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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2021 GEICO 500 at Talladega

What happened?

Brad Keselowski won the GEICO 500 at Talladega on Sunday (April 25) after leading just one lap all day.

William Byron, Michael McDowell, Kevin Harvick and Matt DiBenedetto rounded out the top-five finishers.

How did it happen?

After five of six Toyotas got sent to the rear for unapproved adjustments, Joey Logano and Byron led the field to green. On the first lap, Kyle Larson dropped to the rear as his temps rapidly rose. He rejoined the race before his engine blew on lap 8, officially ending his day.

Logano took control of the race for a bit with two lanes forming behind him. Soon after, Bubba Wallace got out front on lap 12 after starting from the rear. Kyle Busch and his Toyota teammates followed suit, taking turns up front until the lap 25 competition caution.

Denny Hamlin took the lead on pit road and led for 21 consecutive laps until Ryan Blaney and the Team Penske Fords got by him. DiBenedetto cycled to the front as stage one wound down. On the final lap of the stage, Hamlin got out of shape and turned Logano, triggering a dangerous accident as the No. 22 flew through the air.

Bubba Wallace had quite the view of this one.

DiBenedetto was ahead when the caution came out, claiming his first career stage win.

Stage two was caution-free for most of its run. Green flag stops began with 35 to go in the stage with the Chevrolets hitting pit road first. The Fords and Toyotas came with 28 and 27 to go, respectively. Harvick, Chris Buescher and Hamlin were all nabbed for speeding and forced to take pass-through penalties. Hamlin was penalized for speeding a second time while serving his penalty and fell one lap down.

With less than 20 laps to go in the stage, the caution came out for fluid on the track from Kurt Busch. Busch had an oil cooler issue and his car caught fire before they went to the garage to repair it. He did return to the race, seven laps down.

The restart came with 11 to go in the stage. Hamlin — still one lap down — maneuvered his way to the front with Wallace and his teammates. Then, as the leaders entered the tri-oval on the stage’s penultimate lap, Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. collided and collected the Hendrick trio of Byron, Alex Bowman and Chase Elliott.

Bowman’s day ended due to crash damage while the other four were able to continue. The stage ended under caution with Wallace securing his first career stage win.

The final stage was single file for a while as Blaney paced the field. He got some debris on his hood and swapped places with second place Aric Almirola to remove it with just under 50 laps to go. As the leaders saved fuel, an inside lane formed and got to the front with Ross Chastain leading the way.

Green flag stops began with 32 to go as the Chevys and Toyotas pitted together. The Fords came in three laps later. Chastain cycled back to the front with under 30 to go as lots of guys were being conservative trying to save more fuel.

The pit stops spread the field out, leaving a lead draft of just 18 cars. But with 17 laps left, Quin Houff blew a tire and stalled on the backstretch just in front of the leaders, bunching up all lead-lap drivers for the finish.

On the restart with 12 to go, DiBenedetto got back to the lead and held it as the field went single file on the outside. Just as business was starting to pick up, a tire carcass fell off Truex’s car and landed on the racing surface with four to go.

DiBenedetto led coming to the white flag in NASCAR Overtime, but was unable to hold off a hard-charging Keselowski for the win on the backstretch as his lane became unorganized. McDowell made a move for the win in the tri-oval but couldn’t get it done as Keselowski was able to lead his first and only lap of the race at the checkered flag. Multiple cars wrecked coming to the line at the finish, including Chastain and Erik Jones.

The win was Keselowski’s first of 2021 and the 35th of his career. Keselowski has now won a race in 11 straight seasons, dating back to 2011, his first year driving the No. 2 car for Penske.

Who stood out?

Keselowski’s superspeedway prowess doesn’t get enough attention. Race after race, he’s in the mix. Without a Daytona 500 win to his name, I think Keselowski is overlooked sometimes at these tracks. He’s mentioned among the best active drivers, but he should be known as the best in the sport. No one works the draft and knows when to go better than Keselowski. If you’re talking about the best superspeedway drivers in NASCAR, Keselowski has to be the first name mentioned.

He has six wins at Talladega, now tied with Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon for second-most ever. Ever heard of those two? Yeah, we’re now in the “all-time great superspeedway drivers” conversation with Keselowski rather than just the “best active driver” conversation.

