Earnhardt Jr. wins Talladega, restores racing order
Flag to Flag: Whether you like plate racing or not, you cannot argue with the excitement of Talladega Superspeedway. There are just some tracks where races are bigger and mean more - Bristol, Daytona, Charlotte, Darlington, and of course that humble 2.66-mile oval in Eastaboga, Alabama. It may be haunted. It may be dangerous. But it is quintessential NASCAR. When many people think of NASCAR, even non-fans, the first name that comes to mind is Dale Earnhardt Jr. He is the King of Fandom of Talladega, but hadn't added to his five career wins there since 2004. Welcome back to Victory Lane, Junior.
Earnhardt Jr. and the No. 88 Nationwide Chevy started 4th and was near or at the front for the entire 188-lap GEICO 500 Sunday. Hendrick Motorsports' teams had their restrictor plate cars dialed in with Jeff Gordon (31st) on the pole for the 80th time in his career and teammate Kasey Kahne (34th) 2nd. Gordon stayed near the front most of the day and led 47 laps. He looked primed to be in a spot to win the race, but that wasn't to be.
Kahne looked solid, but got caught up in "The Big One" on lap 47. Turbulent air turned Trevor Bayne (41st) mid-pack and spurred a 15-car melee. David Ragan (38th) in his final ride in the No. 18, Kyle Larson (42nd), Greg Biffle (37th), and Joey Logano (33rd) were among those with very heavy damage. NASCAR red flagged the race for over 11 minutes to clear the debris field on the backstretch and many other cars got pieces of the crash and needed repairs.
Jimmie Johnson (2nd) led 50 laps and looked primed to take his 3rd victory of the year. But the six-time champ seemed content riding behind Earnhardt Jr. at the end, so his teammate could get a Chase berth-clinching win.
The pack stayed two-wide for most of the race, with the leaders sometimes pulling away in a single-file line. Several drivers hung in the back to avoid any potential trouble. The lap 47 mess proved that strategy both smart and faulty. The first yellow flag of the day was for Brian Scott (43rd) blowing an engine on lap 19 and collecting Michael Waltrip (36th) - both were near the back of the pack.
Austin Dillon, Scott's Richard Childress Racing teammate, blew an engine himself on lap 159 and flames engulfed the right front of the No. 3 Chevy. Dillon escaped unscatched, but the ensuing pit stops decided the race. Leaders Brad Keselowski (22nd), Johnson, and Earnhardt Jr. had just pitted under green and stayed on the lead lap, so they retook the lead as the rest of the field pitted under yellow.
Gordon was just coming to the pits as the yellow came out and he came in too fast. His brakes didn't work properly for some reason or maybe the knowledge of the yellow flag broke his concentration. Either way, he was over 20 mph over the pit road speed limit and had to start at the tail of the longest line on the coming lap 163 final restart. Gordon could not gain any ground, as the field went from a big gaggle in the opening green flag laps of the run. Then the majority of the cars chose the high lane and rendered the lower line useless. The field stayed mostly single-file for the final 15 laps, with several drivers, including Gordon, trying to start a run on the lower line. In the final lap, some two-wide racing materialized and caused two wrecks.
Casey Mears (28th) spun Carl Edwards (32nd) and the No. 19 car spun down to the bottom of the track as the rest of the field zoomed by...under green (more on this later). Then Mears hit the wall and sent several, including Gordon spinning. But the race stayed green.
Regardless, Earnhardt Jr. led the entire run to the checkered flag, winning the 24th race of his career and first since Martinsville last fall. He now is the 8th driver to win in 10 races this Sprint Cup season, essentially assuring a trip to the playoffs and, as he said in Victory Lane, guaranteeing some riskier strategy to get race wins from now until Richmond.
Earnhardt Jr. shed tears of joy after the race, a rare sight for the sport's most popular driver. He said that he has never been happier and that he has everything right now. He said that winning at Talladega is so special because of his and his dad's history there. And he said this, remembering that Dale Earnhardt would have been 64 this past Wednesday. That is special.
The top 10 were Earnhardt Jr., Johnson, Paul Menard (best finish of the season and 11th in points), Ryan Blaney (easily best-career finish for Wood Brothers rookie), Martin Truex Jr. (quiet most of race, but in right spot at the end), Sam Hornish (by far, best run of season), Ryan Newman (excess fuel caught fire on first pit stop and charred left-rear quarter panel), Kevin Harvick (got nose damage in lap 47 wreck and drove right back to the front), Denny Hamlin (made bold move to lead at one point, but couldn't get moving on final run), and Josh Wise (best career finish, first top 10).
There are no drivers outside the top 16 in points that have won races this season, so the top 16 in points now are who would be in the Chase if it started this weekend. Danica Patrick (21st in the race) is 16th, four points ahead of Clint Bowyer (30th in the race).
RaceTweet: Dale Jr wins Dega in strange single-file last segment with two wrecks on final lap. Gordon finds another way to lose. Chevys strong! Talladega fans - exhale.
Handsome Boy Modeling School Stud of the Race: Dale Earnhardt Jr. - The winner led the most laps and thwarted the pathetic attempts of those behind him on the last lap. Johnson says that Earnhardt Jr. had a great car and drove impulsively like he knew that and was determined to win.
