Who … should you be talking about after the race?
Brad Keselowski led exactly one of 191 laps on Sunday (April 25), but it was the only one that mattered. Keselowski passed Matt DiBenedetto as the white flag flew, leading the field to the checkers for his sixth Talladega Superspeedway victory, tying Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. for second on the all-time Talladega win list.
Keselowski’s day was not uneventful. He was involved in a frightening lap 60 crash that saw teammate Joey Logano flip through the air, but Keselowski suffered minimal damage. He worked with his other teammate Ryan Blaney and pseudo-teammate DiBenedetto to keep the trio at the front in the closing laps. He made his move on the frontstretch to secure the 35th win of his career and first of 2021. He’s the ninth driver to score a win in 10 races this year and joins both Logano and Blaney who already had victories this season.
It’s harder to flat-out buy speed at Talladega, where horsepower is limited and handling is secondary to track position and making the right moves. There were several different faces up front on Sunday as the race wore on, including a pair of drivers making their Talladega debuts. Harrison Burton, piloting the No. 96 Gaunt Brothers entry, finished 10th in stage two and ran inside the top 10 late in the race before finishing 20th. Meanwhile, in just his third Cup start, Kaz Grala, also in a part-time entry from Kaulig Racing, ran a smart, solid race to bring home a sixth-place finish. The two youngsters made the race look easier than it was.
What … is the buzz about?
A story that got some attention this week was NASCAR’s decision not to approve Camping World Truck Series driver Jennifer Jo Cobb to run Sunday’s Cup race. The decision to approve a driver (or not) for Cup competition falls to a panel that includes NASCAR’S Steve O’Donnell, Scott Miller and former driver Elton Sawyer. NASCAR President Steve Phelps addressed the question before the race Sunday.
“I understand it may seem ambiguous to those outside, but I think that they have their finger on the pulse, and in their opinion, Jennifer wasn’t ready to race in this race.”
Which clears up … exactly nothing. Cobb has over 200 Truck starts to her credit and a handful of Xfinity races. And while her results have been underwhelming, she runs a self-owned, vastly underfunded team. Of course the results aren’t there.
But why, then, are some drivers approved for Cup competition while others with seemingly equal qualifications are not? Quin Houff, for example, who was involved in a pair of incidents Sunday, had just 10 Xfinity starts and five ARCA races prior to landing a Cup ride. Houff didn’t run a superspeedway race until his 10th Cup start, but his approval seems as arbitrary as Cobb’s exclusion.
It makes sense to look at a previous incarnation of the approval process, where a driver was first approved for short tracks, then milers if they proved worthy on the short tracks, and so on. If that was still the case, then not letting a driver debut at Talladega would be cut and dried, but it wasn’t about a debut as Burton made his Cup debut Sunday.
Where … did the other key players wind up?
Polesitter Denny Hamlin has become one of NASCAR’s most formidable superspeedway racers in recent years. He won the fall race at Talladega, but this time around he was in the wrong place at the wrong time and got turned into the wall in stage two. And that was following speeding penalties after an earlier incident had Hamlin trapped a lap down. He limped home to a 32nd-place finish, three laps down to Keselowski.
Last week’s winner Alex Bowman looked strong in the first half of the race, finishing seventh in stage one and running near the front much of the day. Then Talladega happened and he was caught in the same lap 119 incident as Hamlin. His team could not get his car repaired and Bowman wound up a disappointed 38th.
Defending Cup champ Chase Elliott was one of three Hendrick Motorsports cars caught in the same incident as teammates Bowman and William Byron (Kyle Larson had already dropped out after an engine failure), though his damage was minimal. While Byron went on to finish second on the day, Elliott, who finished third in stage one and led three laps under caution, found himself shuffled to 24th as the laps ran out.
First-time stage winners DiBenedetto and Bubba Wallace both had solid outings at Talladega. DiBenedetto led five times for 28 laps, second-most of the day, and held the lead coming to the white flag, but when he moved to block a charge on the outside, Keselowski got by for the win. DiBenedetto finished fifth, his second top five in a row on superspeedways.
Wallace had a scare early when a flipping Joey Logano bounced off the hood of his car. But the damage was minimal. Wallace jokingly told his crew that his car was in better shape than his underwear after the incident. But despite the near miss, the No. 23 was strong, leading three times for a total of 16 laps. A decision not to pit on a late caution put Wallace in an unenviable position. He faded on old tires, and came to pit road before an overtime finish but didn’t have time to climb through the field, finishing 19th.
When … was the moment of truth?
When Martin Truex Jr. felt his right rear tire going down with just a handful of laps left, he appeared to do the responsible thing, pulling down toward pit road. But for some reason, Truex stayed on track, limping around the apron until the tire came apart, triggering a caution as the tread rolled onto the racing surface.
The move, which forced an overtime restart, drew criticism from many sides, with speculation that he purposely stayed on track to cause the caution. Deliberately causing a caution is an infraction that NASCAR takes seriously, and some wondered about the no-call on Truex, who could have pitted but chose not to.
On the surface, it doesn’t look like Truex had a reason to draw the caution. He had already been lapped, so the only reason would have been to help his struggling Toyota teammates, but that seems weak. So did he or didn’t he? NASCAR said no, but whether that was the right call is something only Truex knows.
Why … should you be paying attention this week?
NASCAR heads to the intermediate track at Kansas Speedway for the questionably named Buschy McBusch Race 400. After three short-track races and Talladega, the mile-and-a-half is most likely going to be a tame one as the summer grind gets underway. May also features the Darlington Raceway throwback weekend, Dover International Speedway’s concrete mile, the inaugural race at Circuit of the Americas and the grueling Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
There’s something for just about everyone in the weeks ahead, and the next couple of months is when we’ll really start getting an idea of what the title picture really might look like.
How … many times will we see this song and dance?
NASCAR maintains it does not glorify crashes.
Fans maintain that they don’t like wrecks, or at least that they don’t watch racing to see them.
And yet, time after time, both NASCAR and fans love the superspeedways. While the close pack racing can be compelling, it’s hard to deny that keeping the cars bunched up produces some massive crashes, often collecting multiple cars. While the car counts in crashes Sunday were relatively low, with the largest collecting six cars, there were a couple of scary moments.
It’s especially scary when a car gets airborne, like Logano on lap 60 after contact from Hamlin. Logano had some strong words after his wild ride.
“I’m happy I’m alive. But when are we going to stop doing what we’re doing?,” Logano told FOX reporter Jamie Little. “This is dangerous. I got a roll bar in my head. That’s not OK. I’m one hit away from the same situation as Ryan Newman (who was hospitalized for a brain bleed after a crash in the 2020 Daytona 500). I don’t think that’s acceptable.”
Logano is absolutely right. But dollars to doughnuts that his flip will be featured in the next NASCAR (“We don’t glorify wrecks”) Talladega highlight reel. And there are fans who will eat it right up.
And until that changes, rules that keep cars in huge packs at Daytona and Talladega won’t.