Speaking of superspeedway prowess, McDowell seems to have this thing totally figured out. After winning the Daytona 500, McDowell was in the mix all afternoon at Talladega. Of his 16 career top 10s, 10 have come at superspeedways (eight at Daytona, two at Talladega). His Daytona win was certainly no fluke, and he will be a threat at the two remaining drafting races this season.

For the second straight Talladega race, DiBenedetto led at the white flag. For the second straight Talladega race, DiBenedetto walked away without a victory. It’s tough to watch as he continues to come so close to that elusive first victory. Matty D’s still confident it’ll come sooner rather than later, but his days with the Wood Brothers are numbered and time is running out as Austin Cindric will drive the No. 21 next 2022.

On the season, DiBenedetto has completely flipped his fortunes. He has six straight top 15s after starting with finishes of 33rd, 37th, 28th and 16th. DiBenedetto is now just 12 points out of the playoffs after some (myself included) believed he would need a win to make it. Things are still looking up for Team 21 despite not sealing the deal.

Who fell flat?

Hamlin made the most mistakes on Sunday — on and off the racetrack — and it cost him a chance at the win. First, it was the wreck with Logano where he got out of shape and triggered a scary incident. Then, he sped on pit road under green flag — not once, but twice. But that’s not all.

At the end of stage two, Hamlin was overly aggressive for no good reason. I get that he was trying to unlap himself rather than relying on the lucky dog. At that stage of the race, though, you have to know not to overdrive it. If the No. 11 just stayed in line in that front pack, he would’ve been the free pass and right back in the mix. Being aggressive is one thing — Hamlin was just reckless at Talladega.

No one had a worse day than Logano, whose “checkers or wreckers” mentality bit him on Sunday. At the end of the first stage, he went flying through the air and was lucky to walk away without being hurt. Now, I just placed the blame on Hamlin above, so this incident isn’t on Logano. It was more an issue of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Still, walking away from Talladega in a stage one wreck is the worst-case scenario. No stage points, no playoff points. Just a disappointing afternoon for one of the sport’s best speedway racers.

Larson’s bid at a first speedway win ended before it really started. He dropped to the back on the first lap of the race as his temps rose. After rejoining the race three laps down, Larson’s engine expired on lap 8. It’s a product of not having practice, because an issue like this one would’ve been caught on Friday during a traditional race weekend. Unfortunate for a team that’s been so hot to start the season, as Talladega marks two bad races in a row.

What did this race prove?

Drivers would be wise to stop being so aggressive at the end of stages. Both of them ended under caution Sunday and a lot of great cars were torn up early. Stage points are extremely valuable, given the tight points race, but at what cost? If you wreck coming to the end of a stage, you’re throwing away the chance to win.

On the other side, stage racing at superspeedways are great for fans. At an otherwise arbitrary lap, drivers’ aggression ramps up like it’s the end of the race. Easy to enjoy if you’re a fan and your guy isn’t wrecked, but you have to wonder why drivers push so hard with that much racing still left.

NASCAR is at a crossroads with this superspeedway rules package. Since being introduced in 2020, we’ve seen some amazing pack racing. The leader can’t stay out front for too long and guys further back get huge runs to the front. It makes for an entertaining product.

The downside is what happened to Logano. He ranted about the package after wrecking out and called for a change. Changing the package for safety reasons makes sense, but it’s a tough decision for NASCAR to make. Do they risk hurting the product when wrecks like Logano’s aren’t especially common? If Wallace drove into his driver side roof, Logano could’ve been seriously hurt like Ryan Newman at the 2020 Daytona 500. We’ll see what happens, as NASCAR has a few months before August’s race at Daytona International Speedway to make adjustments. 

Paint scheme of the race

A new sponsor gets the nod this week. Ross Chastain’s No. 42 Caregility/Yorktel Chevy looked sweet driving around Talladega on Sunday. I’m a huge fan of the colors and gradient design from white to green to blue.

Better than last year?

Last year, the first Talladega race was run in June on a Monday due to COVID-19 and rain, respectively. When the cars finally got moving, it turned out to be one of the better superspeedway races in recent memory. Unlike most speedway races, the cars rarely ever got single file and rode around the top. There were no massive wrecks until the final lap, when a mad dash to the finish ended with Blaney edging Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and a backwards Almirola.

This year, the race had a lot of exciting moments in the pack. There were some chunks of single-file racing, especially in the third stage as drivers saved fuel. The finish was also not nearly as tight and exciting as 2020. Sunday was a good show overall, just a tick below the great one we saw last year. 