North Korean Missile Dud: Jeff Gordon - Just like he did in the Daytona 500, Gordon won the pole and got wrecked mid-pack on the last lap. Just like he did at Martinsville Speedway, Gordon sped on pit road and cost himself a win late in the race. There was a stretch a few years back where Gordon wasn't very competitive. There was another where he was so close to winning, but they slept away often. Then he won four races last year. Now we wonder if Gordon's bad luck and mistakes are a pattern again and are going to last the entirety of his final season. He is 13th in points, with an average finish of 16.9, but also six top 10s in 10 races. Strange.
Never Fear, Underdog Is Here: Josh Wise and Cole Whitt - Restrictor plate races at Daytona and Talladega are always chances for a small teams to run with the big dogs. Josh Wise in the Phil Parsons Racing No. 98 shuffled up to the 10th spot at race's end and Cole Whitt, who restarted in the lead on the final restart, got drop kicked out of the draft and then drove through some of the last lap wrecks to place 13th. Each got their best career finish. Cheers.
Ghost Driver: A.J. Allmendinger - It seemed like almost every driver got some sort of mention or camera time on Sunday's telecast, except Allmendinger. A known hater of restrictor plate racing, Allmendinger never charged up to the front like some of the other small team drivers did. And then the dust settled for a middling 17th-place finish.
You Can Comeback, But You Can't Stay Here: Kevin Harvick - NASCAR Sprint Cup cars certainly are more durable than they used to be and Harvick's No. 4 team has to be one of the most reflexive in the garage. Harvick started deep in the field, drove forward, got damaged in "The Big One", got the nose crunch fixed, and was up to 2nd place in a matter of laps after the restart. Harvick got shuffled to 8th at the finish, but still leads the points standings by 40 over Truex Jr. and both he and Truex Jr. each have nine top 10 finishes in 10 races.
Wheel of Misfortune: Brendan Gaughan - There are many that saw misfortune at Talladega, but Gaughan;s has to take the cake. He wrecked or got wrecked at least twice in Saturday's Xfinity Series race and some of that No. 62 RCR pit crew got injured in that huge fire a week ago at Richmond. Gaughan had missed the previous four Cup races, but finally made the field again at Talladega and had a good shot at running decently for Premium Motorsports' No. 62 Chevy. But Gaughan cut a tire and hit the wall hard on lap 90 and finished 40th. Without the money Gaughan is bringing to the team in sponsorship, the doors certainly would be closed.
Jimmie Johnson Golden Horseshoe: Carl Edwards - Edwards' spin on the last lap had him pointed driver's door first toward half the pack as the race stayed green. Most didn't slow down and if someone had hit him in the door, he could have gotten badly hurt. Fortunately, neither Edwards nor any involved in the other melee just after got hit full speed by an oncoming car, again, as the race stayed green. Which leads us to…
Head-Scratcher Crown of Thorns: NASCAR again blew a flag call. Whether the yellow flies or not on the last lap at Talladega, Earnhardt Jr. wins the race. Period. But the big unknown is how badly Edwards could have been hurt if hit. Edwards voiced extreme displeasure over his radio and in post-race interviews over Justin Allgaier's and some others' unwillingness to slow down. Rookie Ryan Blaney said that his and he thinks some others' instincts are to speed up to avoid a wreck and not lose positions. Maybe this is a divide between old and new school racing. But either way, the main body that can step in here is NASCAR. 12 years ago, drivers used to race to the yellow flag. Then Dale Jarrett wrecked at New Hampshire and was sideways across the track as the leaders raced to the line. NASCAR changed the rule and started freezing the field and granting the first lapped cars the free pass back to the lead lap.
Yes, yellow flag calls are judgment calls. If Edwards had wrecked behind most of the field on the white flag lap or spun completely out of the way, then NASCAR would have been right to keep the race green. But instead the No. 19 got spun prostrate across the track as the field bore down. One of the few that lifted was Matt Kenseth (25th), his teammate, who said he did so so he wouldn't send Edwards the hospital.
Edwards says he is going to talk to the drivers to try and get the culture changed. But NASCAR needs to either throw the yellow more often on the last lap or change the rule and allow for green-white-checkered finishes, even if the leader takes the white flag. Drivers couldn't police themselves racing to the yellow in 2003, so why should they police themselves now? Driver safety is more important than a green flag finish.
Georgia On My Mind: Ouch. There was nary a good result for the Georgia gang. David Ragan's last race in the No. 18 (before driving the MWR for the rest of the season starting next week), started great and ended early. Ragan was in the top 10, but got crunched in the lap 47 wreck, finishing 38th. Ragan is now 20th in points, 29 behind Patrick for the 16th spot.
Chase Elliott was ultra-competitive in Saturday's Xfinity Series race, before cutting a tire, wrecking and finishing 37th, 29 laps down. He now trails Ty Dillon by 37 in the NXS standings and sits 3rd. John Wes Townley had all sorts of damage in the No. 25 Chevy, but salvaged a 15th-place run at the end of the day. Cartersville's Mark Thompson made a spot start in the No. 13 for MBM, placing 27th. He was the last Georgia driver in the race to get crash damage. Ryan Sieg was in and out of the garage for crash repairs, placing 29th. And Chris Cockrum's No. 35 Advanced Communications Group/Remembering Captain Herb Chevy failed to qualify for the race.
NXS RaceTweet: Logano thwarts field, wins crazy Talladega NXS race, becomes only third multi-time winner in NXS 'Dega history. These drivers need to learn how to pit at plate track.
Next: The Sprint Cup Series races at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Kansas Speedway on FS1 and MRN, with the Camping World Truck Series racing for only the fourth time this season at 8:30 p.m. Friday on FS1 and MRN. The Xfinity Series takes Mother's Day weekend off.