was a quarterpanel reading “Do Not Eat.”
— JTG Daugherty Racing (@JTGRacing) April 23, 2019
Let’s Make This Awkward Watermelon Slices: Chastain and Logano – Chastain, who has been criticized in the past by Harvick, was audibly terse with Harvick, the commentator in pre-Xfinity race driver chatter. It wasn’t subtle. The subtlety goes to Logano, who baited Chastain by reminding him of Harvick’s criticism when asking his question. It was satisfying to see Harvick the instigator forced to grin and bear it for once.
[I Wish I Was] Still in Hollywood Academy Award: Barrett. As they have been at every race this season, the Rick Ware Racing cars were among, if not the, slowest in the field. Barrett is no stranger to that, having driven backmarker cars for most of his career. But his afternoon at Talladega making his first Cup start in over a decade probably will ensure he’ll wait at least another decade to do it again, at least in a RWR car.
On one pit stop, Barrett reported he was having a hard time hearing his spotter and crew chief, so the team was instructed to check the team radios. Only issue is, nobody did it, and Barrett was forced to return to the track to avoid losing another lap only to experience more radio issues. That triggered sniping with the team in which the crew told their driver they’d lose fewer laps if he could simply stay in the draft.
Later in the day, after contact with the wall forced the crew to push Barrett behind the wall, Barrett was heard exclaiming, “I don’t understand how people don’t communicate in these circumstances” as he had to ask the crew for directions to the garage … while driving the same car they’d had to push back behind the wall. Hearing this kind of radio chatter, it’s almost a relief they parked the No. 52.
The Peyton Manning “Omaha” Award: Keselowski’s crew. Calling an audible the way they did to recover from Keselowski spinning the wrong way into his pit box was as fine a pit work as one will see in stock car racing.
How It Rated: Six beers, five stars, pick whatever metric you want. Controversy, intensity and a big crowd? Talladega delivered.
Up Next: The Cup Series heads to Dover International Speedway in Delaware this coming Sunday. Dover 400 coverage from the Monster Mile starts at 2 p.m. ET on Fox Sports 1.