Playoff picture

Keselowski is the ninth winner in 10 races this season. His win isn’t chaotic for the playoffs, though, as he was pretty securely in the picture without a victory. Still, there’s only seven spots available and a lot more than seven drivers who expect to win a race this season. 

McDowell re-entered the top 16 after a strong day at Talladega, as he sits 13th. Hamlin, Harvick, Elliott, Kyle Busch, Austin Dillon, Stenhouse Jr. and Buescher are currently in the playoffs based on points with 16 races remaining in the regular season. Here’s a look at the standings following Talladega.

What’s next?

Next weekend, the Cup Series returns to a 1.5-mile track after four races away from the cookie cutters. The Buschy McBusch Race 400 at Kansas Speedway — yes, that is actually the name — is set for Sunday (May 2) at 3 p.m. ET on Fox Sports 1. The 267-lap event will have stage breaks at laps 80 and 160.

RACE WEEKEND CENTRAL: TALLADEGA

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6 thoughts on “Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2021 GEICO 500 at Talladega”

  1. So glad that Logano was OK after his car went airborne.

    So sorry Matt DiBenedetto didn’t win since he was leading when the white flag waved. That would have been a popular win and the 100th for the Wood Brotthers.

    Congrats to Keselowski finally finishing a RP race. It seems like he has been caught up in one of the big ones for the last few years. About time his luck turned.

    Congrats to Denny Hamlin winning the stupidity award for totally losing sight of the big picture and letting his ego do his thinking for him. Idiot!!!! Someone should have slapped him and explained how the lucky dog works. It ranks right up there with Johnson going for the win at the Charlotte roval and knocking himself out of what would have been his last chance for a championship. I love it when someone gets greedy and ends up paying for it.

    While Hamlin wins the competition for the biggest idiot, it must be noted that there were a lot of contenders. They all seem to lose sight of the big picture at the end of the stages. Stage points aren’t so important that it’s worth putting one’s entire race at risk trying to gain them.

    As Talladega races go it was pretty good. No one got hurt, lots of tight pack racing to keep you on the edge of your seat, not too much single file parade laps, and no REALLY big one involving half the field but the demolition/wreck beast got fed with a few multi-car incidents.

    Reply
  2. i was confused when matty d took the white flag. they kept saying on tv that whoever took white flag and then if caution came out they’d be first. i guess he took caution and then got passed for the lead before the caution?

    i just laughed at hamlin and his misfortune.

    i wonder if the field being set by the electric ford mustang suv might of had issue with the drivers getting rpm right for pit road speed. seemed like there was a lot of pit road speeding issues yesterday.

    they showed at one point that someone was over 202 mph. that’s a bit fast. no wonder logano got airborne. it like something happens and speeds are too fast that the roof flaps can’t deploy to help keep car on the ground. i thought the reason of plates/spacers was to keep speeds below 200. but they all bump draft the entire race.

    i still hate plate racing. i so wished matty d and wood brothers could had gone to victory lane.

    Reply
    • I actually enjoyed the race, but I’m a Bad Brad fan, so I may be biased.

      Stage points and playoff points are obviously pretty important, or drivers wouldn’t be so wreckless trying to accumulate them.

      Harvick used to be known as the finisher. He’s still the finisher, just not the winner. SHR has some issues, but there’s still time to fix them and get hot at the right time. Write them off at your own risk.

      Agree… Chastain’s 42 was really sharp.

      Reply
      • i can’t help but think that stewart not being involved as much with shr is a reason. who is running the show? zippy?

        stewart posted over the weekend he was in lake havasu with his girlfriend, and earlier in the week pic of him, michael waltrip and bobby labonte with the firesuits on for the new racing series.

        Reply
  3. “Do they risk hurting the product when wrecks like Logano’s aren’t especially common?”

    They’ve been “hurting the product” since 2004. And until they stop thinking about the examples of Brian’s product as a “product” their decisions will only acerbate the situation. The Brian effect is still there. They don’t want to get rid of pack “racing” because they say it’s what the fans want and they always make decisions based on what fans (and Brian) want.

    17th – 20
    18th – 18
    19th – 23
    20th – 96
    31st – 19
    32nd – 11

    Truex finished one lap ahead of Hamlin… Perfect! You can’t fix stupid.

    Reply

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